Master Gardener: Taming a lilac bush |

Master Gardener: Taming a lilac bush

Vicky Barney
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
A lilac bush in bloom.
Vicky Barney

A lilac is a wonderful bush in most gardens, adding fragrance and color early in the gardening season. It requires little attention and will adapt to its site, be it sunny or shady, wet or dry and provides early season nectar to pollinators. After 5 or 6 years, however, it needs some attention if you want a bush that continues to bloom well and look pretty. My old and neglected lilac bush clearly needs some attention.

The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), brought to the U.S. in the 1700s and originating in Asia, looks best in a tended cottage garden or as a riotous hedge. It does not fit well in my native garden.

Each spring, I’m tempted to remove it, and then it blooms beautiful and fragrant flowers among rich green leaves. Then I think I should move it to a different location, one that is a little less wild. A little research has helped with the decision.


Lilacs will grow anywhere but bloom best in a sunny location. As its current location is semi-shady, my bush would fare better in another area. But moving it is not a good option nor is removing it all together. 

Lilacs form huge root balls that are hard to move, and any roots left behind will sprout new plants. Unless I want a major excavation project or lilac shoots all over the yard, the bush needs to remain in place.


Adopting an annual maintenance routine will result in a prettier and healthier bush. Since it is a spring flowering shrub, pruning is best done right after the flowers have died and before next year’s buds form. Deadhead the flowers, remove unhealthy looking stems and leaves and trim the shape. 

Periodic thinning of older stems will improve flowering and keep the blossoms from getting out of reach. Colorado State University Extension Office’s Garden Notes No. 619 has detailed information about pruning and includes a great photo of what not to do. 

Companion planting

A lilac bush may look more attractive if additional spring bloomers are added to the flower bed. Spring flowering bulbs — daffodils, tulips and hyacinths — are good companion plants, similarly adaptable and equally stunning in spring. 

I’ve made peace with my lilac bush and am making it look better by taking generous cuttings while it is blooming and the air is fragrant. With regular pruning the bush will be tamed, but after I’ve enjoyed its flowers both indoors and out.    

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011. 

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