Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Timely Tips for Lilac Lovers

Timely Tips for Lilac Lovers

Photographs by Stacy Bass

A closeup view depicts the fragile nature of lilac panicles, reminiscent of handcrafted porcelain.

Originating in southeastern Europe about five centuries ago, the common lilac slowly migrated westward — village by village — from the Balkans to France, then to our eastern shores with the earliest French and Dutch colonists to the New World. Like those early settlers, lilacs have proven to be hardy and resilient survivors. These hardy shrubs tolerate drought, harsh unforgiving winters, dry, hot summers and poor soil. Lilacs ask for so little yet offer so much in terms of abundant bloom, eye opening color and delectable fragrance.

June is a critical time for lilacs. They have just finished blooming and are ready to begin a new growth cycle. Now is the time to trim and shape your lilacs. In addition to cutting and shaping the lilacs, I add a few handfuls of 5-10-5 fertilizer to the soil to ensure they get off to a good start. Never cut a lilac after July 4.


Whether you prefer the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) or the newer cultivars, a few simple steps are recommended.

  • Winters need to be sufficiently cold to keep the shrubs dormant for several weeks; our mild winter may explain why 2012 was not a particularly good year for lilacs. What’s more, vulgaris varieties tend to bloom every other year.
  • Lilacs are sun-loving plants.  Your site should provide eight hours of direct daily sunlight for optimum floral display.
  • Plant your lilac out in the open where fresh air may circulate and pass through it, a windy hillside is preferred, or a hilltop, like its early ancestors had in eastern Europe. Give it plenty of room:  a crowded border is the no place for lilacs.
  • If you need to move a lilac, do so in early spring (March) or late summer (August). Be sure to give it plenty of water.
  • Pinch off spent panicles immediately after bloom to encourage more blooms the following year;  or if you’re like me, cut away all of the spent flowers and shape the branches.
  • When pruning dead wood, take out the oldest and tallest branches.
  • The soil must be well drained and slightly alkaline. Acidic soil can be countered with a few handfuls of lime every spring and fall.
  • Do not mulch lilacs, they do not want to be damp at ground level.
  • Finally, feed your lilacs with super phosphate once in the fall, scratch in about one cup of super phosphate for every three feet in plant height.

That said, these hardy shrubs have been known to flourish in every type of shallow soil, in bedrock and in the company of neighboring trees. So even for black thumbs and the horticulturally challenged, lilacs have become vigorous trophies, outliving their owners by several lifetimes.

Don’t be discouraged by talk of the brief bloom period, leaves that become marred by mildew in late summer, lack of autumn color or an unkempt, gangly habit — the benefits these beauties have to offer far outweigh their shortcomings. The most difficult dilemma regarding lilacs you’re likely to encounter is choosing just one.


 A stand of decades old common lilacs continues to thrive at the homestead of Tom & Nancy Grant.

Gerard PampaloneGerard Pampalone

I am not a professional garden designer, landscape architect or horticulturalist. I am, for the most part, self-taught.

I don’t garden for a living, I live for gardening.

I came to gardening late in life, so I am making up for lost time.

I hope to share my insights, resources, and gardening experiences in the coming months.

My aim is to educate, enlighten and inspire gardeners to take chances, break new ground, dig deeper and stretch themselves.

As seen in:

Westport Magazine, July 2007
athome Magazine, March/April 2008