The First Blooms of Spring: How and When to Prune Forsythia Bushes
How to Grow Forsythia
Every spring, forsythia bushes explode in brilliant bursts of yellow flowers, blasting through the muted tones of the typical northern winter landscape. A flowering shrub that is hardy and easy to grow, forsythias are one of the first plants to bloom. The spindly branches erupt with tiny yellow flowers, ushering in the spring with a magnificent splash of color.
Blooming forsythias bring back memories of spring in my grandfather's garden. A massive tangle of forsythia sprawled along the property line of his suburban backyard, its spreading free-form shape contrasting against the rest of his orderly and carefully designed landscape. Another large forsythia, selectively pruned and shaped, showcased the design versatility of a plant that is often dismissed as ubiquitous.
Forsythia is a common landscape plant for good reasons: they grow well in full sun and tolerate partial shade, isn't fussy about soil conditions, resists pests, grows quickly in naturalized mounds or responds well to pruning, and it is easy to propagate new plants from woody shoots and trimmed branches. After a long winter, the bright yellow blooms are a welcome sight, punctuating the arrival of spring to our New England garden.
Tips for Pruning, Forcing, Transplanting and Growing Forsythia
When To Prune Forsythia
One of the best characteristics of forsythia is their brilliant yellow blooms. Though each flower is only an inch or so across, the shear number of simultaneous blooms adds up to a spectacular spring show. After the flowers fade away and the petals fall to the ground, tiny green leaves emerge to fill the void.
These plants are fast growers. The naturally unruly shrubs with arching branches can easily grow up to 10 feet high and spread out almost as wide. An annual trimming helps to control the size and shape of the plant, but forsythia should be planted in areas where they will have enough room to reach their full potential.
So when is the best time for pruning these shrubs?
Well, my thoughts on this topic tend to go against the grain. While the conventional gardening advice tends to recommend pruning flowering shrubs shortly after they finishing blooming to avoid forfeiting any flowers, I prefer to prune my plants in late winter before the plants burst into their springtime display. The reasoning is simple: the bare structure of the plant is clearly visible before the plant leafs out, making it easier to shape the plant. I can easily spot and remove dead and broken branches, trim away any crossing canes to prevent rubbing, and reach into the center of plant to thin out weak and older shoots without having to reach in through the leaves. And best of all, I can bring the fresh trimmings inside and force the flowers to bloom for an early spring treat.
The yellow blooms are hard to resist, and I trim a few of the wayward tips after they start to bloom to bring inside. Forsythia cuttings work well in floral arrangements, and the flowers can last for several weeks if you change the water in the vase every few days.
You can also prune forsythia after they finish blooming. Prune a mature bush to control its shape by clipping off the ends of branches and removing any broken or damaged limbs. Thin out overgrown bushes by removing 1/4 to 1/3 of the branches, cutting the off the canes just above ground level. Removing the shoots opens the interior of the plant, increasing air circulation and light penetration to stimulate new growth.
And new growth means more yellow flowers!
Forsythia send out new shoots from the base of the plant, and these can be dug up and transplanted to grow into new plants. All of the forsythias in our yard started as small shoots from my grandfather's garden. He used a sharp spade to cut into the soil around the base of the shoot, freeing the little shrub from its parent plant. Grand Pop transferred the little transplants into re-purposed gardening center pots for the journey to their new home, but you can easily transplant the shoots directly into the ground. Select a sunny location in the landscape where the little plant will have lots of room to spread out and grow for many years of springtime blooms.
When transplanting forsythia, keep in mind that the plant can easily grow up to 10 feet tall and wide, and will naturally develop a wild and unkempt appearance. Choose the locations for planting accordingly and let the plant grow unrestrained rather that trying to keep it small and orderly through harsh pruning. If you only have a small space for a plant, the forsythia may not be the best choice. But if you have the room to let it grow out naturally (with a little selective pruning, of course), then these plants will reward you with years of bright yellow blooms.
