All About Lilacs


I’ll admit up front that the lilac is my favorite shrub. It has been since I was a kid, and my grandma had a huge lilac hedge along her alley fence.

The lilac can grow up to twenty feet tall, and blooms in lilac, dark purple, pink, or white. It has dark green heart-shaped foliage, and grows from shoots that come up from the base of the plant. Lilacs prefer full sun, and they do best when planted in an area where they will get decent air circulation. Without good air circulation, lilacs are prone to powdery mildew. They bloom in late spring and early summer.

Lilacs are best planted along a pathway, or next to a porch where you can enjoy their scent the most. They do well as an informal hedge, or as single specimen plantings in a shrub border. I have both a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and a dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) in my yard, with plans to add a few more lilacs as time goes by.

As far as day-to-day care goes, give the lilac about an inch of water per week in its first season, and after it is established it will need little, if any, supplemental water. In early spring, sprinkle about a cup of granular organic fertilizer around the base, and foliar feed with diluted fish emulsion when the buds just start to leaf out. Do whatever pruning is necessary, and you will have a happy, healthy lilac.

Throughout May and June, prune off the spent blooms of your lilacs. This will increase flower production for the following year. You can prune your lilacs after they bloom. It is also a good idea to remove any suckers that come up around the base of the plant. If you have an old, overgrown lilac, you can rejuvenate it in about three years by removing about 1/3 of the thickest, oldest branches each year for three years. By the end of three years, you will have a lilac with young, healthy shoots. Also be sure to remove all of the dead branches from your lilac when you prune.

You can propagate new lilac bushes through layering. It is best to attempt layering in early spring, when the plant is growing its strongest. The best stems to use are those that are flexible, and are the result of the previous year’s growth. About 9 inches or so from the tip of the branch, shave a 1/4-inch slice of bark off of the bottom of the branch. Dip the wound into rooting hormone if you’ve got it. If not, it will still work just fine. Make a 6-inch deep trench in the soil nearby to bend the wounded branch into. Secure the wounded part to the earth, being sure the wound is in good contact with the earth below; this is where the roots for your new lilac will form. You can hold the stem in place with a rock or a stake-whatever you have on hand will work. To keep the foliage tip of the branch growing upright, stake it straight. Fill the trench with soil, and water well. It will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for the branch to develop roots. Once you see that the tip of the layered branch has a flush of new growth, it means you have roots, and the branch can be severed from the mother plant. Just cut the branch before the buried section, dig it up, and plant your new lilac into its place in the garden. This should be done in either spring or fall.

You can also propagate through taking softwood cuttings. To take softwood cuttings, trim off about 2 to 6 inches of healthy growth. The stem you choose should not just bend (it is too young) and it shouldn’t be super stiff (it’s too old.) It should snap crisply. You should take your cuttings in spring, after the plant has fully leafed out. Dip your cuttings into rooting hormone, and place it into sterile rooting medium, such as sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Water well, and place your cuttings into a clear plastic bag to keep everything moist. Keep the cuttings in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Once your roots are an inch long, you can remove the plastic bag, and keep everything moist. After a week out of the bag, you can plant your lilacs in potting soil. They can be put outside once the weather is mild, and then be kept in a cold frame or greenhouse until the following spring, when you can plant your tiny lilac in the garden.

Personally, I prefer layering, since it doesn’t require quite so much time and attention on the part of the gardener. The advantage of propagating from cuttings, though, is that you can get more plants at a time. But, since I don’t plan on a lilac forest, layering will work just fine.

There is nothing in this world like the perfume of a lilac on a warm spring day. I hope you’ll consider the lilac if you’re looking for a flowering shrub for your yard.

Red Twig Dogwoods

Cornus stolonifera

If the only reason you plant a Red Twig Dogwood is for the bright red branches in the middle of winter, it would be reason enough. And, even though that is what most people think of when they think of Red Twigs, it is only the beginning for a shrub that guarantees four seasons of interest in your landscape.

