Growing Lilac in Your Backyard: Plant Care Tips

Attract butterflies, bees, and birds with easy-to-grow lilac.

Lilac Flowering. Lilac Bush Bloom.
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Lilacs are such a bright spot in spring, serving as a reminder to us that warmer days are ahead. If you are approaching a garden or neighborhood with blooming lilacs, you’re sure to smell them before you see them. The tiny flower clusters pack a powerful and sweet punch of fragrance that can fill a yard or room, even if you only have a single cut flower. 

Growing lilacs in your backyard is fairly simple. This is a forgiving, easy-to-grow shrub; once it's established, it is quite low-maintenance thrive. In addition to its popularity among gardeners, lilac is a good nectar source for pollinators like hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Plus, it offers nice year-round habitat for birds. Here, we dive into how to get lilacs to grow and thrive in your garden.

Botanical name  Syringa vulgaris
Common name  Lilac, lilac bush, common lilac 
Plant type Perennial
Size  8-15' tall
Sun exposure  Full sun to partial shade
Soil type  Well-drained and loamy
Soil pH  Neutral
Flower color  Lavender, blue, white, burgundy, yellow, shades of purple
Hardiness zones  3-7
Native area  Europe
Toxicity Non-toxic

How to Plant Lilacs

For a faster route to blooms, start with a healthy lilac shrub from your local garden store that is a few years old. It might cost you a bit more to buy an established shrub, but since these plants don’t start blooming until they are three or four years old, it may be worth the investment. 

Plant lilacs in the fall or the spring in a location that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Dig a hole slightly deeper and wider than the pot the shrub comes in. Then, cover with topsoil and organic matter. Water thoroughly, especially early on while the plant is getting established.

If planting multiple lilacs in one area, space them at least 5 feet apart. Remember to check the labels of all particular lilac cultivars that you buy. Each can vary in size, so this will help you know exactly how far to space them out.

If you like a more budget-friendly challenge, you can start lilacs with a cutting from a sucker or offshoot. Just put it directly in soil (either in the ground or potted) and wait. While this is a slower process overall, you'll have an established shrub after a couple of years. Then within four or five years, you should have blooms.  

Lilac Plant Care

Two of the most important steps when growing lilacs is planting in a good location (remember: at least 6 hours of sunlight) and in well-draining soil. For a low-maintenance lilac plan, add organic matter to your plant at least once a year, along with a top layer of mulch. This will give plants natural nutrients while also helping keep weeds away. 

If you live in an area with little rainfall or you go through a drought in summer, give your lilac some extra water. Otherwise, you shouldn’t need to do much else to maintain it. Some people like to add fertilizer in winter, but it’s not a must-have. 

If your lilac isn’t blooming, first assess its age and the overall lighting for the area. If it gets ample sunshine and it’s a mature shrub, check with a local gardening expert or your master gardener’s group to see if they can help.

Common Pests and Diseases

The three biggest concerns with lilacs include slugs, snails, and powdery white mildew. With bug and insect pests, your best bet is an organic control system. Try to notice them as soon as possible and then pick them off by hand.

For powdery mildew, it actually looks worse than it really is. This condition commonly forms during or at the end of a hot and humid summer. We recommend ignoring it as it’s overall pretty harmless.

For other concerns, take pictures. This can help a lot with a diagnosis.

Lilac Varieties

Lilac blossom background
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There are so many great lilacs on the market today. You can find dwarf varieties like the Bloomerang that only reach 4-5 feet. There are also different colors available. Wedgewood Blue is a cultivar with blue hues, while Primrose has yellow flowers, and Madame Lemoine features white blooms. In addition, some people look for cultivars that have a really good fragrance. Yankee Doodle, for instance, has deep purple flowers and a strong, beautiful smell. 

You can find dozens of lilacs on the market today. Your local garden center is also a good resource if you are looking for suggestions for cultivars that will work for your specific soil conditions and regional needs.

How to Prune Lilacs

If your lilac blooms less, produces smaller flowers, or looks a bit ragged, it might be time to give it new life through pruning.

There’s a whole art and science behind pruning lilacs. To start, the best time to prune them is right after they bloom in the spring; this is because they bloom on old wood, which helps you see what you should and shouldn’t trim. You can prune in late summer or fall, but be aware that you could be trimming away future blooms. 

Lilacs for Wildlife

Growing lilacs can do a lot to support backyard wildlife. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds love these nectar-producing flowers. And even after blooms have faded, lilacs still have an important role. They serve as host plants for swallowtails, meaning the birds use them to lay their eggs. Lilacs are also spaces for shelter for birds and a great food source for beneficial insects.