Lilac Planting Guide

Close your eyes. Inhale. Sigh. The scent of lilacs is as much a part of spring as daffodils, baby birds and foil wrapped chocolate eggs. Enrich your springs for a lifetime with the addition of a lilac bush. Or three. They're fast growing, nostalgic beauties.

Choosing a Growing Site

If possible, choose a full sun site. Lilacs will grow in partial shade but often won't bloom well in the absence of good strong light. Keep in mind that lilacs can live for 80 to 100 years - talk about a long term investment! Plan for their mature size and for the growth of surrounding trees. Note that lilacs are very winter hardy and they need the chilly temperatures in winter to thrive. Lilacs are not well suited to the deep South, Florida, Texas, coastal and Southern California and similar areas with warm winters.

Soil Prep

Lilacs prefer soils that are neutral to alkaline, and typically aren't happy in strongly acidic soils. Like most plants, lilacs require good drainage to avoid root rot. If you're unsure about drainage, dig a bucket size hole and fill with water. If the water hasn't drained away an hour later, this is a poorly drained location. Choose another site.

When to Plant Lilacs

Plant outdoors in spring when frost danger has past, and the soil has warmed and can be worked.

How to Plant Lilacs

Dig a hole about the size of a basketball and loosen the surrounding edge soil. Gently tip your plant out of its nursery pot and set upright in the hole so that the soil level from the pot is even with the ground soil. Fill with the soil you removed, pat to remove large air pockets and water to settle the soil. Check to make sure your plants hasn't sunk a bit; if it has, correct that. Consider add a layer of bark mulch to keep the roots cool, the soil temperature more even day to night, and to suppress weeds. Keep the mulch pulled back an inch or so from the main stem.

During the Season 

While your lilacs are settling in and growing a strong root network, keep the soil lightly moist. Once established, lilacs need about 1" of water per week in most regions, or more if the site is very hot and/or windy. After the first year, feed lightly in early spring with a slow-release fertilizer. Lilacs set buds in the fall for the following spring, so early season fertilizing feeds that year's foliage and provides nutrients for the following year's flowers.

As your lilacs grow, prune lightly to shape. Also, it's helpful to snip off spent flowers a few week after blooming has finished. This encourages the plant to put its energy into next year's buds rather than developing seeds. Do not prune after mid-summer as you may trim off the buds for next year's show.

At Season's End

Lilacs are very winter hardy and are fine in cold settings. There's no need to coddle. 

Insider Tips

  1. To enjoy cut lilac blooms indoors, place cut branches in water immediately (take a bucket outside with you). Trim stems to desired length then snip a 2" cut in the bottom of the stem with sharp pruners. Quarter turn and snip again. (Looking at the base of the stem straight on you will have created an "X".) This helps the cells absorb water and keeps the flowers fresh longer. 
  2. Cold, damp temperatures can reduce the fragrance level of lilac blooms. Warm, dry temperatures tend to improve scent intensity.
  3. Planting several types of lilacs in different colors provides a welcome selection of shades for bouquets.
  4. It's common for shipped lilacs to lose a few leaves in transit and, depending on the length of their trip, to arrive a tad wilted. Give your lilac a good drink and snip off any broken foliage; these little shrubs recover quickly and put out new growth in just a week or two. 
  5. Fun facts - the purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower.
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Success Snapshot

Light: Full sun 

Soil: Average to alkaline

Depth: Same as surrounding soil

Water:  Average moisture

Uses: Mixed borders, fragrant privacy hedges, wind breaks, specimen plantings, cutting

Tip: Plan for mature size: some varieties get big

GUIDE: Lilacs

They Start Out Looking Like This: