The early, bright gold blooms of forsythia are welcomed by many as cheerful harbingers of spring. Some find the ubiquitous waves of yellow a bit too jarring to integrate into formal landscapes and foundation plantings. Others use the flowers as a phenological indicator signaling that it is time to put down pre-emergence crabgrass controls. Dr. Michael Dirr from the University of Georgia finds it, “one of the most overrated and over-used shrubs!” Whatever your take on forsythia, we all know that the cheery, 4-lobed blossoms are a sure sign that spring is finally here!
While they are found throughout New England, forsythias belong to the olive family and are native to eastern Asia although one species is from south east Europe. They were named in honor of the Scottish botanist, William Forsyth (1737-1804).
I used to really like the forsythia that came with our old house. It was located next to the porch and for at least 15 years I enjoyed this golden herald of spring and spent vast hours clipping and chopping at it to keep it in the size range I needed for that spot. I also spent a fair amount of time pulling out rooting shoots that seemed to multiply each year. The look I was after was that of an upright, somewhat mounded shrub. Forsythia wants to be a fountain that spills over its banks. My husband was so happy that I wanted to replace the forsythia with a better behaved shrub that I found it cut down and dug out at merely the mention that I was thinking of doing so! It has since been replaced by a bayberry.
Now that I have confessed to my horticultural moment of darkness, I have to admit that when forsythia are well-placed in the landscape, they can provide a glorious vision for 2 or 3 weeks. The key is finding the correct placement and proper pruning.
Forsythia do not want to be a ball or a box or a rectangle. They want to be that flowing fountain and need at least a 10 foot by 10 foot spot to shine. When given enough room, they do delight us for several weeks each spring. Any less and they, like Dr. Dirr remarks, “always needs grooming”. I find that they are best suited to slightly sloping ground where they can sprawl. This may be a good placement for a single shrub or a long border depending on your site.
The actual pruning of forsythia can be done in several ways. Purists recommend removing up to one-third of mature stems to the ground every year and heading back any aggressive stems right after flowering. This stimulates a few new shoots and new growth from older wood which will produce a multitude of flower buds for the following year. Option two is to cut the shrub to the ground after flowering. This produces long, somewhat drooping shoots with a ton of blossoms the following spring. It keeps the plants within bounds but does require this yearly ritual.
Many forsythia owners adhere to the practice of ‘let it be’. This is all and well on a sloped bank where the plant takes on its own venue as a ground cover. But in a smaller space, the constant intrusion of this plant can create friction among neighboring plants and gardeners.
What to do? Since forsythia is quite adaptable I would say go with what works for you. While I think that forsythia should be placed where they can develop fountains of sprigs, each clothed in gold come spring, if you are most comfortable with shearing forsythia into hedge formation, so be it. Forsythia is a very forgiving plant. Constant shearing will not produce the best flowers but this repetitive task is necessary for containment. Forsythia lovers – remove at least a few of the oldest stems each year to encourage vibrant, new growth. Try some named varieties with more predictable growth habits. And, if you do not want the long, arching stems to root, cut or pull them up. Like most items that achieve the gold standard – stately forsythias require some effort on your part!