How to cut lilacs correctly - all types of cuts in the tutorial

How to cut lilacs correctly - all types of cuts in the tutorial

Many types of cut - one goal: this is how lilacs stay beautiful and blooming

Lilacs are characterized by a lavish spring bloom and legendary longevity. The valuable blossom wood remains vital for up to 20 years. Uncut, the lilac bush and lilac tree lose their harmonious shape, older branches age and twigs inside die off. Ultimately, the neglected lilac becomes bald and presents itself in the outer area with unsightly branches that have few small panicles of flowers. With a cut care at the right time you counteract this process. The following table summarizes all types of cuts with recommended dates:

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Cut typeGoal / occasionbest date
Plant cut shrubdense branching from the approachafter planting or the following spring
Top cut shrubBring up harmonious shrub shapefirst to third year
Parenting treeLilac tree raise with an even crownFebruary to early March
Cleaning upWell-groomed appearance, prevent seed formationat the end of the flowering period
Clearance cutThinning out dead wood and unfavorable shootsFebruary to early March
Taper cutRevitalize aged lilacsNovember to the end of February

With the exception of removing dead flowers, we recommend early spring as the best time for pruning. The reason for this date recommendation is the growth behavior. Lilac is already budding the next year during its current flowering period. A vigorous pruning after the flowering period destroys most of the freshly created buds. Leaves and shoots are no longer expected to grow in summer, not to mention the next year's flowering period. If you cut in the spring before the flowering period, buds will also fall victim to the scissors. However, by this time they are swollen and clearly visible or have already been expelled, which allows a targeted incision. Last but not least, when scheduling profound cutting measures such as thinning and tapering,the legislature has a word to say.


Thinning and rejuvenating lilacs is subject to a statutory time limit

Lilac bushes and lilac trees are popular places for native birds and feathered summer visitors to nest in the densely leafy branches. The Federal Nature Conservation Act has strictly regulated pruning measures on hedges and trees so that the breeding business remains undisturbed. Thinning and rejuvenation is allowed from October 1st to February 28th, provided that there are no overwintering wild animals in the wood. During the grace period from March 1st to September 30th, the legislature permits light maintenance cuts, such as cleaning out withered inflorescences. Violations result in a fine of up to 50,000 euros.

Plant pruning prevents bare shrub bases

The best time to plant for bare-root, inexpensive lilacs is in autumn. For young shrubs in containers, the time window for planting is open all year round, provided that it is not freezing. Regardless of when and how you plant lilacs in the ground, you can get a strong branching at the base going with the following pruning:

  • Bare roots: cut off damaged roots, cut back all shoots by half
  • Container goods: cut shoots by a third, remove weak, kinked twigs
  • Result: failure of the first flowering period, in return strong shoots at the base of the plant

Home gardeners thirsting for knowledge wonder why the reaction of the lilac shrub to the pruning can be reliably predicted. One of the three fundamental growth laws justifies a reliable forecast. According to the Top Promotion Act, growth from top buds is significantly stronger than from buds arranged below. This applies equally to the plant per se and its individual shoots. If you cut off buds with a tip position when pruning, the lower-lying buds take over this function. Thereupon the sap pressure increases and causes a strong budding.

Build up a well-formed lilac bush - this is how it works

The plant cut gives the floral initial spark. With a build-up cut in the following two to three years, you will guide the growth of your lilac bush towards a harmonious shape. The figure below illustrates the incision measures and manual intervention on the rhizome. This is how the construction cut works:

  • The best time is from February to early March
  • Real-root and refined lilacs: raise with 5 to 7 scaffold shoots
  • Real-root shrub: select vital ground shoots, tear out excess ground shoots
  • Grafted shrub: Determine the shoots above the grafting point for the framework, tear out all the shoots below the grafting point

Please do not cut back the scaffold shoots under any circumstances, because they carry the buds for further growth and the flowers. If a flowering period is coming to an end during the multi-year development phase, cut off withered panicles. Apply the scissors a short distance from an outward-facing bud.

Cut lilac

Raising a lilac tree - it's that easy

Modified pruning is required if you are raising a young plant to become a lilac tree. Well-trained tall trunks from the hand of the master gardener hit the books with prices of 50 euros and more. Since splendid noble lilacs, such as 'In memory of Ludwig Späth', can be acquired as real-root young plants, ambitious home gardeners carry out the training themselves. A young shrub with a strong central shoot offers the perfect starting position. This is how it works:

  • Tie the central drive to a stable support rod
  • Remove competing shoots growing out of the ground and all side shoots
  • Guide the central shoot as the future trunk on the support rod to the desired height
  • Cut off the stem tip when it is 3 pairs of buds above the desired crown height
  • Build up the crown from four to five strong side branches
  • Remove all other branches and rival shoots

A lilac tree is just as decorative if it is raised as a small tree with two to four trunks around a raised central trunk. This version is recommended if the gem is presented in the middle of a spacious park. In practice, the lilac high stem has emerged as the ideal form of education for the small garden and in the tub.


Do not cut your lilac just anywhere, but precisely just above an outward-facing pair of buds. With this pruning technique you show the growth of new shoots the right way. Apply the scissors at a maximum distance of 5 millimeters from the opposite buds or leaves. Do not leave a long stub or cut into the leaf nodes. Your lilac will thank you for the careful cut with a healthy, vital shoot.

Clean up withered flowers for a well-groomed appearance

Once the structure and upbringing have been completed, the pruning ends with annual cleaning of withered flower panicles. Home gardeners primarily use the method to give the withered lilac a neat appearance. To what extent the measure then invests more energy in the bud formation is controversial among experts. Since you run the risk of destroying buds that have already been created when you clean it out, please proceed with caution.

As the illustration below shows, cut just below a withered flower panicle. Choose an outward-facing pair of buds as the starting point for the scissors. Branches sprouting from it make your lilac appear voluminous and do not cast shadows inside.

Lilac withered

The clearing cut keeps the bush and tree crown vital

On the skilfully trained lilac bush and lilac tree, pruning is limited to cleaning out wilted inflorescences for many years. Wherever the ornamental wood feels good, it gives you vital blossom wood for up to 20 years. However, if there is ever reason to complain about a lilac that is rotten or balding, a thinning cut solves the problem. How to proceed professionally:

  • The best time is in late winter until the end of February / beginning of March
  • Lilac shrub: thinning out aged ground shoots on 5 cm short cones
  • Lilac tree: Free the crown of dead wood and unfavorably growing branches

As the illustration below illustrates, cut off old scaffold shoots just above the ground on the real-root lilac bush. If it is a grafted lilac bush, cut above the grafting point. Choose promising, young ground shoots as a substitute and remove all weak and unfavorable wood.

It is important to note the cut on astring when cutting out the crown of the lilac tree. Do you feel compelled to thin out an old leading instinct? Then position the saw so that the small bead between the branch and the trunk is not damaged. If you cannot see an astring, please avoid cutting into the trunk bark.

Lilac cutout


Better to pull out wild shoots

The most beautiful lilac varieties are grafted onto the rhizome of the wild species. The base demonstrates its vigor through the vehement sprouting of wild shoots. The shoots can usually be recognized by a different leaf shape and larger leaf spacing (internodes). With rapid growth, the shoots known as water shoots strive to overgrow the precious part and to rob it of its nutrient supply. Follow wild shoots promptly throughout the year. If you notice a splash of water, tear it off with a brave jerk. The less residual tissue remains on the root runners, the lower the risk that a wild shoot will shoot up again there.

Rejuvenate the lilac bush properly - step-by-step instructions

If an old lilac bush is only vaguely reminiscent of its legendary spring splendor, you can rejuvenate it. The radical type of pruning has the best chance of success in late winter, shortly before the start of growth. By choosing a date, you are also complying with the provisions of the Federal Nature Conservation Act, as the grace period begins on March 1st. How to revitalize an aged lilac bush:

  • Cut off one to two thirds of the soil shoots that have grown old on short cones near the ground
  • Remaining scaffold shoots divert to a lower, young side branch
  • In the late winter that follows, build up strong, outward-facing ground shoots as a new framework
  • Ideally, tear off all remaining shoots from the root stock and do not cut them off

Do old scaffolding shoots have no young side branches to derive from? In this case, cut all shoots back to different cutting heights of 20 to 80 centimeters in February, as shown in the illustration below. Then fertilize with ripe compost and horn shavings, (€ 6.39 at Amazon *) to force growth. Allow the revitalized lilac bush until next February to start rebuilding with the 5 to 7 most promising ground shoots.

Lilac taper cut

Rejuvenate the old lilac tree in stages - this is how you do it right

If a lilac tree remains uncut for many years, a densely branched crown with numerous, thick leading branches forms. Typical symptoms of a very advanced life cycle are noticeably smaller leaves and flowers as well as progressive baldness of the crown from the inside out. The older and more majestic a lilac tree, the more carefully you should be working. Spread the rejuvenation over at least three years. Do not just saw off thick, old branches in one go. How to do it right:

  • The best time is during the deciduous period between November and February
  • Do not remove more than one or two old crown branches each year
  • First saw at a distance of 40 cm from the actual cut to the middle of the branch
  • Move the saw 10 to 20 cm to the right or left
  • Saw until the branch breaks through
  • Saw off remaining stump on astring

Branches of the crown that you do not remove on Astring are given a dissipation cut. Select a strong side shoot, where the old main shoot and young wood fork, set the saw. The previous side shoot acts as the new main shoot after the cut. To accompany the regeneration stages, fertilize the lilac tree with 3 liters of compost and 200 grams of horn shavings per square meter of tree grate. Rake in the fertilizer lightly and pour more.


Lilac tree controls wound healing on its own

By following these instructions and sawing off thick, old branches step by step and on astring, you will initiate the internal healing of wounds. If larger cuts occur in woody trees, tissue that can divide (cambium) is exposed, which is located just below the bark. The cambium then changes into a bead of initially undifferentiated cells, the so-called wound wood (callus). The open wound is gradually covered by callus. This process aims to seal off dying wood from healthy wood over the long term. Interventions on the part of the gardener by sealing a cut wound with tree wax, (5.99 € at Amazon *) significantly impede the healing process.

Hard wood requires stable cutting tools - tips for scissors and saws

Lilac wood is assigned to the hard to very hard woods. Shoots, branches and trunks are therefore just as strong and resistant as the wood of elder or firethorn. Furthermore, lilac wood has a reputation for splitting and tearing open quickly when fresh, undried, which increases the risk of disease and pest infestation. The conventional secateurs from the cheap supplier are hardly up to the requirements. Instead, choose the cutting tool for your lilac based on the following criteria:

  • Shoots up to 1.5 cm in diameter: one-hand scissors with bypass mechanism for smooth cuts
  • Branches up to 3 cm in diameter: one-handed pruning shears with ratchet gears for increased strength
  • Branches up to 4 cm in diameter and up to 3 meters high: two-hand loppers with telescopic arms
  • Branches from 4.5 cm in diameter: manual or electric tree saw, optionally as a pruner up to 4 meters high

Shears for pruning trees are usually available from specialist retailers with a bypass or anvil mechanism. Anvil scissors work with a sharp blade and a blunt counterpart, which reduces the effort required. A disadvantage is that the drive can be squeezed between the blade and anvil. Since lilac wood tends to splinter, we recommend bypass scissors. This works with two sharp blades that cut through the hard wood smoothly.

frequently asked Questions

Is lilac poisonous?

Lilac dispenses with defense strategies such as stinging hairs, thorns or razor-sharp leaf edges. In order to defend itself against its enemies, the ornamental wood relies on poisonous ingredients. There is a toxic glycoside called syringin in leaves, flowers, roots and bark. Furthermore, the lilac bush and lilac tree are permeated by health-threatening alkaloids and essential oils. Consumption can cause nausea and vomiting. Skin contact causes allergic reactions in sensitive people. Fragrance allergy sufferers experience breathing difficulties in the vicinity of lilac.

Our wild and noble lilacs have grown well and have bloomed before. Unfortunately, the bushes are only sparsely branched. Can pruning fix the problem?

Like all woody plants, wild and noble lilacs also strive persistently in the direction of sunlight with their growth. The branching in the lower part of the bush is neglected. In the coming spring, cut back all shoots by a third or half. The cut causes a jam on the lower buds, which then sprout vigorously. The flower buds are lost for the next flowering period. The effect on the branching at the base of the bush is of course permanent.

I have read that a lilac bush forms extensive runners. How can I prevent roads or buildings from being damaged?

You will keep the growth of runners in check if you line the pit with a root barrier when planting. This is rot-proof, impenetrable tissue. It is important to note that the root barrier extends at least 50 centimeters deep, is laid without gaps and protrudes 5 to 10 centimeters above the ground so that brazen lilac roots do not overgrow the barrier.

My lilac tree was in the wrong location for a few years and has developed an uneven shape. I have now transplanted it to a better, sunny place this autumn. When and how can I cut the lilac?

Autumn is the perfect time to transplant an awkwardly placed lilac tree. This is also the best date for a regulatory cut back. Since a lot of root volume is lost when moving, you restore the balance between underground and above-ground growth at the same time. Shorten all shoots by at least a third and water regularly so that your lilac tree takes root quickly.

Chinese lilac is my favorite because it doesn't form any annoying runners. Is the shrub suitable as a privacy hedge? When did the hedge reach its final height of around 3 meters?

In fact, Chinese lilac (Syringa chinensis) thrives without invasive runners. With this characteristic, it is very popular with home gardeners for the blooming privacy hedge. Thanks to their rapid growth, the shrubs have reached a height of 160 to 180 centimeters within 5 years and offer decorative privacy protection in summer. It usually takes 10 years to reach the final height of 200 to 300 centimeters. The prerequisite for the forecast is that you limit the maintenance of the cut to one clearing cut.

The 3 most common mistakes

Misunderstandings in pruning leave a blossomless or prematurely aged lilac. Sometimes the gardener is overzealous when it comes to rejuvenation and struggles with the total failure of a plant that can naturally live to be more than 100 years old. To save you from such mishaps, the following table lists the 3 most common cutting errors by name and gives tips for prevention.

Cutting errorsDamageprevention
strong pruning after the flowering periodFailure of the next flowering period, little or no shoot growthSimply clean off after flowering
never exposedmany dead branches, baldness from the inside, few flowersthinning every 2 to 3 years in spring
old lilacs put on the stick in a trainTotal failure of a shrub or treeRejuvenate aged lilacs in stages

Lilac flowers are in great demand as vase jewelry. A common mistake when cutting vases leaves gaps in the appearance of the shrub or crown. Please do not cut the tips of scaffolding shoots or crown guide branches for the vase. Side branches that are unfavorable anyway are better suited.



Don't you feel like struggling with an aged or bald lilac tree? Then cut out one or two beautiful bouquets for the vase from the crown or bush during the flowering period. You get a fragrant flower arrangement for your home and effectively prevent premature aging.