The common purple lilac is a tough, reliable shrub that may reach a height of 15 to 20 feet. Unfortunately, as lilacs mature, the shaded lower portions of the shrubs usually lose their leaves. As a result, large, overgrown specimens are often leggy and unattractive. Old, neglected lilacs can be renewed or rejuvenated by pruning. Home gardeners can choose between two different pruning methods.
One way to renew a large, overgrown lilac is to cut the entire plant back to within 6 to 8 inches of the ground in late winter (March or early April). This severe pruning will induce a large number of shoots to develop during the growing season. In late winter of the following year, select and retain several strong, healthy shoots to form the shrub framework and remove all the others at ground level. Head (cut) back the retained shoots to just above a bud to encourage branching.
A second way to prune old lilacs is to cut back the overgrown shrubs over a three-year period. Begin the procedure by removing one-third of the large, old stems at ground level in late winter. The following year (again in late winter), prune out one-half of the remaining old stems. Also, thin out some of the new growth. Retain several well-spaced, vigorous stems and remove all the others. Finally, remove all of the remaining old wood in late winter of the third year. Additional thinning of the new shoots should also be done. Since lilac wood needs to be 3 or more years of age before it blooms, this pruning method should allow you to enjoy flowers every spring.
When properly pruned, an old, overgrown lilac can be transformed into a vigorous attractive shrub within a few years. Once rejuvenated, pruning should be a regular part of the maintenance program for lilacs. The shrub can be kept healthy and vigorous by removing a few of the oldest branches every 3 to 5 years.-
This article originally appeared in the February 10, 1993 issue, p. 8.