lilac pruning (and perfuming)

lilac prune and prepWHEN LILACS IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM…is the time to prune, and to bring bundles inside to smell up the house. Learn the simple details to make the right cuts (and for cuts that last the longest possible time in a vase, too):

Unless they are overgrown, lilacs don’t need much pruning (except the “musts” for every woody plant we all agreed recently that we’d keep up with, removing dead, diseased and damaged woody, or any that’s just not well-placed).

But by doing a little pruning (read: cutting bouquets of flowers to enjoy) you do the plant a favor, and prevent the ugly aftermath of lilac-blooming season, those dried-up trusses that persist forever, or so it seems. (I have to admit, once I catch up with my other garden chores I deadhead my many lilacs, removing whatever spent flowerheads I didn’t harvest earlier as bouquets…just can’t stand those nasty deadheads all summer, fall and winter long.)

But right now, while your lilacs bloom, simply work as if you want to gather a bouquet, which is essentially deadheading the plant. Before putting the stems in water, crush the ends with a hammer on a stone or other hard surface outside so that they can drink enough to keep the large flowerheads from wilting (which they will otherwise do almost at once). The same conditioning trick works for other woody branches you want to display in water, by the way.

Isn’t it nice when a chore is also a treat? For more on lilac pruning, try this.

stem crushing w/hammer

  1. Andrew Ritchie says:


    A bit of British folklore for you: bringing lilacs indoors is bad luck. This is according to my great grandmother who heard it from her mother. She cancelled a spring dinner once in Bedfordshire, England, because the newly arranged lilacs had caused her to burn the chicken and slice her finger open with a knife. Out the lilacs went, with the chicken and the guests. My grandmother and mum have not had lilacs indoors – ever!

    But I’m going to tempt fate. All around our building are massive amounts of lilac bushes. As if I can resist… Burned chicken or not!


  2. Andrew Ritchie says:

    This blog is exciting because I can time our blooms in Ottawa by guestimating their arrival: approximately two weeks after yours appear. It’s a nice window on the floral future!


  3. margaret says:

    Nothing has set on fire yet this week here, but I will keep you posted! By the way, I put hats on beds sometimes and open umbrellas indoors as well to let them drip dry…taking a walk on the wild side again and again. ;-) Glad to hear you can now tell time by me, by the way…Margaret plus 2 equals Ottawa. I didn’t know that.

  4. zurls22 says:

    I only have 1 bloom on my lilac bushes. I am in CT. They get plenty of sunshine and airflow. I planted them 3 years ago. The first year I had tons of blooms, last year only a handful, and this year just the one. Help?

  5. margaret says:

    Welcome, Zurls22. I am going to answer here quickly and then make this into a post, I think, as I have been meaning to talk about “What, no Flowers?” but then I go outside and…and…and…
    Several things can prevent good flowering: Too little sun, too much nitrogen (as in lots of lawn fertilizer or that blue stuff gone wild) or improper pruning.
    If you prune lilac shrubs after about July 4 in this area (and I don’t even like to wait that long), you will be cutting off next year’s blooms, period. Was that it? Or possibly the fertilizer (usually the tipoff here is that the plant is bushy and has lots of healthy green leaves, but nothing else)?
    Tell me more (and better yet in the Forums, where Q&A is easier). I may import this there, too. So many tasks to do here at A Way to Garden. Oh, my, what a busy girl I am.

  6. Laurie says:

    I love the lilacs. I had trouble with my lilac bush for the past couple of years and cut it back. This year it grew nicely and I had enough blooms to make a bouquet for the house. I like your site here. Very nice and imformative.

  7. Layanee says:

    Lilacs and lily of the valley are two delightfully heavy scents which always bring back happy childhood memories. Mine are not quite ready (the lilacs) but the bouquet of lily of the valley are perfuming the entry.

  8. margaret says:

    I love that I have lilacs, but no Convallaria yet–and you have the opposite! It’s never quite a formula, this gardening, is it…never quite a precise calculation.

  9. Deb says:

    I have lilac envy–none in my yard (yet) but a beautiful one next door. How should I go about buying and planting one so next year I can have my own?

  10. margaret says:

    You couldn’t pick an easier shrub to plant or grow. As for which to choose, select by size (some stay in the 6-8 foot range, others grow 12-15 even) and select by color (you can have from white to pink to lavender to blue and purples, including some that are very dark). I plan to post a glossary of my favorites this week so maybe you will see one among them that suits you?

  11. Deb says:

    Wow–that glossary is unbelievable. Your place must be amazing, would love to see. Don’t you do garden tours? For some reason I’m drawn to the Wedgwood Blue, ;) But they’re all lovely. Replicating the one I remember mfrom childhood would only require a so-sweet aroma that carries on a breeze.

