Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A ruthless but necessary lilac pruning job

Would you do this to your favorite lilacs? We did - and we did the deed in mid-July, about a month past the ideal time to prune. The shrubs in question are five Meyer lilacs (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin').

Why? The pictures here illustrate the problem - the shrubs had walled us off from a lovely view of the garden.

Meyer lilacs are supposed to be compact, and I suppose for lilacs they are, but they were easily reaching 6 feet. (Obviously, they hadn't read the nursery catalogue which stated that their mature height tops out around 4 or 5 feet.) Actually, woody plant expert, Michael Dirr, the author of my favorite tree and shrub bible, the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, says they grow 4 to 8 feet tall. I didn't prune them, and so they were headed for 8 feet. Clearly, they were overgrown.

The lilacs and the view four-and-a-half weeks later

The solution: off with their heads. Will the shrubs flower next year? Probably not because we pruned them so radically in mid-July, and they form next year's flower buds shortly after blooming. But I've seen spotty repeat blooming in late summer, so you never know.

The reason for our late pruning is that I changed my plan of attack. I was actually planning to rip the lilacs out and replace them with peonies and boxwood shrubs, both of which are lower growing. But that would have been a lot more work, and we would have missed their lovely scent in spring.

So when master pruner Bob May was here working on the boxwood hedge, I asked his opinion and he suggested cutting them back radically. "They'll be fine," he assured me. "You're a couple of weeks late to prune, but they've got enough time to grow leaves and recover."

Four and a half weeks later - nicely leafed out

The lilacs have grown new leaves and they look like they are recovering well - and we have our garden view back. Thanks, Bob, for suggesting this solution. I have more of these lilacs in other parts of the garden, and I'm going to be more diligent about pruning them to stay more compact.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener


  1. Oh an what a view. Yes Yvonne...that was a good idea. I look forward to seeing how they do in the coming years.

  2. You were very brave and it paid off big time! Now you will enjoy that lovely view (and smell) towards the rest of the garden. Maybe next year, I will get brave as well and prune back the 10 foot high lilacs, on our fenceline, and I will be able to see the flowers one day in the future.

  3. I did that to my 'New Dawn' rose last spring, and folks thought it would never recover. It has in spades. My 'Miss Kim' lilacs are also getting huge and taking over. Will probably whack them back after bloom next year. Thanks for the visual. Your view is beautiful again.~~Dee

  4. I know it's hard, but sometimes you just gotta do it. I wish you much luck for next year.

  5. Wow, what a transition! We've been growing our garden from 1-gal plantings for three years now. I think it's finally time to start pruning, but can't bring myself to do it. This is great inspiration for getting out the shears.

  6. Brilliant move. (Although, if one didn't know there was a view lurking behind it, one would be quite satisfied gazing at this wonderful vignette).

    I am simply lost for words. The view is indescribably beautiful.

  7. Hi Yvonne
    I would have done like you. At least if it didn't work out, you could go back to your first plan! Looks like it worked very well. You'll keep your favourite lilacs by your bench - and your view too.

  8. Thanks everybody for your comments. I'm so pleased at how well these shrubs are growing again. They have good strong root systems and I think they benefited from all the rain we've had this season.

  9. Hello Yvonne .. I'm so glad to read about this .. I had let my Madame LeMoine get very bare and leggy .. I did the one third rule with a light "topping" this past Spring, but it is such a slow process doing it by the old rules .. I think next Spring after it has bloomed (if it will .. it might be very mad at me ? LOL) I will chop it all back to one meter as I have read in some other information .. I love white lilacs and this one is a pretty cultivar .. we do learn from our mistakes though ? : )

  10. Hi GardenJoy: Just go for it. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. Cheers/Yvonne

  11. Anonymous3:44 PM

    Just how old were those plants that they achieved such great growth? I'm looking for a good screening shrub and flowers would be a big bonus. Thanx for this post. Kris in NE Ohio.

    1. They were about 5 or 6 years old. Yes, they make an excellent screen.


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-Yvonne, aka Country Gardener