Old Overgrown Lilac? Cut It Way Back After Blooming!
How to make Old Lilac bloom again? Let me tell you what I did. It’s drastic, but it works.
I have a lilac that I planted here at my house soon after we moved in. It has been there for about 15+ years ( I don’t remember the specific year I planted it), but it was just a tiny twig from the nursery. I am not sure of any variety but it is one of those regular or old-fashioned types which blooms fragrant purple blooms in late May.
My lilac bush has finished blooming this year and I am cutting it down! It has to be done. Let me explain what I am doing.
Where on the branch do lilacs bloom?
Lilacs bloom on newer growth, so the blooms will be on the new younger branches growing out from older trunks. Therefore as the bush gets older and older and puts out more and more new branches, since it blooms better on those newer branches, gradually the blooms are all way up high and unreachable to gather for bouquets.
But that heavenly scent still floats in the air. Wonderful. But sometimes the older lilac get so overgrown and aged, they seem to stop blooming all together. Now that’s a sad thing that we can try and do something to fix!
What you need is young new growth. Now if you are a good and regular pruner, your lilac probably blooms well since you take care of it each year. But I confess, I am a procrastinator. I tell myself I am going to prune, but a lot of the time, I just never get around to it. ( There is always another hypertufa pot I want to make or some weeding to do, know what I mean?)
So we have to get drastic to get our blooms back. You may think ” Oh, I will just get a new bush and start over.” But you can have a “new” bush from the ashes of the old one. It will rise like a Phoenix, for real.
No, don’t burn it! Cut it down!
Seriously, drastically cut it back to the ground and get almost all new shoots! Then those new shoots will have blooms and we are back to blooms at the level we can see them and pick them. Loving it!
Timing is the Decisive Factor in Pruning Lilacs
If you want to have your blooms next year, it is crucial to prune in those first few weeks after blooming ends. Ideally, this is when you would do maintenance pruning each year. But I get so
lazy busy, I end up with a ten foot bush with ten blooms on top.
So I have just done a complete rejuvenation on my Old Lilac and I am excited to see what will happen next spring when it is all full of young and new branches.
I shot a video of my husband and I
butchering trimming this Old Lilac almost down to the ground. We thought we’d need the chain saw, but he couldn’t get it started, so we used some ratching loppers and garden pruners. (#affiliate link) Those old branches were about 3″ diameter so it worked ok. I had some problems when I tried cutting. There is some little pivot that you click when the jaws are open and need to latch down on the cutter, but I don’t get that. I am just not mechanical. So my husband handled the larger ones.
I did the clean up trimming of the smaller branches, going for an open center. There was one final branch that I think needs to come out and he doesn’t. What is your opinion? You can check out the branch in question on the video. It is at about 10:45 in the video if you want to check it out. I think it is clear that a woman’s opinion should be the deciding factor. Happy wife, happy life, right?
UPDATE: We moved away from this home before the spring bloom, but the small bush was just thick with branches and shoots for the leaves when we left in March 2018. I am sure it bloomed really well….Kim
Another update: I have seen the lilac bush with my own eyes this new season May 2019 and May 2020 and it is growing well over 6ft high and blossoming nicely. Rejuvenation works!
I just moved to my “downsizer” home and there are several VERY large (one is over 20’tall!) lilac bushes on the lot. I am brave enough to clutter them back but am curious what to do with all of the “shoots” or spreaders that have popped up around the base. They are between 6″-18″ tall and there are literally hundreds around the base of the very biggest of the bushes. Do you cut them down? Dig them out? Use weed killer on them?
You might be able to root them in soil to create a new bush. Otherwise I would just trim them off at the base to keep a pretty shape to your original lilac.
Hi Kim, just came across your write up on this. I’m looking to cut back a 100+ year old lilac bush (tree) in my yard. It was crowded to one side because of a neighbors tree which over grew it and began blocking its light, so its started to lean so far to one side that its nearly touching the ground on that side. I’ve let some sprouts pop up over the last couple years coming out of the giant gnarled and beautiful trunk, and I’m ready to cut back to a 3-4 foot tall platform and hoping that the shooters coming from that area can regrow. However I am a bit worried that cutting such giant branches off will be too much for it. Any advice on how we should do so, without killing these ancient bush?
If it is a 100 year old bush, I would hate to lose that shape. But any new branches growing should have new blooms. (Unless they have already bloomed this year.) I would love to have an ancient lilac like that!
Lilacs also won’t bloom if they have too much nitrogen. Mulch them with wood chips to adjust that.
That’s great tip for non-blooming lilacs. In my case, mine was blooming but the flowers we so high up, I couldn’t enjoy them. Needed to control the size of the total bush.
I just watched your video and it has made me realize I need to severely trim back some of my old lilacs. I did that to several forsythia bushes that had outgrown their space. I didn’t recognize the leaves on your variety of lilac. They looked closer to my forsythia bushes. My lilacs are the really old-fashioned kind (gifts from friends and relatives that have passed away) and the leaves are more heart-shaped.join
I watched your video and am encouraged to work on my overgrown lilac bushes. I had several overgrown forsythia bushes that I had to cut way back to curtail their growth as they had outgrown or should I say “overgrown” their space. I must say that I thought your bush looked more like my forsythia bushes than lilacs. I didn’t recognize the leaves at all. It must be a variety that I am not familiar with. Mine are the old fashioned kind and the leaves are almost heart-shaped.
How did it end up coming back?
It has come out nicely this spring. Lots of branches and should bloom well. But we just sold our home and have moved away, so I won’t get to see it bloom. 🙁
I have a lilac that doesn’t bloom for me. I think it needs more sun but I did not know that they bloom on new wood. Thanks for the great tip!
Hi Patti, So glad I could give you some info that you didn’t know. I was just out looking at the pitiful little bush and I was sort of surprised. It is really leafing out really well. Fingers crossed for spring.
My experience with cutting lilac way back is, they grow year 1, bloom year 2. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have blooms the first year.
I will cross my fingers for next spring, but it will probably be the following spring like you say.
I should do this to a few around here and we did a couple of years ago, but didn’t take them down near enough. I was afraid. They are very old an I would hate it if something happened to them. I’ll check yours out next Spring and see how they turn out! Happy Spring!
I took it down to about 12-15 inches. So drastic but it had to be done. If I can’t enjoy the blooms, this one needs to be fixed or replaced. Wish me luck.