Growing, Propagating and Pruning Lilacs

My own place is surrounded with some great old growing lilacs and as I write, a bouquet of blooms graces my kitchen table. And what I know for sure is that I'll be extending the planting of this wonderful shrub on my own property. Just like these old pioneer shrubs that have wandered over the back concessions in my neighborhood, my Syringa vulgaris (the Latin name for lilac) is an adaptable plant.

Growing Conditions

Growing lilacs is best in full sunshine and indeed that is the only place the plant will flower reliably. The more shade you give this plant, the fewer blooms you'll see. If you have a plant that is not flowering, this is normally the reason. The soil is generally not an issue in growing lilacs unless it is very heavy clay (they don't like that). Give it great soil or poor soil and it will still grow well.

The only thing to understand is that if you feed growing lilacs heavily, they will grow leaves at the expense of flowers. A shovel or two of compost is all it really requires. We often see this happen with plants at the edges of lawns where they get a blast of lawn fertilizer in the spring. Great growth but no flowers the following spring.


My old growing lilacs never see a pruning shear other than a cleanup of dead branches. I never prune off or deadhead the spent flowers as it is way too much work for this lazy gardener.

If you do want to prune flowers or shape the shrub, then do this chore within 6 weeks of the blooms finishing. If you prune outside of this time, you'll be cutting off next year's flowers as well as this years spent ones. In other words, do not prune it in the spring or fall.

The lilac is perfectly adaptable to making a small tree and this is what the overgrown plants in my garden area will become over the next few years as I prune up the lower branches and eliminate the suckers around the bases. Fast growing lilacs also make an excellent fast hedge that can be grown into the wild hedge. Or, it can be pruned (again right after blooming) and maintained as a semi-formal flowering hedge. Because it is deciduous (drops the leaves in the fall) it will not make a year round screen but as a summer screen, it has few equals for speed and ease of growth.

Common Complaint about Growing Lilacs

One complaint I often hear is that newly established lilacs won't bloom. They will bloom in the container in the nursery because they are root bound. But when you plant them outdoors, they'll often take up to 5 years to establish roots and enough top growth so they're comfortable in throwing a blossom. And when they start, they'll bloom nonstop with relatively few pests or problems for the next 50 years. The only reason they'll stop blooming is if you change their sunshine levels with surrounding trees.


To get new lilacs from the old, dig up the suckers just before they start leafing out in the spring or just after the leaves had dropped in the fall. At these two times, the lilac will transplant easily and establish itself in its new bed with great speed. Taking cuttings doesn't work well; even the professionals don't take fresh wood cuttings and expect them to root reliably.

Most of the hybrids on the market are budded and grafted for propagating rather than done from cuttings. They are tricky for home gardeners to bud or graft and cuttings rarely root in the home garden.

Common Problems with Growing Lilacs

A white growth sometimes covers the leaves and this is powdery mildew. See the sections on controlling this problem. A form of scale will also attack lilacs. You'll need to use a dormant oil spray early in the spring before the leaves emerge to control this. Lichens attach themselves to the woody stems – these are not generally a problem.

Plants to Look For

There are several plants in this family you may want to investigate.

While I'm quite happy with the old-fashioned wild ones, your tastes may run to the French hybrids. These tend to be more intense colours than the species and a much wider choice of colours with around 1000 varieties being available.

Another excellent choice is the Preston Hybrids. Bred in Ottawa, these hardy plants bloom immediately after the French hybrids but have equally lovely fragrances and colours. By growing both, you can extend your bloom time well into 5-6 weeks of springtime pleasure.

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Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk' is another Canadian breeding that will grow up into a small 30-foot tall tree. This is a fast growing small tree with white flowers that are spicily fragrant rather than sweetly scented. I rather like it and have a place for one in next year's tree planting plans.

If you have a small garden, you might want to investigate the dwarf varieties. Most only grow to the 4-6 foot tall range but have the fragrance and bloom shape of their larger cousins. If you have a small garden, these are the answer to what to grow in that sunny space where nothing else seems to want to thrive.

Growing lilacs is indeed easy and great fun for creating a fast and fragrant screening plant or small tree.

growing lilacs

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