  12. Frances Palmer says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I had hoped to meet you yesterday at Trade Secrets but did not see you. I have had 2 lilac bushes against my kiln building – one white and one lavender – for about 5 years.
    Neither bloom except one white flower and I was hoping that you might tell me what to do. I took a photo but I don’t think that I can attach it here.
    Please let me know if you have any suggestions when you have a moment.
    Regards, Frances

  13. margaret says:

    Welcome, Frances. Here’s proof that I was at Trade Secrets (working the Loomis Creek booth).
    As for your lilacs, there are several factors that affect bloom in most cases (and in most plants): sun (too little limits bloom); fertilizer (too much high-Nitrogen, like from feeding a lawn nearby or that blue stuff poured on the plant) sacrifices blossoming; and improperly timed pruning (anytime after July 4 here might take off next year’s flowers). See the post I wrote about this as a start, then tell me more. It includes some good external lilac links as well that you may wish to visit.

  14. Bev Lukehart says:

    My lilac bush planted two years ago and transplanted last summer has glorious blooms. Here’s my question: I’ve been reading so much about proper pruning that I am afraid to cut the blossoms that I so much want to enjoy in my home and office. Is the simple cutting of blooms sufficient to help the plant with next year’s flowering, or should I be cutting in some specific way to ensure the following year’s growth? Thanks for your website, I’ve learned so much!

  15. margaret says:

    Welcome, Bev. There is more information here on lilac pruning, in case you didn’t see it…but yes, cutting of blooms is plenty unless a shrub is very overgrown or was damaged by a storm or some such. Recent studies have shown deadheading doesn’t really make a huge difference in flowering year to year, but I like to do it with lilacs for the visual relief from all those messy faded flowers hanging on forever. So up to you.

  16. geekxnerd says:

    This is so interesting! I live in New Hampshire, and lilacs are our state flower, so as you can imagine we have them in abundance here. I’ve been picking them my entire life and I’ve never heard of that hammer trick!

    P.S. I very much enjoyed your appearance on CraftyPod with Sister Diane. Diane and I are good blog buddies, I just love her show and was happy to hear you on it!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Geekxnerd. Glad to help with the lilac trick…and also glad to meet another fan of Sister Diane. She is so lovely, and so talented. See you soon again, I hope.

  17. Mackenzie Carpenter says:

    Margaret… I’ve also heard that slicing the lilac stems with a knife works… rather than hammering, which crushes the stem’s interior cell structure and doesn’t allow the water to travel up the stem as successfully.

    Whatever. I’ve tried both methods, and sometimes my lilacs survive, sometimes they don’t.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Mackenzie. Nice to see you here. Yes, slicing works well, too, but is a more precise tactic, and I a bit of a rushing-around type of person, impatient. I try to split the stem with the hammer rather than pulverize it, and I have very good success with blossoms lasting. Glad to tell people the alternate tactic, thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, BJ. Same one; but last May. Sorry to confuse. :) See you there…and here, hopefully again, too.

  18. pam says:

    I’ve never grown lilacs though they’re my favorite-smelling flower. That’s sad! Thanks for the tips – I’ll read more about lilacs, and maybe this year I’ll do myself a favor and start one.

  19. Lois says:

    Dear Margaret,

    Although I’ve fallen in love with growing, I have yet to be intentionally successful. Your books were my first introduction and contributed to my new passion. Thank you for your direct responses to gardening questions, and thank you for your own passion which is definitely contagious.


  20. ann says:

    Hello Andrew,,
    I luv hearing from you here.
    Dakota Lilacs must bloom same time as Ottawa.
    Everyone here has Syringa vulcaris as it is like a weed.
    Didn’t Alice Munro write about burning the prunings?
    -No think it was the roots as they sucker so much.
    My aunt Ruby had the single white peony and it does haunt
    me all these years later and it still blooms.

  21. margaret says:

    Welcome. Lois. I am flattered at your very kind words (and glad to be contagious!). I hope that I will see you regularly here as we watch the season unfold. Thanks again.

  22. Sarah Caron says:

    Wow! Hammering the ends! I am so glad I clicked through. And now I want to pick lots and make my whole house smell lovely. As soon as they bloom.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Siden. The technique (which sounds very fancy) is called serpentine layering, and I am offering the instructions from the Royal Horticultural Society and also from Purdue U Extension for your perusal rather than duplicate the explanation. Easy-ish to “wound” and peg down some branches and get new plants. Hope that helps.

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