I’m going to get on my soapbox for a minute, but it’s a soapbox with origins in my grandmother’s back yard, so hear me out. She lived in a row-house in Roslindale, Massachusetts, and though I don’t remember much about the house, I have vivid memories of the wall of lilac out back. I remember tucking in under the branches, and the cool ground beneath; I remember that they seemed to go up forever. I remember the scent, and the color more blue than amethyst, like the blue tinge to her grey hair.
If I went back there now, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of them, or of others in that neighborhood, or of others in neighborhoods all across New England. I have no doubt of that because, much as we laud turn-of-the-century wooden doors, and salvaged mantles and vintage hardware, we have no problem tossing old-growth plant materials straight into the dumpster.
There are times that’s necessary, and times it’s even desirable — you can bin most of the yew, and the half-dead prostrate juniper along with it — but there is worth in many old-growth plants, a worth that we seem to overlook. If we value the door for its aged beauty, for an aesthetic that we know cannot be matched by anything newly-made, how is it that we miss the beauty of the living old wood right outside that door?
Lilac in particular, because of its shallow root mass, can be transplanted with relative ease and remarkable tolerance. Even if I lose the bulk of the old growth, I still have a viable root ball that can continue producing for years; why would I want a tiny two-year-old plant from a nursery in its place? If moving it isn’t necessary, invest a bit of energy and a bit of time on what’s known as ‘rejuvenation’ pruning, which is the removal of one-third of the oldest growth from the base. Do this every year for three years, and I guarantee you’ll be astonished by the results. This style of pruning, by the way, works extremely well on all manner of old shrubs; Ortho puts out a great book on pruning, as does the American Horticultural Society.
Spend a little money on the book, save a lot of money on replacement plants… not a bad deal. Just ask your grandmother.