In the spring, the Red Twig Dogwood produces clusters of white blooms that have a light fragrance. During the summer, the dogwood has very pretty, medium green leaves that provide a nice backdrop for annuals and perennials. My favorite season for the Red Twig Dogwood, though, is fall. In late fall, the leaves will start to change from green to a beautiful, rich coppery purple. This was one of the last shrubs in my garden to drop all of its leaves, and I just loved seeing it every time I walked to my garage.


The Red Twig Dogwood has a fairly loose growth habit, with new stems growing up from the ground yearly. It will grow to six to eight feet tall, and equally as wide, if left to itself. However, regular pruning will keep this shrub looking its best, since the reddest stems are those that are younger. Older stems will get grayish red with time. Pruning should be done after they bloom, or in late winter if you aren’t concerned with the flowers. If you have a very overgrown specimen, you can cut the entire shrub back to the ground, and it will be just fine, rewarding you with a flush of young red stems within a year. Fertilizing should be done in early spring. I use some organic granular fertilizer scratched into the soil around the base of the plant, and then I foliar feed with fish emulsion just as the shrub is starting to leaf out. The Red Twig adapts to almost any soil, but prefers slightly moist conditions. It does well in full sun to part shade.

You can propagate Red Twig Dogwoods by taking hardwood cuttings in late fall. To do this, cut a stem that is about the thickness of a pencil. Cut the stem with bypass pruners into six to nine inch sections. Cut each section so there is a bud just below the top of the cutting and just above the bottom of it. Remove all side branches. Dip the cuttings into rooting hormone. The cuttings can be placed either directly into the ground (as long as the garden soil is mixed with some perlite or vermiculite for drainage) or in pots with a mixture of potting soil and vermiculite or perlite. A cold frame is a good place to put your cuttings, whether planted directly into the soil or in pots. Keep the cold frame closed over the winter.

 Once spring arrives, you can leave the cold frame open, or remove your pots to another area. Once the cuttings have rooted, you can plant them in a nursery bed (an out of the way area where they can grow a little bigger) or directly into your landscape. This can take up to twelve months, so be patient!

Should you decide to plant a Red Twig Dogwood, it would be a good idea to place it where you can see it from your windows. It will give you something to look at in the winter months. Red Twigs are excellent used in mixed shrub borders, along fence lines, or wherever you would like a bit of attractive screening. Overall, the Red Twig Dogwood is an extremely easy-care plant that gives you a ton of interest in the garden.


For a low-growing plant with incredible foliage, it’s hard to beat heuchera. When you add pretty, delicate blooms and the fact that most heucheras are evergreen, what you end up with is a “must-have” plant.

There are nearly 300 known varieties of heuchera (a North American native), also called “coral bells” or “alum root.” In general, heucheras grow to about eighteen inches tall (not counting the flower spikes) and around eighteen inches wide. Their blooms grow on spikes of delicate “bells” in shades of red, pink, white, and purple, generally blooming for four to eight weeks in late spring through early summer. Recent varieties have made the blooms more prominent. But it’s the foliage that makes heuchera a winner. Purple, black, red, orange, brown, silver, chartreuse-you name it, you can most likely find a heuchera in that color.

Planting Heuchera

Heuchera prefers part shade, although some cultivars do better in full sun. They like soil that is average to rich fertility, moist, and well-drained. Heavy soils can be amended at planting time by incorporating compost or leaf mold into the soil from the planting hole. Heucheras are great plants for either edging a bed or using a group as a focal point. They suffer from very few pests and diseases, but powdery mildew can be a problem. Be sure to give them some room so they will get good air circulation. Heucheras tend to be shallow-rooted, and will heave in the winter if there is a lot of freeze/thaw action. To prevent them from heaving, give them a good, three inch layer of mulch in late fall.

Caring for Heuchera

Since heuchera prefer moist conditions, be sure to water in hot, dry weather, giving the plant about one inch of water per week. They can be fertilized with a balanced organic fertilizer in early spring. Divide plants every three years or so, or when you notice that the stem is looking woody or blooming diminishes. Mulch heucheras in the fall to prevent heaving, but don’t put the mulch up against the crown of the plant, or it will rot. Pull the mulch back from the crown two to three inches. Deadhead after the blooms fade to promote re-bloom.

