Monday, October 26, 2009

Cutting Back The Lilac Tree

(Warning: the following post contains a photo of a mutilated lilac tree that may be disturbing, offensive and cruel to some readers, especially very sensitive gardeners. Read at your own risk.)


I may be quite experienced and comfortable with caring for houseplants, but when it comes to outdoor gardening, which I’ve been away from for many years, most of the time I honestly don’t know what the heck I’m doing. This can be quite scary for the plants in my garden, especially when I get the urge to do some serious pruning, which I know nothing about aside from some quick research. Add to that multiple yard waste bags, pruning tools, a motivated husband and a chainsaw looking for some action and you’ve got a nightmare in the making for the plants.

And worse than all that, I’ve discovered that I get some kind of sick pleasure cutting back greenery, especially bushes that I don’t like or trees that are growing out of control. There is evidence of this type of callous behaviour here and here. What kind of person have I become, I ask you?


Oh my, was that me laughing like that?


There is a lilac tree growing in the back of the house, and since the day we took possession of our home, I’ve been debating what to do about it. For one thing, it’s been severely neglected. The previous owners of our place were much too busy for gardening, so everything, including this tree, pretty much went to pot.


Even though I spent the better part of the summer cleaning up almost every planting area on our property, most of which is now completely bare of greenery, I never went near the lilac; I simply ignored it. So while trees and shrubs were screaming in terror as I hacked them away, the lilac tree grew happily, convinced it was spared this evilness

Until recently.

A couple weeks ago, while standing outside overlooking the condition of the garden and wondering what I should take care of before the winter arrives, I pointed to the lilac tree and said “Your number’s up buddy”

“Why me, water roots lady? Why me?” The poor lilac asked.

“Because” I answered, “You have grown out of control and you look awful”

So I gathered up the necessary pruning tools, including a husband who was more than eager to use his chainsaw on larger tree limbs, and went after the lilac. When my husband asked “how much do we cut?”, I said “most of it”. An hour later (that included bloodcurdling screams from the lilac and surrounding vegetation), three yard waste bags had been filled...

...and the lilac tree looked like this:

Did we overdo it? I don’t know.

But one thing’s for sure.

“You got some kind of sick pleasure cutting it back?”


Yes, but what I really wanted to say is this:

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine what needs to be done in the garden, and when it needs doing. There are plenty of sources of information, each one contradicting the next one. And when I searched for information about lilacs, a few sources mentioned cutting the lilac back in spring, others suggested the fall. Some said ‘cut back hard’ while others said ‘don’t cut too much’. There was even the ‘you have to prune regularly’ and ‘you should not prune very often’ debate. The only thing most of them agreed on is that if you do cut back a lilac, you shouldn’t expect flowers for quite awhile, perhaps 2 – 3 years.

I have no idea whether we’ve done right by the lilac or not. We’ll just have to wait till spring and see what happens.


  1. Martha .. does George really have a chain saw girl ?????? We may have to bribe you guys to come over next Spring and finish the job I started with our poor lilac tree ;(
    I am getting rid of it because I screwed up on how to look after it .. so out it goes !!
    I know exactly what you are going through with yours and in the end you may think better of yanking it out altogether .. just think of all the research you can do to find the PERFECT shrub/tree ? you can put there instead ?
    I'm hovering over a couple of choices .. and as you have seen in person .. I need privacy screening .. so it has to be tall and wide !
    That is until we win the lottery .. right ? haha
    Stop that spooky laughter over there .. you are scaring me !!! hehehe
    Joy : )

  2. If you think that's harsh, I inherited two solitary lilacs and another whole row of them, when we bought our house. They were all very wild and overgrown. I started with the row, last year, and went easy on them. This year, I moved on to the others and was much more free with the pruners. Supposedly, if you prune in the spring, immediately after blooming, and only 1/3 of the bush at a time, then you may have flowers the next year. I have no idea if it works that way. I pruned mine late last year. I pruned at the right time this year, but that bush hasn't bloomed either of the two springs I've lived here. I have no expectations for next year.

  3. It really is so confusing to know the right thing to do with plants because so often there is conflicting advice out there. I'm still a beginner when it comes to gardening, so it's often trial and error with me. The people that lived on our property before us weren't gardeners, but they did plant two lilac bushes that are pretty scrawny. But in our first spring here last year, they were the only things blooming (until I started planting stuff with wild abandon). So I have a soft spot in my heart for them and will likely spare them any major pruning. Good luck with yours!

  4. I used to have lilacs...but now I live in Florida, and lilacs don't grow down here. They are my very favorite flowers...I wish I could take all of your unwanted lilac bushes!

  5. I too get tons of conflicting info, and as a new gardener it's hard to know what to do, so I too just wing it and hope for the best.

  6. Hiya Joy, yup George really does have a chainsaw. It actually freaks me out a bit; I really don't like these things, especially the sounds they make. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the lilac. I'll wait till spring and see what happens with it. There are so many things that need fixing in the garden that I'm spinning in circles... :)

    Hi evolution of a gardener, I don't expect to see flowers on this lilac next spring or the spring after that. I did flower this year, which was nice, but after the flowers faded, the lilac looked awful. It's needed to be pruned for a long time it seems. Most of the branches in the middle were dead. We'll see what happens next.

    Beth, I have a lot of gardening books and I swear each one offers different advice. I usually just average it all out and do what makes sense to me. I'm curious to see what my lilac will do next spring, now that all the branches are receiving ample light.

    Laurel, I'll trade you my lilac for a little Florida sunshine, warmth and beach! I'll even pay the postage. Pretty please.... :)

    Tatiana, I never follow gardening advice without adding a grain of salt to it. Plants don't read the books we do or have internet access, so they don't always do what we say they should :)