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How and When to Prune Lilacs: Tips on Pruning Lilacs for Bigger Blooms

Updated on April 25, 2017
Purple Lilacs in Bloom
Purple Lilacs in Bloom | Source

Tips On Pruning Lilacs

Big, beautiful and fragrant flowers makes the lilac one of the most recognizable and well known of the flowering shrubs. Blooming in spring, lilacs burst with color and fill the air with their floral scent to awaken the garden after the long winter.

Lilacs are hardy, long-lived plants that are easy to grow. Healthy and well-pruned shrubs bloom proficiently in late spring, filling the garden with their sweet scent and attracting the attention of hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and gardeners. While purple flowers are the most common colored blooms, horticulturalists have developed many different cultivars with flowers in white, pink, yellow and burgundy.

Lovely Lavender Lilac Blooms
Lovely Lavender Lilac Blooms | Source

Growing Lilacs

Lilacs are a landscape staple for several reasons: lilacs are easy to grow, they bloom proficiently and even after the flowers fade, the shrub looks good in the landscape. For optimal blooming performance, select a planting site that receives full sun. Fertilize lilac bushes in early spring with an all purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer, and then reapply the fertilizer again after the blooms fade. Established lilacs are very hardy plants, but newly transplanted specimens may require watering during periods of drought.

Lilacs are easy to transplant and propagate from the many new shoots that sprout from the base of established plants each spring. Use a sharp spade to dig down and around the shoot, creating a small root ball while severing the shoot from the parent plant. Transplant the new little lilac plant into a sunny location and keep it watered well until it becomes established.

My grandfather loved growing lilacs, and his pride and joy was a robust plant that exploded with white flowers every spring. Thanks to his gardening skills and generosity, I have several lilacs growing in my yard that are the direct descendants of his plants. My grandfather is gone now, but I am reminded of him every spring when 'his' lilacs are in full bloom. Thank you, Grandpop!

If lilacs have a drawback, it's that their flowers tend to fade quickly. By planting several different varieties of lilacs with different flowering times in early, mid and late spring, gardeners can extend the lilac blooming season. Careful and selective pruning helps to keep a plant healthy and will increase blooms for the following year, but pruning a lilac incorrectly or at the wrong time can reduce or eliminate those wonderful spring flowers.

Here are a few tips for pruning lilacs to get the most blooms every year.

When & How To Prune Lilacs

Beautiful White Lilac Flowers
Beautiful White Lilac Flowers | Source

When To Prune Lilacs:

There is a right time of year to prune a lilac, and there are also lots of wrong times for pruning these flowering woody shrubs. Lilacs grow quickly and they can grow quite tall, and they need an annual trimming to retain their shape and to keep them blooming consistently every year. The only right time to prune a lilac bush is just after the last of the flowers fade away in late spring. Prune lilacs in late spring to remove the dead flowers and broken or damaged limbs before the plant sets out its buds as it prepares for next year's blooms.

Deadheading the spent blooms and removing the spent flowers also prevents the lilac from forming seeds for the next generation, and redirects the plant's energy towards producing those new buds that will form flowers next spring. Deadheading and removing the old flowers is an important step towards ensuring that your lilacs will bloom proficiently year after year.Lilacs begin to form next year's buds shortly after this year's flowers finish blooming. To avoid cutting away next year's flowers, it is very important to trim your lilacs right after they finish flowering. The new buds are hard to see, but they begin to form in the late spring. The trick is to prune and shape the lilac bush within the first few weeks after the plant finishes blooming, but before it starts growing new buds. Waiting too long to trim your lilac means either putting off the chore until next year, or risk cutting off the flowers for next spring before they even get the chance to grow.

A young, well-shaped Lilac bush
A young, well-shaped Lilac bush | Source

Pruning Lilacs

A well-shaped lilac bush needs annual pruning to retain the rounded form that most gardeners desire, and to help control the overall height of the shrub. Depending on the variety, a lilac can reach up and over 20 feet in height. And since most of the buds form on the tips of the branches, the flowers of a tall lilac will bloom near the top of the plant -- out of reach and perhaps beyond where the flowers are easily seen and enjoyed.