Propagating Heuchera

There are three main ways heuchera can be propagated: seed, division, and leaf-bud cuttings.

  1. Seed: The thing to note when trying to propagate from seed is that cultivars will not come true from seed-only species will. So, for example, Heuchera americana is a species heuchera that will grow true from seed. Heuchera americana ‘Chocolate Veil’ is a cultivar of H. americana, and will not grow true from seed. To grow from seed, the most important step is to stratify the seeds, meaning that the seeds are stored in the cold (a refrigerator will do) for at least six weeks. After stratifying, sow the tiny seeds on top of your seed starting medium, as seeds require light to germinate. They will germinate fairly quickly. Care for them as you would any other plant grown from seed, including hardening them off after danger of frost. Seedling heucheras can then be planted in their desired location in the garden, or placed in a nursery bed for a growing season until they reach a larger size.
  2. Division: Divide heuchera as you would any other perennial. Dig the plant out of the ground and cut the root mass into pieces with a shovel or knife. Replant divisions with the crown at the soil level. This can be done every two to three years to keep the plants vigorous.
  3. Leaf-bud Cuttings: Leaf-bud cuttings are a type of cutting that consists of a few leaves, but most importantly, of a section of the stem from the main plant. This is important because only the main stem has growth buds on it, which is where foliage will grow from. Take leaf-bud cuttings of heuchera any time during the growing season, although spring is best because it allows the parent plant plenty of time to recover before winter. Dip the cutting in rooting hormone, and place it in either seed-starting mix or a 50/50 mix of peat and perlite. Keep it moist, cover the cuttings with a plastic bag (supported so it doesn’t come into contact with the leaves) and place it in a shady location. Once you have roots, you can plant it out in your garden or into a nursery bed.

Recommended Varieties

Crimson Curls

‘Crimson Curls’ has curly, rich purple leaves with pinkish undersides. This variety works well in beds as well as containers. ‘Crimson Curls’ is compact, growing about eighteen inches wide and tall. Blooms in late spring, sporting long-blooming cream flowers. Hardy in zones 3 through 8. Photo Courtesy of Proven Winners.

Sparkling Burgundy

‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has large, deeply lobed leaves that open bright magenta and mellow to a deep burgundy color. The white blooms appear in spring on eight inch purplish-red stems. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ is hardy in zones 4 through 9, and can be planted in full sun to part shade. Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery.


‘Hollywood’ is a gorgeous heuchera with purplish-black leaves frosted with silver. The leaves are nicely ruffled. In spring, bright coral-red blooms will appear, and will reappear all summer. ‘Hollywood’ is hardy in zones 4 through 9, and can be planted in full sun to part shade. Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery.

Lime Rickey

‘Lime Rickey’ has bold, beautiful chartreuse leaves topped with spikes of white blooms in spring. The chartreuse leaves darken to a pretty lime green color by fall. ‘Lime Rickey’ is very compact, growing only 8 inches high and about 15 inches wide. It is hardy in zones 4 through nine, and should be planted in partial to full shade. Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery.


‘Marmalade’ has unique foliage that starts out as a bright copper color, and changes to a raw umber color by fall. A bit of a surprise-the undersides of the softly scalloped leaves are hot pink! ‘Marmalade’ has spikes of dark red blooms in summer. It grows to about 12 inches tall and 15 inches wide. ‘Marmalade’ is hardy in zones 4 through nine, and should be planted in part shade. Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery.


‘Obsidian’ has maroon leaves that are so dark they appear black. They keep this color all season, contrasting beautifully with the creamy white flowers that appear in early summer. It is a compact plant, growing only 10 inches tall and about 15 inches wide. ‘Obsidian’ is hardy in zones 4 through 9, and should be planted in full sun to part shade. Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery.


