the lilac hedge fail.

First things first, I picked three names to win some Touring cards from Monday’s post.  Congrats to Mary (Moore), Wendy and Melanie!

Now, on with today’s post.


Since I seem to usually share only my successes with you guys, today I decided to share a failure, my lilac hedge.  I just thought I’d keep it real and let you all know that not everything I do turns out well.

When we bought our house 28 years ago or so, there was an unruly hedge along the back property line.  I have no idea what kind of shrub it was, it didn’t flower or look pretty in any way whatsoever. It did however provide tons of privacy.  We could barely see any of the houses behind us.  In fact, in over 20 years I had never even met the lovely woman who owns the house just behind me.  This photo gives you some idea of how it looked back there behind the photo cottage.  It was tall and full, but also very straggly and unkempt.

old hedge

After many years of trying to prune it into some sort of shape, I finally gave up and we pulled it all out.  That year I met Claudia, whom I now secretly call the ‘neighbor behind the hedge’, and realized that she’s a lovely person and had lived back behind there the whole time!

I have to admit though, as soon as we pulled the hedge out I got a sick feeling in my stomach.  I felt like we had exposed ourselves to the world.  What was once a private oasis was now a wide open view of suburbia.  Ugh.  But I knew that I had to start somewhere with a new hedge and I reminded myself that gardening takes a lot of patience.  I told myself that it would only take 3 or 4 years before we had some privacy again.

I decided to put in lilacs.  I wanted something that would flower, and also something that would grow just as large as the last hedge.  I also wanted something old fashioned and not too formal or fussy.  Lilacs seemed like the perfect choice.  This all took place b.b. (before blog), so I wasn’t thinking about how lovely they are to photograph, but that has been a bonus.

lilacs 2

I selected a few different lilac hybrids for my hedge, some really dark purple, some pale pink, some more of a wine color.

lilac 3

I planted them as per instructions and initially they did well, but of course were short and spaced rather far apart.  After their first winter, I had a couple of shoots that died off.  I cut them back in the spring and kept hoping for lots of new growth.  But then the next winter I had more branches that died off.  I cut those back, and now my plants were fairly misshapen.  I continued to hope that they would fill in during year 3.  You know the adage, first year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap.

Unfortunately I am now on year five and my hedge looks likes this …

lilac hedge

It is not a pretty sight and it certainly isn’t giving me any privacy.  This past winter even more branches died back, and the plants on either end of the hedge are almost completely dead.

The branches that are still alive are covered in flowers though!

lilacs 4

I need to decide what to do at this point.  Do I attempt to prune them properly again this year and see if I can get them to fill out?  Do I replace the dead ones on the ends with new lilacs?  Or do I try something different like some Limelight hydrangeas or maybe a Viburnum?

I hate to give up on them when they provide such lovely flowers for furniture photos shoots!

lilac 6

But they sure aren’t living up to my expectations.

If any of you have any lilac advice, I am all ears.


23 thoughts on “the lilac hedge fail.

  1. My only experience with lilacs was when I lived in Montana. There was a bush next to a corner of the house already established when we moved in and fairly large. I enjoyed cutting the blooms to bring inside. My stay there was short lived one year. Being a southern gal, even though I loved living in the west, I got homesick fast. All that to say I am no help to you on this subject. They do not grow in the south where I understand they need a colder climate in the winter than we have here. However I did see one for sale last week at Walmart. Do forsythia grow there? They are beautiful when they bloom in the spring and they green for the summer. Of course with hydrangeas you will get continuous blooms for the entire summer which would be great for your photo shoots. With Chinese snowball your bloom time is also limited to 4 to 6 weeks. Good luck with your decision. Gardening is a study in patience.


    1. Forsythia does grow here, but I’m not a big fan of yellow. As for hydrangeas, I think it’s only your Southern varieties that bloom continuously. Although the Endless Summer hydrangeas promised to bloom all summer, the reality with mine is that I get only 4 to 5 blooms a year (if I’m lucky). The Limelights don’t start blooming until late summer, but once they kick in they are gorgeous for the rest of the season. I do already have 8 hydrangeas though, so maybe I need to go with something different. Decisions, decisions!


  2. I have always loved lilacs! When I was a kid the lady next door to us had a thick, tall hedge of lilac in all different colors – oh the smell in the spring when that hedge was flowering was intoxicating.
    I am so happy that a neighbor let me rip some shoots out of his hedge and plant them into my yard. I put them right outside a porch window and now have their scent inside on sunny days.
    I will caution you with the viburnum… I planted a hedge of Mohican Viburnum along the front walk of my house and although they have grown vigorously and made a lovely hedge – they smell bad – honestly when they get damp they smell like poop, literally. I cannot tell you the number of times I have wandered around my yard looking for piles only to realize its the darned hedge! Since you are planting far enough from the house it might not be a problem for your yard.
    good luck!


    1. Hmmmm. That sounds rather unpleasant. Although the spot where I’m going to put it is where I once had a compost bin. So I know from experience that the smell won’t be too much of an issue 😉


      1. Whoa glad she shared that I was considering some viburnums for my front yard. I might have to reconsider shoot they are so lovely.


  3. Maybe ask a knowledgeable gardener based on soil conditions. We have poor, sandy soil but our lilacs are doing well! I always ask my friend, the professional gardener, for advice based on my soil. And the wisteria is out of control too. These two plants must like sand.