While your lilacs are blooming this spring, look closely at the shape of the plant. Also, take note of where the plant is sporting most of its blooms. Lilacs flower at the tips of its branches, and the areas that receive the most sunshine will boast the biggest and brightest flowers. After the blooms fade and die off, selectively prune the branches to control the height and to re-form the shape of the lilac. In most cases, lilacs do not require much pruning beyond deadheading and removing a few select branches to improve the shape and appearance of the shrub.

Healthy lilacs sprout new suckers from the ground each year. Prune out some of the suckers, and remove any crossing branches or leggy limbs. Remember that lilacs flower on the older stems, making it important to remove only those limbs and branches that are necessary to maintain a nicely shaped and well proportioned shrub.

Over time and as the lilac ages, the interior of the plant may become congested with a tangle of older limbs. Lilacs will bloom reliably for years with minimal care, but some older plants may become less productive. To reinvigorate an older plant and to encourage more blooms, remove about one third of the plant each year by cutting the selected branches back at ground level. Severe pruning encourages new growth, but since lilacs flower only on old wood, it can take several years before the lilac blooms proficiently again after a severe pruning.

What Is Your Favorite Color of Lilac?

What Is Your Favorite Color of Lilac?

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A Demonstration on Pruning Lilacs

Will Lilacs Grow in Your Garden?

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is now interactive: Search using your zip code or click on your state to find your exact plant hardiness zone for your area.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map | Source

Will You Have Lilacs Blooming in Your Yard This Spring?

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To Prune Lilacs...

You'll Need A Good Set of Pruning Shears...

Tell Us About the Lilacs in Your Garden

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    • profile image

      Mlg 10 months ago

      when we bought our house the lilacs must have been new but over the years they have grown huge. They have taken over the alley. The path in our yard and other plants. My husband is afraid to prune them in case they don't bloom again. He's gone for a few days so I am going to prune as much as I can. They are to tall now to do much but I want to reclaim my yard. They have just finished booming so am hoping for the best

    • profile image

      cyndi 13 months ago

      My mother loved me picking them and bringing them to her for the inside of the house. Thanks for the tips on pruning. I have a big purple one in the front yard and it does not bloom to well and I would like to spread them all over the yard as well. Thank you for the tips again.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 3 years ago from Canada

      Ah it is springtime again and the lilacs are just opening their blooms where I live. They are such a fragrant flower I can see why they are so very popular as a choice of wedding flower. Hope you are having a wonderful spring.

    • vineliner57 profile image

      Hal Gall 4 years ago from Bloomington, IN

      I can smell the lilacs now. I can't wait for spring!

    • GardenIdeasHub LM profile image

      GardenIdeasHub LM 4 years ago

      I love lilacs. Thanks for the tips!

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 4 years ago from USA

      Yes, I've never seen a yellow lilac.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      I didn't realize that there were so many shades of lilac. I am used to just seeing the light purple and the white variety. Lilacs sure are a fragrant flower. I love their scent.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      The smell of lilac is uplifting and mood changing. Nothing beats it. Never knew you had to prune lilacs -- good to know.

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 5 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      I always used to bring my mom lilacs from the neighbour's yard for mother's day and her birthday, which is in May as well. They're still her favorite flowers :)

    • profile image

      TheDeeperWell 5 years ago

      I have native ceonothus, a white California lilac that blooms at the edges of my back yard meadows. It is my favorite scent of spring.

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 5 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      My Lilacs (lavender and white) are blooming right now! I appreciate the info on pruning.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      Really appreciated learning how to care for my lilacs. I have a lilac bush in front of my house but it has not yet bloomed. I stopped by to learn about fertilizing it. The pruning is bonus information. Lilacs remind me of childhood and enjoying the lilacs that were blooming around nearly every farmhouse. My property would not seem complete with lilacs.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I think that I could even smell the lilacs here! I sure wasn't aware that there were so many varieties and certainly didn't know anything about caring for them. I love the story about you having descendants from your grandfather's beautiful white lilacs...blessed!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Lilacs always rank right up there as one of my two or three favorite flowers of all time. Only the sweet-smelling English violet consistently beats it for first place. Beautifully done page. If ever I get to live with a garden again, I will have lilacs.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      There is nothing in the garden as beautiful as a lilac.

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      I really like lilacs (and so do my bees) and though I have never got around to deadheading them, they do bloom like billy-ho! I can only grow the vulgaris here, though, and perhaps they aren't as particular as the lovely hybrids that are beyond my microclimate's reach... Lovely and helpful lens, Anthony, as always!

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