The Q&A Archives: Transplanting an old lilac bush (now six feet tall)

Question: This beautiful lilac was here when I arrived 25 years ago, but in fromt of it was planted three Rhododendrons which pushed it back up against a fence, so that instead of a bush, it looks like a tall skinny tree with lilacs at the top. Can I transplant it? If so, do I cut it back first and what type expert would I seek to transplant it?


I'm not sure you'd be successful digging and transplanting a lilac that has been growing in the same spot for over 25 years. Your lilac, being where it is for such a long time, would have such extensive rooting that it would be nearly impossible to dig up all the roots and doing so would probably prove disastrous to the neighboring rhododendrons. Instead of attempting to dig and move this plant, why not dig up a few of the shoots at the base of the shrub and transplant them?

Lilac shoots are exceptionally easy to transplant. I have transplanted many lilac bushes from the original bushes that my grandmother planted on our Wisconsin dairy farm 70 years ago. Early spring until late spring, from when the lilacs develop buds until they actually have small leaves, is the best time to transplant. If you have lilacs growing in your yard -- or if you have a friend who has lilacs -- and you would like to start some new lilac bushes, here's how:

1. Decide where you want to transplant the lilac bush or bushes.

2. Dig a hole that's about one foot deep by one foot across for each bush you want to transplant.

3. Dig up a lilac shoot from somewhere around the main bush. Lilacs spread by runners. Use a shovel to dig up the shoot because you are going to have to cut off the runner, and a trowel will not be tough enough to do the job. Choose a shoot that is approximately 8 to 14 inches high. Smaller shoots that are only a few inches high will take a very long time to mature to the point where they will have flowers. Larger shoots seem to take a longer time to recover from being transplanted before they start to grow well. Do not worry about how much root you are getting with the shoot. You will not be able to take all of the root since the roots are all connected.

4. Put the shoot in a bucket of water if you are not going to transplant it immediately so that it will not dry out. If you are going to transplant it immediately, carry it to the hole you have dug and set it in the hole.

5. Center the shoot in the hole and fill in with dirt. Leave a three or four inch depression around the shoot so you will have a reservoir for water.

6. Water your new lilac bush with a couple of gallons of water. Continue watering the bush several times a week for the rest of the season to ensure that it has a good start. From what I have observed, lilacs seem to be quite drought resistant, although like any plant, tree or bush, they will grow more if they have plenty of water. In subsequent years, water your new lilac bush from time to time, especially if rain is in short supply.

Note: I have noticed that it takes 4 or 5 years for the new bushes to grow enough to start producing flowers, although bushes that I transplanted from small shoots only a few inches high are taking longer than that.

Best wishes with your lilac!

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