Grand Pop is gone now, but his legacy still thrives in my gardens and in my memories. Every spring when the forsythias are in bloom, I'm reminded of how much he loved these common yellow plants, and I'm glad that he shared his appreciation with me.
Do You Have Forsythia In Your Yard?
Do You Have Forsythia In Your Yard?
Forcing Forsythia To Bloom Indoors
Enjoy Spring Blooms in Late Winter
February and into early March is the ideal time to try forcing forsythia cuttings to bloom indoors. The forcing process is easy, gets you out and into the garden (even if there is still snow on the ground), and the reward is a vase full of bright yellow forsythia flowers to enjoy indoors.
It takes about two to three weeks to force a forsythia cutting to bloom indoors.
- Go get some cuttings: Trim several branches from a dormant plant, using sharp bypass pruners to make a clean cut. Make sure that each cutting includes a number of buds, and cut the stems into different lengths for variety. Arranging different heights of blooming branches adds more interest than if every cutting is the same length.
Submerge the cut ends of the branches into a bucket of warm water.
- Prepare the cuttings: The cuttings need to take in water before they can be forced to bloom. Scrape the bark away from the lower couple of inches on each stem. Using a sharp knife, make two or three vertical incisions up from the bottom of the stem (you can also use a hammer to gently smash the ends of the stem).
Soak the cuttings overnight in cool water. This will help the cuttings to absorb more water.
- Fill up a vase: Place the cuttings upright into a vase, and add water. Some folks like to add a few drops of bleach to the water, but I prefer tepid water straight from the tap. Change the water every few days to keep it clean and fresh.
Place the vase of cuttings in a cool area away from direct sunlight, such as in the basement or garage. Wrapping the cuttings with damp paper towels helps to prevent the buds from drying out.
- Pop out the flowers: When the buds begin to swell and change color, move the vase into a well-lit location, but avoid placing the cuttings in direct sunlight. The buds will soon pop open with a burst of color!
- Enjoy fresh spring blooms indoors! From cuttings to flowers, it takes about two to three weeks to force a forsythia cutting to bloom indoors.
Hard Pruning Small Forsythia Plants
Though I prefer selective pruning, this method of hard pruning reduces spindly growth and encourages a young plant to sprout more branches and canes for a fuller plant. Older plants that have grown out of control or are failing to bloom prolifically can be cut back to the ground to rejuvenate the plant.
Forsythia are vigorous growers, and the hard pruning method stimulates new growth. The hard-pruned plant will sprout new canes from the base of the plant and within a season or two, the forsythia will be blooming again.
The Tools of the Trade
Use the right tools for pruning forsythia and other flowering shrubs. Quality pruners not only make the job easier, but using the right pruner to make the right cut results in a cleaner cutting that will heal quicker, ultimately leading to a healthier plant and a better pruning job.
Bypass Pruners are perfect for trimming off the ends of small branches. The bypass action of the blades slice cleanly through live stems and branch tips, and bypass pruners are especially useful for harvesting forsythia cuttings for forcing indoors and creating floral arrangements. Do not use bypass pruners to cut out dead branches; anvil pruners are designed to tackle this job.
Bypass loppers are designed for pruning and cutting live branches. They feature the same bypass blade action as the pruners for a clean slicing cut. The long handles make is easy to reach into the center of larger plants and shrubs to cut out canes, branches and shoots. The extended handles also provide extra leverage for slicing through thicker branches.
The Fiskar Powergear loppers are my tool of choice. With jaws that open over 2 inches wide, loppers grabs branches and saplings firmly. Then the hardened steel blade slices cleanly through branches up to 1-5/8" in diameter. The long handles give plenty of reach for thinning out shrubs and limbing up trees, and reaching deep into the brambles for cutting the shoots off at the base.
The cushioned handle grips are comfortable and slip-free, and the bright orange label helps the tool standout and easy to find when it is inadvertently left on the ground.
Great for cutting through larger diameter branches, the blade of the pruning saw extends your reach up and into shrubs and other woody plants to quick work of cutting through thick limbs and big branches.
The Tangle of Forsythia Blooms in Our Garden
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Anthony Altorenna