Spiffy Viola

“A gush of bird-song, a patter of dew / A cloud, and a rainbow’s warning / Suddenly sunshine and perfect blue / An April day in the morning.” – Harriet Prescott Spofford

Woodland fern frond underside loaded with spores

This April has been slow to warm up, but finally we are getting some warm days, and spring flowers and returning or migrating birds are beginning to make themselves known. Many birds, like Carolina wrens and bluebirds, have probably laid eggs already, or they will soon. Chickadees and some woodpeckers are tapping holes in trees to use as nesting chambers for rearing their young. A few early flowers are brightening up the landscape, and soon many others will follow.

A pair of chickadees made a hole in this dead tree trunk for a nest
Black and white warbler

On Horsebarn Hill, UConn’s pastureland, there are many birdhouses that serve as nesting sites for Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and sparrows. Early in the morning, birds can be seen sitting on top of the houses they have chosen.

Male and female bluebirds near their nest box on an April morning
The same pair after the male gave the female an insect as a gift

On Horsebarn hill, there are also young horses, cows and sheep that were born this spring. One is a friendly little colt I call Little Blaze- a friendly little chap with stellar markings.

Little blaze

Forsythias are nearing full bloom, and the early blooming Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink’ have a profusion of pink flowers, being the first of its species to bloom here in the Northeast. Bees are visiting its flowers, as well as those of Cornus mas, another early blooming landscape shrub.

Forsythia used as a hedge
‘Cornell Pink’

Migrating birds that are passing through in early spring are just now arriving. Palm warblers, sweet little rusty brown warblers with a yellow chest with brown splashes can be found in wet arears like bogs that have a lot of trees and shrubs. They flit around looking for insects, wagging their tails when at rest.

Palm Warbler in boggy woodland area

Spring flowers like Coltsfoot, an introduced species, flowers as early as March, with yellow flowers appearing before their leaves open. Flower stalks have unusual scales. Seed heads are similar to those of dandelions, and silk plumes allow the wind to carry the seeds a distance. Birds use this silk for nesting material.

Coltsfoot

Twinleaf and bloodroot bloom very early. Twinleaf has an unusual leaf that is divided in half lengthwise. Bloodroot has a single leaf that appears after the flower and is wrapped around the flower stalk before opening. Both plants have similar bright-white flowers that stand out in the otherwise dismal landscape.


Bloodroot
Twinleaf

Turtles are enjoying basking on sunny days, and toads are around as egg- laying will begin soon. Spotted salamander eggs and wood frog eggs can be seen in some vernal pools already. The spotted salamander eggs differ from wood frog eggs in that the egg masses are covered with a clear or cloudy gel.

These painted turtles need a bigger log
Spotted salamander eggs

The Connecticut River is at flood stage, blueberries are just showing flower buds, and native willows are in full bloom, providing food for our early native bees. A few cabbage white butterflies can be seen floating by, and spring is about to go into full throttle.

A doughnut cloud…

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”
― William Shakespeare

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.

Forsythias require a lot of maintenance to keep this rectangular shape.

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.

Well-pruned forsythia make for a great, colorful hedge.

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!

Happy Gardening,

Dawn