Growing lilacs in the garden

I’d like to have met Father Fiala but, alas, he died in 1990, before my passion for lilacs showed itself. Parish priest, college professor and high school principal, John Fiala wrote the classic book on this group of ornamental hardy shrubs (Lilacs: The Genus Syringa, Timber Press, 1988). In it, he advises the reader, whom he addresses as ‘mon bon jardinier’, to ‘read this volume carefully, for in it I share with you some of my life and my love in our common friends the lilacs!’

And, of course, along with his own passion for these highly scented, spring flowering wonders, Fr Fiala offers a huge amount of botanical history and horticultural knowledge. Yet there’s more to his scribblings on lilacs than chromosome counts and pigmentation theory there are yarns enough to keep the most exhausted of gardeners awake through the small hours and I consult them regularly in my own modest quest for these seductive plants. No lilac is native to Fr Fiala’s United States, although they seem to have flourished on American soil since they were taken there by the earliest settlers. Lilacs also rooted deeply in American poetry and journals.

Walt Whitman aside, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both made reference to them when writing about their gardens, and at least one nursery at Flushing on Long Island was offering a selection of them for sale as long ago as 1800. Here at Bryan’s Ground, I have so far stuck mostly to species (that’s to say, naturally occurring) lilacs, finding their generally smaller flower heads more in keeping with the other trees and shrubs in my small arboretum. That’s not to say I’m missing out on some alluring colours, or the lilac’s renowned fragrance.

Syringa yunnanensis was discovered in China’s Yunnan Province in 1887 by Abbé Delavay (like Fr Fiala, also a man of the cloth, and for whom several other fragrant plants are named). Like most lilacs, it will eventually reach 12ft?15ft in height and, in common with many other late season species, it doesn’t send up suckers. Unlike the blowsy lilacs familiar to cottage gardens every where, this one is positively demure. S. reflexa on the other hand found in central China by Cotswold born planthunter E. H. Wilson in 1904 is ‘one of the princes of Lilacdom’. It flowers in June here in Herefordshire, with broad trusses like wisteria up to 8in long.

When flowering is over, lilacs are not the prettiest of garden inhabitants, so don’t squander your prime positions on them; rather, place them in the shade of larger trees, as partial sunlight will suffice, or a woodland edge, if you have it. Nor are lilacs over fussy about soil, yet they thrive best on chalky, well drained land. Ours is loamy clay over gravel, which also seems to their liking.

Heavy soil, however, is not ideal for good results in the kitchen garden. I grow most of our vegetables, herbs and salads in raised beds and containers, and this has given me the chance to provide optimum conditions for carrots. Elizabeth David’s glazed carrots (finished with butter, sugar and fresh mint) are a regular treat in this house, and although the dish can be made well enough with old roots, it rises to a higher plane when young, naturally sweet carrots are used.

Joy Larkcom reminds us (in Grow Your Own Vegetables, Frances Lincoln, 2002) that carrots ‘thrive in light, deep, fertile, stone free, well drained soil’, and a raised bed or defunct animal feeding trough is the perfect place to contrive the right soil mix. In one, I have replaced about half the earth with sharp sand and incorporated some well rotted compost. This not only provides a nurturing seed bed for the carrots’ start in life, it also gives them the depth they need to develop and to prevent ‘forking’. They also pull more cleanly.

Growing early, mid and late season varieties, I can keep a fresh supply of carrots going for up to nine months of the year. I start with round-rooted Nantes and finger shaped Amsterdam cultivars, moving on to Chantenay varieties for a main crop. Carrot fly has not been a problem, due perhaps to the plants being grown in a confined space. But where it is a problem, it can be alleviated by planting a ‘hedge’ of herbs or some other vegetable around the carrot patch.