‘Mocha’ has dark, coffee-colored, deeply lobed leaves that will darken to near-black in the sun. It will grow up to 15 inches high and 24 inches wide. Creamy white blooms appear in mid to late summer. ‘Mocha’ should be planted in full sun to part shade, and is hardy in zones 4 through 9. Photo Courtesy of Darwin Plants.


Heucheras play well with many different plants. Shade tolerant varieties can be planted with hostas, bleeding hearts, hydrangeas, astilbes, tiarellas, heucherellas, and ferns. Sun tolerant heucheras would look beautiful planted with irises, campanulas, daylilies, columbine, and phlox. With so many colors available, the combinations are nearly limitless!

Ten Things About . . . Viburnums

1. There are over 150 named species of viburnums, and multitudes of named cultivars as well.

2. There are deciduous, semi-evergreen, and evergreen viburnums.

3. Viburnums can grow anywhere from two to thirty feet tall, depending on the variety.

4. Viburnum blossoms can be sweetly scented, unscented, or terribly stinky, depending, again, upon variety.

5. They grow best in full sun to partial shade, in moderately fertile, well-drained soil, though there are some varieties that prefer dry conditions.

6. If you want your viburnum to produce berries, you should have at least a couple of different species planted. The majority of them will not fruit unless there is a different species nearby to act as a pollinator.

7. Some species of viburnum are great for attracting wildlife. Arrowwood viburnum  (Viburnum dentatum) and American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) both produce fruit that birds absolutely love. When they are in bloom, many viburnums attract plenty of pollinators, including bees, hoverflies, and butterflies.

8. Many viburnums boast stunning fall foliage, from the bright red leaves of American cranberry viburnum to the almost purple of some Doublefile viburnums.

9. Viburnums are easy to propagate from softwood cuttings taken in summer. You can also grow them from seed, but it is a long process.

10. Viburnums are generally easy to grow and don’t have many pest or disease problems. However, they can sometimes develop problems with aphids, scale, mealybugs, mildew and leaf spot.

I hope you enjoyed this look at one of my favorite plant groups! We have four viburnums on our 1/4 acre lot, and I’m always looking for spots to plant just one more. What is your favorite viburnum?

“Ten Things Thursdays” (alliteration is fun!) is going to be a regular feature here on Gardening in the Mitten. Every Thursday, I’ll look at some facet of gardening, whether it’s a plant, a tool, an insect, whatever, and post ten (interesting-to-me) tidbits about it. I know I’ve had fun coming up with these, and I hope you enjoy them as well!

Now Blooming: Lilacs

The lilacs in my garden are just starting to bloom, and their scent never fails to remind me that I really should plant more of them. These old-fashioned beauties are well-deserving of a place in your yard. Aside from the fragrant blooms in late spring, lilacs have very attractive, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. You can let your lilac grow tall and wild, or you can prune it to keep it more manageable. And if you’re looking for varieties that require little care, there are lilacs available for you, too.

Lilacs take me back to my grandmother’s back yard on Detroit’s East Side, where a row of them stood sentry on her alley fence line. They were huge, overgrown, and wild — and I loved them! You could crawl inside the hedge and sit in the shade. In late May, when the weather was warm and the lilacs were blooming, that was the best place in the entire world to spend a lazy afternoon.

Lilacs require very little care after they’re established. Regular pruning will keep them from taking over your garden, and deadheading the flowers after they have finished blooming will increase the number of blooms you get next year. Lilacs can develop powdery mildew if they’re planted in an area without much air circulation. To improve conditions if mildew becomes a problem, try pruning out some of the branches to increase air flow, and consider moving any plants that are encroaching on your lilac’s space. You can also spray once a week or so with a baking soda spray to prevent powdery mildew. This is not something I’ve had to do in my garden, but if you have issues with powdery mildew most years, it may be worth doing just to nip the problem in the bud.

The best way to ensure that your lilac will be happy (and make you happy in return!) is to select the right variety.