  4. Hmm, not sure why your lilacs are not thriving as they are fairly easy to grow. I’ve even just cut branches and re-planted them with great success. Are you in a planting zone appropriate for lilacs? I would just remove the dead branches since you are still getting some pretty blooms. I would plant some white hydrangeas in front of the lilacs. Snowball is one of my favourites. They have smaller heads than Endless Summer but are not short of blooms. This would hide some of the sparse space at the bottom and give you a layered effect. Good luck.


    1. I love that idea Mary! I’m not sure I have the space for hydrangeas in front of the lilacs, since I have a clothes line about 3′ away … but I wonder if I could come up with something just a bit smaller to use in that way. And yes, I’m definitely in the right zone for lilacs. They are everywhere around here! I’m eyeing everyone else’s blooming lilac hedges with envy this week.


  5. I live near Madison, so I’m relatively close to you zone-wise… in our first house, I planted 5 lilac bushes and they’re HUGE now… and at our current house, I have four planted— and one died, two are puny (and they’ve been growing for nearly a decade) and there’s ONE that has grown to a reasonable size for its age. And we just moved across town! I don’t get it either.
    One plant I have had INSANE luck with is a dappled willow. Oh my gosh those get big fast! The ends of them are the sweetest shade of pink. And the leaves are a gorgeous variegated white/green… I have two and I’m so glad I have them, even if I spend a couple hours every summer trimming one of them 🙂


    1. One thing that has occurred to me is that maybe these new hybrids that are being developed for the color of the flowers don’t grow as well as the old fashioned varieties. Do you remember if your original 5 (that are huge) were just run of the mill common lilacs?


  6. I am not an expert in growing lilacs. But I have never heard of them being referred to as a hedge shrub. My mothers always seemed to be better as an individual tee and mine at home is planted alone . Your winters are likely harsh and for a few years you might have needed to wrap them
    . They look a bit spindly now lol. Someone suggested adding a snowball tree and they look amazing along side a lilac. Many of the shrubs we buy are hybrids and when the grafted part becomes winter kill then they don’t revive. Just my two cents. Maybe I would pull a couple and do some other plantings in a new bed around it. Using a smaller hydrangea variety. Some peonies and Hostas. ? Your gardens always look wonderful in your posts so I am sure your next years Photo will be inspiring . By the way your garden posts are one of my favourites.


    1. First, you’re right … lilacs aren’t really a formal shaped hedge. But many people use them around here to create privacy by planting a row of them along the property line. They tend to grow nice and tall and fill in enough to give the perfect amount of privacy similar to a hedge. It takes a fair amount of space, as much as 6′ deep or so, but I do have that kind of space back there. Your explanation about the hybrids and grafted parts sounds like it might be the source of my problem! It does seem like it might be grafted parts that are succumbing to winter kill. I am starting to really like the idea of pulling out the nearly dead lilac on one end and adding a Snowball Viburnum in that spot. And maybe also filling in around the spindly lilacs with a more common variety of lilac.


  7. I love lilacs. When we lived in Ohio, we had some in our yard. They were young plants, but they bloomed beautifully. I miss them. Now, we are in North Carolina where it’s too hot for lilacs. Crape Myrtles are supposed to be the stand-in, but I don’t buy it! Nothing can take the place of lilacs. I hope you discover a solution to the problem and they survive.


  8. I’ve had mine for 20+ years. Originally planted little wands of meagerly rooted plants. I’ve ignored them all these years – no pruning unless you count cutting for bouquets. They are at least 16 feet high and prolific every year. I tried removing one because it was poorly placed – dug right down to the roots and it came back stronger than ever. Worst thing to do is coddle them. Like those boys you ignored in high school, they tried hardest to please. Zone 5 here.


    1. Bwa ha ha, love that analogy! This is exactly the experience I was expecting with my lilacs, put them in and they will grow. Preferably 16′ high! No coddling. That’s why I picked lilacs to begin with. But for some reason it’s just not happening that way for me!


  9. Because you are dealing with hybrids, pruning is absolutely necessary in order to get them to grow the way you want. I would suggest cutting them way back to about 2 1/2 ‘ to 3′ from the root and let them thicken up. Each year cut back a foot higher than the previous year until they really start to flourish and fill in. After that, it’s important to cut off any dead branches. Pruning should be done just after the flowering is over and the flowers have wilted. If you really don’t want to deal with all this, snowballs really are marvelous and require a little less work, but all bushes need to be pruned some to keep them healthy and looking their best. Once a bush is well-established, pruning is done by choosing branches here and there within the bush (maybe five branches) and cutting about 3’ from the root annually after flowering.


    1. Thank you so much for this comment Jan. I’m a little nervous about pruning them so far down, but I’m going to take your advice and go for it. They are flowering now, so as soon as they wilt I’ll get out the pruning shears.


  10. If you want the tall very fragrant flowers, buy Old Fashioned Lilacs. They are what we have all over Minneapolis. I have two Miss Kim bushes that took awhile, but are beautiful in front of our house. I trim the deadwood and all spent flowers off as soon as they’re done flowering. They have a small head but a sweet smell and prune to a nice shape.


    1. In hindsight, I think that is where I went wrong Pam. I was seduced by the gorgeous colors on these hybrids and now I’m paying the price! I think I might go get some old fashioned versions to fill in for 2 of mine that are mostly dead, and then I’ll prune the others as recommended by Jan. Hopefully I’ll see some improvements for next year!


  11. I’m not sure this is relevant to what you are experiencing…but lilacs should not be pruned in the spring…but only after they’ve produced their spring show. I know you mentioned only that you cut dead branches off in the spring. Lilacs produce buds in the fall for their spring growth. I think they are flowering beautifully, though. I would give them time and plant something in front.


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