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Planting and Growing Lilacs

For four to six weeks each spring, we find ourselves swooning over lilacs. There is little doubt about why lilacs are known as the symbol of first love with their intoxicating fragrance and romantic blooming plumes.

It’s hard not to fall head over heels as they return each year, filling in the air with their sweet aroma, attracting beneficial pollinators, and boasting a display of unmatched colors of pinks, whites, purple, magenta, lilac, and even bicolored.

Lilacs make lovely cut flowers, their blossoms are often used in dyes and perfumes, and many may not even know that these fragrant bloomers are edible!  Follow our guide on planting and growing lilacs so you too can stop and smell the flowers and fall in love with these gorgeous shrubs.

bushes of spring flowering purple lilac.

Ideal Soil Composition & pH for Growing Lilacs

Lilac bushes prefer fertile, loamy soil that is well-draining. When planting and growing lilacs, amend your native soil with plenty of organic matter and well-decomposed compost.

Lilac plants grow best when the soil is slightly acidic to slightly alkaline, with the target being between 6.5 and 7.0 on the pH scale. The shrubs may not thrive if the pH is either too low or too high, as this may impact how readily available the essential nutrients are for the plant.

If you are unsure of your soil quality or pH, visit your local extension office with a soil sample.  The experts will test your soil, give you the breakdown of what soil you have, and suggest what soil amendments are necessary for peak growing performance.

Light & Temperature Needs of Lilac Bushes

Plant lilac bushes in full sun, where they will receive a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Inadequate sunlight will lead to non-blooming shrubs. They may also bend over and stretch themselves awkwardly in search of the sun, distorting the plant and crowding out its neighbors in the garden.

Butterflies flies to a blossoms lilac flowers.

How to Plant Lilacs

Plan to plant lilac bushes in the spring or, more preferably, in the early fall. Shrubs can be purchased at your local nursery or garden center or can be transplanted from suckers or offshoots from other plants. Be patient when growing lilacs. Lilac bushes can take three to five years or more to bloom, but they will be well worth the wait.

Planting Lilac Bushes:

  • Dig a hole two times the root ball’s diameter and a little bit deeper than its container depth.
  • Take the plant out of the container and gently spread its roots to loosen up its root memory.
  • If your lilac bush is wrapped in burlap, cut the burlap away from the plant before planting.
  • Set the plant so that the root ball is two to four inches below the soil surface.
  • Work well-decomposed compost around the root system.
  • Water the plant in well.
  • Lastly, backfill the hole with more compost and topsoil and tamp in gently.

How Much Space Do Lilacs Need to Grow?

Ensure your planting area has lots of room for lilacs to grow and flourish. Lilacs can grow from 15 to 25 feet tall with a spread of six to fifteen feet, depending on the variety. Be sure to allow at least six feet between shrubs when planting more than one lilac tree and keep trees and shrubs pruned.

How to Water Lilacs

Lilacs grow best in moist soil that drains away quickly. When planting and growing lilacs, it is essential to know that they do not like to have wet feet and can be prone to root rot if allowed to sit in soggy soil. Consistently water lilac shrubs and trees until they are established, maintaining an evenly moist soil. After lilac trees have moderately matured, they do not need to be watered unless a drought is present.

Blossoming purple lilacs in the spring.

How to Grow Lilacs

When planting and growing lilacs, amend your soil with plenty of rich, organic material before planting.  Well-decomposed compost, decomposed forest materials, worm castings, and manure keep lilac shrubs well-nourished.

Feed your lilac trees and shrubs with a fertilizer that is specifically formulated for acid-loving plants once a year in early spring. Avoid fertilizers that are heavy in nitrogen, as this will promote leaf production over blooms.

Pruning Lilac Bushes

Pruning promotes vigorous flowering, keeps shrubs shapely, and ensures that branches receive adequate air circulation, limiting disease. Lilac blooms are produced on old wood, so it’s best to prune branches back right after bloom time in late spring, taking off no more than 1/3 of each branch.

Pruning later in the year will likely mean that you are pruning away newly set buds for next year’s flowering. It is also beneficial to snip away spent blooms before they go to seed. This will encourage more bloom production next spring.

Regularly pruning after bloom time will keep lilac trees and shrubs looking and performing optimally. Try not to prune lilac bushes aggressively, or you could halt bloom production for a couple of years until the plant recovers.

Recommended Lilac Varieties to Grow

With so many lilac shrub varieties to choose from, it can be challenging to pick just one.  When planting and growing lilacs, you really can’t go wrong with any of these showstopping fragrant bloomers.  They will all put on a display early to mid-spring, producing long canes of rich color and a memorable aroma.

  • Sensation‘ – Produces gorgeous bicolor canes of deep purple with white edges.
  • Angel White‘ – Produces plumes of tiny white flowers which grow well in mild winter regions.
  • Edward J. Gardner‘ – Produces double pink blooms later in the spring than other varieties.
  • Donald Wyman‘ – Produces pinking purple blooms which intense fragrance which attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

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