Favorite Lilacs for Michigan Gardens

  • Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) — These are the lilacs that grew along my grandmother’s fence, and are most likely the one most people think of when they think “lilac.” They can get quite large, but make a magnificent hedge, and their light purple (lilac…) flowers are very fragrant.
  • ‘President Lincoln’ — If you’re looking for a fragrant shrub that has bluish colored blossoms, ‘President Lincoln’ might be a good fit for you. This is another classic lilac variety that gets quite large — about eight feet wide by ten feet tall.
  • ‘Palibin’ — Also known as ‘Dwarf Korean Lilac,’ ‘Palibin’ is a great option for those of us who have small gardens, or who are unable to devote a large amount of space to a lilac. With very little pruning (I prune mine maybe once every three years or so, tops), ‘Palibin’ maintains its compact form, growing roughly three feet wide by about three feet tall. The best thing about this lilac: it is a proficient bloomer. ‘Palibin’ is loaded with fragrant, pinkish-purple blossoms every year. Its small leaves are much more round than traditional lilac leaves, and, as a bonus, turn a pretty coppery color in autumn.
  • ‘Mt. Baker’ — If you’re looking for a lilac that blooms white, look for ‘Mt. Baker,’ a large lilac (eight by ten feet, roughly) that blooms in mid to late May. Note, however, that the white lilacs tend to be less fragrant than the purple ones.

Lilacs are best planted in fall, but early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, will do as well. Be forewarned, though: once you’ve experienced the fragrance of a lilac in full bloom, it may be hard to limit yourself to just one!

For more about lilac care and propagation, check out my Lilac Plant Profile on In the Garden Online.




A Visit to the Anna Whitcomb Conservatory, Detroit

If you are a plant lover and you’re near the city of Detroit, you’re missing out if you don’t make the trek to Belle Isle (near downtown Detroit) to visit the Anna Whitcomb Conservatory. We go several times a year, and every time we go, I get so caught up in gawking at the plants that I forget to take photos! This time, I was determined to capture at least some of it. I didn’t get any plant names, mostly because I didn’t take the time to search for the plant labels.

About the Conservatory

The Anna Whitcomb Conservatory was founded in 1904, and contains several unique rooms, including the desert habitat, the jungle habitat, a fern grotto and a display garden that changes seasonally. The exterior of the conservatory boasts a newly-restored water lily pond as well as extensive perennial gardens. The conservatory and its gardens are largely maintained by volunteers–and they do an amazing job. I can honestly say I’ve never gone to the conservatory and thought “wow, this looks a little rough.” It is absolute heaven once the weather turns cold.

Entering the Conservatory

The first (and largest) room of the conservatory is the tropical plant habitat. The palm trees here are magnificent—in fact, they’re a little too magnificent. The conservatory just finished an extensive period of repairs and upgrades, including replacing several broken or cracked panes of glass. These palms are in danger of breaking right through the conservatory roof. This will be their final year, and then they’ll be taken out and replaced with younger, smaller specimens.

There are several large banana trees in this area. Besides the luxurious foliage, we saw several bunches of green bananas as well as a couple of flower buds.

The Fern Grotto

The fern grotto is one of my favorite rooms in the conservatory. It is serene and cool. Everywhere you look, you are rewarded with another play of texture against texture. I could honestly spend hours just sitting on the little cast iron bench in this room.

The fern grotto from another angle. You used to be able to walk down a short flight of steps to meander down among the ferns, but they ended up gating off the stairs due to concerns over lawsuits (the moist air in this room is perfect for growing moss—pretty to look at, not so great when you slip on it!).

The Orchids

If I had to choose one spot to visit in the conservatory, it would be the orchid room. The Whitcomb Conservatory (which is owned by the city of Detroit) has a huge orchid collection. In fact, the orchid collection in the Whitcomb is considered to be the largest municipally-owned collection of orchids in the country. I didn’t check names again (too awed to bother reading…) so I’ll just let you enjoy the orchids. All I did was stand there staring. The kids and husband had to move me along :-)

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the Whitcomb! To learn more, check out their website.