Lilacs evoke strong nostalgia for anyone who grew up smelling them on the breeze in their grandmother’s garden, and indeed, the lilac (Syringa spp.) is among the most venerable and toughest of old-fashioned garden plants. Although they look their best when well cared for, they will continue to grow and flower even when neglected. Sometimes a lilac owner will want to move this spring-flowering shrub to a different location, which is a relatively easy task with a bit of advance planning.
Sometimes called French lilacs because hundreds of cultivars resulted from the enthusiastic breeding of one French grower, lilacs are originally from central Europe and parts of Asia. Over 2,000 cultivars exist in 20 to 25 species of lilac. They can grow between 3 and 30 feet tall, although most grow to a height of between 8 and 15 feet. Among the most cold tolerant of flowering plants, lilacs can withstand winter lows from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 7 and even in protected areas of USDA zone 2. Lilacs will do well in New York State's USDA zones 4 through 7. Lilacs tend not to do well in the South, where mild winters prevent lilacs from getting adequate “rest” during dormancy.
Lilacs can technically be transplanted at any time, but you’ll improve your plant’s chances for success and reduce transplant shock by moving the shrub during its dormancy. Aim to move lilacs just after they have finished dropping leaves in the fall, but before hard winter freezes arrive that make them difficult to dig. This is usually from October to November in most areas of New York. Mountainous areas of upstate New York can experience frosts as early as late September, so an August transplant time is in order there. Transplanting in the fall gives the lilac time to establish its root network before spring. Spring transplanting, while feasible, can stress the roots and impair the vigor of the plant.
When choosing a spot for transplant, consider light and water availability as well as soil type. Lilacs prefer a relatively sunny location with about eight hours of sunlight a day, but they will still flower with as little as six hours of direct sunlight daily. Give them space, as they can grow to 8 feet wide or more, depending on type. Lilacs do not grow well in soggy areas, so make sure soil in the new location is well drained. The soil type itself is inconsequential as long as it is well drained and not too rich; in other words, average garden soil. Locations in the middle of regularly fertilized lawns may result in a lilac with lovely leaves but few flowers, since an abundance of nitrogen encourages foliage at the expense of blooms.
Care Before and After Transplanting
Make sure the target lilac is healthy before transplanting, showing no signs of disease or stress caused by lack of water or nutrients. Stressed plants should remain in place and be rehabilitated before transplanting. Before digging up the plant, choose its new location and dig the transplanting hole. Lilacs should be dug up with as much of the root system intact as possible, although they do regenerate vigorously. Shake off as much dirt as necessary to make the shrub easier to transport, and then move it right away to its new location, covering the roots with damp straw and a burlap sack or large towel if is to be moved over a longer distance. After replanting, water thoroughly, and wait for spring.
- Cornell Cooperative Extension: Growing Lilacs
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Lilacs -- Selection and Pruning
- New York Daily News Online: Care of the Familiar Lilac
- University of Minnesota Extension: Transplanting Trees and Shrubs -- Part 2 -- Making the Move
- North Dakota State University Extension Service: Hortiscope -- Questions on Lilacs
- Colorado State University Extension: Lilacs
- Plant Maps: Interactive New York First Frost Date Map
- Plant Maps: Interactive Plantmaps Gardening and Plant Hardiness Zone Map for New York
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images