Gardening

No Need to Prune Freshly Transplanted Lilacs 

Question 

Last fall, I transplanted some lilacs from a friend’s yard. In the spring, new leaves appeared, but only on the tips of the branches. It is now past time for pruning lilacs, but I didn’t dare do it. There would have been hardly any leaves left! What should I have done? 

Danielle Nolin, Quebec 

Answer 

We gardeners have this unfortunate habit of always wanting to prune things, but in fact, pruning is rarely necessary. In the case of the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), which is almost certainly the one you dug up, there are essentially three kinds of pruning you could do, none of which is absolutely necessary. And most certainly, none applies to a lilac planted less than a year ago. The only pruning such a young plant might possibly need would be removing any dead branches that occur.  

3 Types of Pruning

Here are the 3 types of pruning lilacs may need and when to apply them.  

Pruning lilac flower or deadheading
Deadheading lilacs is essentially unnecessary. Photo: ww.thriftyfun.com.

Deadheading: pruning faded flowers

Deadheading sounds dramatic, mais simply means removing faded flowers. That will be unnecessary in your case, because your lilac is unlikely to have bloomed yet. You can expect the first blooms when it is about 4 to 7 years old. This kind of pruning is popular with many gardeners, as it fulfills our need to prune something. Anything! However, it’s not terribly useful. In fact, even the International Lilac Society admits that this popular practice is essentially useless.  

In theory, it’s mainly done to “stimulate better flowering the following year” by keeping the plant from going to seed. The idea is to cut back the flower spikes before they start to produce seed capsules. However, whether you remove the seeds or not, lilacs all tend to follow a major flowering season with a weak one. So, deadheading really doesn’t improve bloom. The removal of faded flowers is therefore strictly a matter of aesthetic concern, for those who find the seed pods unpleasant to the eye. 

If you insist on doing it, you must remove the flowers in June, immediately after flowering. That’s the pruning you were concerned about. August is indeed far too late now. But again, this doesn’t even apply to your baby lilacs. They didn’t bloom and you can’t deadhead a plant that doesn’t bloom! Simple!

Renewal Pruning 

Pruning a lilac with a handsaw
Remove older branches to make room for younger ones. Photo: www.finegardening.com.

As for renewal pruning, this is done by removing the oldest branches every two or three years to make room for the youngest. You would do this to well-established lilacs, not young ones like yours. Your lilac won’t need renewal pruning before at least four or five years. 

Pruning an old lilac with a chainsaw
Rejuvenation pruning is done on very old lilacs. Photo: www.russelltreeexperts.com

Rejuvenation Pruning 

The same is true rejuvenation pruning, where very old lilacs are cut down almost to the ground to stimulate recovery from the base. These two prunings can be practiced in any season … but a freshly transplanted young lilac absolutely does not need them. 


So, just let your young lilac grow on its own for the moment. Any pruning is many years further in the future! 

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

2 comments on “No Need to Prune Freshly Transplanted Lilacs 

  1. Goodness! I hope to never use rejuvenation pruning, although I would if I ever work with a very old and neglected lilac. Thorough and annual renewal pruning, which I refer to as ‘alternating canes’, eliminates old growth before it gets too old. Of course and unfortunately, such procedures as rejuvenation pruning become necessary. I have done it for forsythia and mock orange. I really did not want to do it for the forsythia, and ruin the bloom for the following season, but it was so much more efficient, and worked out very well. Now, I can just maintain it with annual renewal pruning.
    When I split and plug rooted bits from lilac, which I might do this winter, I find that there is no need for pruning. I just let the new plugs do what they want during the first year, since extending roots is their priority. I would do the same for new plugs of many types of plants. If possible, I like to let them go without pruning the following year also, since it is the new canes that will bloom in spring. I might prune out the original stem that came with the plug though. Some people prefer to prune them and forsythia after bloom, to allow the old stems to bloom for one last time. I suppose that I should do that also, but I prefer to prune during dormancy. It seems to be less offensive.
    Some bare root plants should be pruned after installation during winter. Many bare root trees come with extra branches to compensate for those that will be damaged during transport, and also to provide more options in regard to structure pruning. Some people like to prune their fruit trees up higher, while others prefer low branches. They are variable though. Some peach and nectarine trees come with a lot of extra growth. Mayhaws that I have gotten are so dinky that I just let them grow without pruning for the first year.

  2. Appreciate this, as we planted two miniature lilacs last spring. It’s been a tough summer for them, but they seem established. Though they’re Proven Winners, surprisingly little was offered as to future care or flowering.

    Another reason I subscribed! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: