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Mid-Atlantic Gardening: Before and After: Trimming Lilacs

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Renovate and rejuvenate old lilac shrubs by trimming them for three consecutive years.


Drama abounds in the garden, from magic beanstalk seeds that rocket skyward to moonflowers that unfurl before your eyes. I staged my own drama recently with some shrub pruning.

A row of ancient, untended lilacs perches atop a hill in my yard, providing privacy, a pretty view, and a hideout for local birds. It's possible to renovate old lilacs through pruning. A quick method is to cut all stems in late fall down to 12 to 18 inches and wait for new growth to emerge the next season.


Because this shrub row provides privacy, I didn't want to prune the hedge to the ground, so I tackled renovation, or rejuvenation pruning. With this method, each year for three consecutive years, right after flowering, you remove one third of older stems. Last year I pruned extensive dead growth and branches growing at strange angles out of the hillside.

This year I aimed to prune the tallest growth along with a newly dead branch.


My friend Steven came to help. When pruning a shrub row, it's easier to work with a partner, so one person can stand back and direct the cutting - and gather and bundle pruned limbs. I gathered my pruning tools: leather gloves, hacksaw, loppers, hand pruners and folding pruning saw.


My favorite loppers are Fiskars PowerGear bypass loppers, which multiply cutting power, slicing through 2-inch-thick branches like soft butter.


We used the hacksaw on bigger branches (4-inch diameter), first making cuts in an easy-to-reach spot to remove tall, leafy branches and then shortening the same branch to 12 to 18 inches.

white flowers

We also removed seedling butternut trees and blackberries sprouting among lilac stems.

after pruning

The after-pruning view shows a much shorter hedge, and I've since removed the tallest branches we missed on the far left end.


I'm also slowly thinning suckers that emerged along main trunks as a result of storm damage years ago.

What drama are you directing in your garden?

View my before-and-after lilac shrub pruning video.