Don’t Take Crap From Your Lilac

When in bloom, there is nothing like a lilac.  They are wonderful plants, full of fragrant blooms in the spring and tough as nails.  There are tons of varieties available, but most of us think of grama’s gangly old bush out back by the tool shed.  This is called an old-fashioned lilac, and many people struggle to get that old girl to bloom.

Don’t take any crap from your lilac.  If it’s not blooming, it’s time to be ruthless.  First, ask yourself these four things:

  1. How much shade is it getting?  Old lilac bushes often end up tucked away in the shade over time.  They are much happier in the sun, and it will show in their blooms.
  2. How old is it?  Lilac blooms will start to dwindle on really old plants.
  3. When is it getting pruned?  Lilacs bloom on old wood, so if it’s a small plant and you are pruning in fall or winter, you are probably chopping off the buds.
  4. Did it bloom well last year?  Old fashioned lilacs have an alternate blooming habit, especially if allowed to produce seed.

If it is located in the shade, old as dirt, or both, whack it all the way to the ground either after it blooms or in the winter.  You’ll have to wait a year or two to get blooms, but that should clean up the space and rejuvenate it.   If it’s a new plant and in full sun, make sure you wait to prune until after it blooms in early summer, and keep it to a minimum.

If you’d like to grow lilacs in the Asheville area, here are some suggestions:

  • Pick an interesting, compact variety.  There are a surprising amount of lilacs to choose from, especially living in the Asheville area (zone 6 or 7).  Don’t limit yourself to the gangly old fashioned version.  Miss Kim is great, Pilabin, or Bloomerang.
  • Lilacs like well-draining, neutral soil.  If you have that good ole’ heavy clay, amend it well with some soil conditioner or composted bark mulch when you plant, and some garden lime.   No need to fuss about amounts, just chuck a cup or two of lime in the hole and mix it in.
  • Mulch the top well after planting, 3 inches of triple ground bark will do.
  • Full sun, full sun, full sun.  They like space too, especially if the variety is prone to powdery mildew.
  • Deer don’t really bother them but rabbits can nibble some varieties.  If you have a lot of rabbits hangin’ around in spring, start with a larger plant or grow with carrots.
  • Lilacs tend to be slow-growing, especially the dwarf varieties.  Be patient the first couple of years.
  • Some can get leggy, especially when young.  To keep it full, prune back the blooms and tallest branches in late spring/early summer.

Here is a cool list of lilacs to check out.  Warning:  You just might want to start a collection!


Lilacs are excellent plants, especially when in bloom, but they need a little tough love sometimes.  Cut the old, sloppy specimens to the ground to rejuvenate them.  Or consider planting a newer, more compact variety.   And don’t forget the sun!

If you are interested in what lilacs we are growing this year click here!