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Pruning Lilacs

Q: What's the best way to prune lilac bushes so they'll bloom every year?

pruning lilacs
Photo by Anne B. Keiser/National Geographic/Gettyimages

What's the best way to prune lilac bushes so they'll bloom every year?

—Bev Nelson, Napoleon, Ohio


Roger Cook replies: Several things can cause lilacs to bloom poorly. An unusually cold winter or late cold spell could have killed your lilacs' flower buds, one of the shrub's more vulnerable parts. Or, your soil might have become too alkaline or acidic. Lilacs like soils whose neutral pH is between 6 and 7. A soil test will answer this question. Also, you should not overfertilize lilacs; that will cause them to produce more leaves than flower buds.

But the biggest reason lilacs don't flower is because of pruning at the wrong time of the year. Lilacs bloom early and set new flower buds early, so a pruning in June or later in the season takes away the buds for the following spring. The best time to prune is right after the flowers turn brown. Take out the whiplike suckers at the base and older branches, and thin out growth in the center to improve air circulation and discourage fungal disease.

On large lilacs that haven't been pruned for a while, I'd prune one-third of the largest branches the first year, one-third the second year, and the remaining third of the older branches in the third year. Blooms form on stems at least three years old, so you'll never be without flowers. And the result will be a totally rejuvenated plant, with larger, stronger branches that produce more flowers.


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