In life and old lilacs, less is sometimes more


Photo:Rachel on Flickr

Photo:Rachel on Flickr

One thing I love about the home I share with Douglas is its visual spareness. This old house is solid and well proportioned, but utterly plain. It sits on a bare rise above the narrow road, wide open to the wind and weather. The sun pours in at every window. At night the stars spin overhead unobstructed.

We both appreciate the honesty and openness of this unadorned property, as well as the low-maintenance benefits of having few trees, shrubs or fussy gardens to deal with. That said, we do enjoy tending to our limited plantings.

This unusually balmy winter has inspired Douglas to prune the old apple trees beside the driveway. He’s been out there the past few weekends, up on a ladder and climbing around in the gnarled trees, sawing off dead limbs, lopping away gangly branches and nipping off hundreds of spindly suckers that use up valuable water and soil nutrients without producing any fruit.

For the most part, I’ve been keeping an eye on him from the warmth of the kitchen, grateful for his efforts and content to feed the woodstove and work the crossword. But last Sunday, I picked up some pruning tools and joined him. Not in the apples; my destination was the old lilac at the edge of the dooryard.

Like any New Englander worth her salt, I love a lilac. The spicy fragrance of the blossoms is the essence of spring to me, channeling all the sweetness and promise of the end of winter. Douglas, who is practical, points out that lilacs take up a lot of space, flower only for a week or so, produce no fruit and aren’t much to look at for most of the year. It seems clear he would just as soon be rid of this especially unkempt specimen and plant a fruit tree in its place. So when he assigned the lilac into my keeping late last fall, I knew I had to make it shine.

This particular bush is at least 50 years old, maybe twice that. It has been badly cut back a few times, long ago, but mostly just terribly neglected. As a result, it was loaded with dead wood, awkward angles, unproductive branches and those ubiquitous suckers. It was not lovely, generally, to look upon. It was a hazard and a nuisance when we mowed. But, oh, those fleeting, fragrant flowers!

I don’t have much experience with pruning. So before I marched out with my loppers, I watched a six-minute video from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service. If I were raising prize lilacs for show, this short lesson would not be sufficient. But for salvaging the bedraggled shrub in my dooryard, it was perfect. Check it out:

Armed with new confidence, I tackled the lilac. As the video had instructed, I sawed out about a third of the thickest, oldest growth, which immediately opened up the center of the bush. I cut off branches that were rubbing against other branches, which was a lot of them. The tallest, gangliest branches came out, too, or at least got lopped off shorter. I snipped out armloads of suckers, and learned in the process to identify a new, young shoot that will actually amount to something.

At the time, I had a sinking feeling that I was decimating this poor old plant, hacking out too much of its woody heart, lopping off too many of the high, arching branches where the flowers grow, nipping away too much of the young growth. The gigantic heap of prunings that accumulated around the scene did little to reassure me.

But when I stepped back at the end of an hour to survey the results, I could almost see my lilac relaxing. Air and sunlight filled its core. Its trimmed branches were free to lift and wave in the wind coming off the river. Whatever small damage my inexpert technique might have caused was minor compared to the great benefit of having pared the bush down to its essential lilac-ness.

In time, as I tend it more routinely, I’ll come to understand the lilac’s growth habits and anticipate its needs. Already I know more than I did a week ago. It will produce fewer blooms this coming spring as a result of this hard pruning, but they will be bigger and healthier. The bush will send out new, compact growth and use less energy supporting overgrown branches and useless suckers. We won’t have to worry about poking out an eye when we mow around it. Maybe Douglas will even muster some affection for this venerable life form that has survived on our windswept hillside far longer than we have, now that its more elemental presence adds to the spare beauty around us.

Read more of Meg Haskell at

Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at