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The First Blooms of Spring: How and When to Prune Forsythia Bushes

Spring is finally here when our forsythia burst into bloom.

Spring is finally here when our forsythia burst into bloom.

How to Grow Forsythia

For me, blooming forsythia bushes is one of the first real signs of spring. The brilliant bursts of bright yellow flowers transform the muted tones of our northern winter landscape. Hardy and easy to grow, forsythias are one of the first hardy shrubs to bloom in the spring. The spindly branches erupt with tiny yellow flowers, ushering in the spring with a magnificent blast 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

Forsythia's tiny flowers create a brilliant splash of yellow.

Forsythia's tiny flowers create a brilliant splash of yellow.

When To Prune Forsythia

One of the best characteristics of forsythia is its brilliant yellow blooms. Though each flower is only an inch or so across, the sheer 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 conventional gardening advice tends to recommend pruning flowering shrubs shortly after they finish 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 the 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.

A hedge of flowering forsythia.

A hedge of flowering forsythia.

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 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 than 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?

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!
  5. Enjoy fresh spring blooms indoors! From cuttings to flowers, it takes about two to three weeks to force a forsythia cutting to bloom indoors.
This forsythia plant boasts hundreds of tiny yellow flowers.

This forsythia plant boasts hundreds of tiny yellow flowers.

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

Bypass Pruners are perfect for trimming off the ends of small branches. The bypass action of the blades slices 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.

Fiskars Bypass Loppers.

Fiskars Bypass Loppers.

Bypass Loppers

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 it 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.

Long-handle loppers are my tool of choice for most pruning chores. With jaws that open over 2 inches wide, loppers grab 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 stand out and make it easy to find when it is inadvertently left on the ground.

Pruning Saw

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

Forsythia plants in our garden.

Forsythia plants in our garden.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can forsythia grow in acidic soil?

Answer: The ideal pH level for forsythia is between 6.5 and 7.5, however, it can tolerate many soil conditions. Our forsythia grows in relatively acidic conditions and even manage to grow and bloom under the partial shade of several oak trees.

© 2014 Anthony Altorenna

Tell Us About Your Forsythias and Flowering Shrubs

Pattie Brown on July 18, 2020:

Have a jungle of Forsythias and I hate them......Got plenty....come and get them !!!

Mary on July 04, 2020:

I want to transplant my forsythia it’s 3 years old and quite tall is it ok what’s the root system on these plants and will I hurt it in any way it needs more room to grow

Karen on June 23, 2019:

I just planted my first bare root for forsythias this past spring. They're in a pretty large location but one is in a smaller location wondering when is the best time to prune them so they don't take over the smaller area? Anyway looking forward to the beautiful flowers in 20/20 spring. Thanks for all the info

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on March 03, 2014:

I love to see these yellow flowers as it is one of the first signs that the long Canadian Winter is finally on its way out. Great Lens thank you for writing it.

JanetG LM on March 02, 2014:

Yellow forsythia burst forth and make me jump for joy when I see this early sign of spring. When you see those yellow blossoms, you know it's time to apply crab grass killer in our northern area. Beautiful lens with lots of great info. Thanks for sharing this sunny lens. It lifts my spirits to see it.

Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on March 01, 2014:

My current yard is too shady for forsythias, but I look forward to the day when I have a sunnier location where I can enjoy their spring flowers.

River_Rose on February 28, 2014:

Great info here. Thanks for sharing. Never had a Forsythias bush, but they are pretty.

Paula Hite from Virginia on February 26, 2014:

Beautiful lens! Its being featured on our "The Green Thumb: A Place For Gardeners To Gather" Facebook page. Please like/share it with your friends.

Donna Cook on February 25, 2014:

Great lens! I want to mix forsythia and lilac bushes. I think the yellow and lavender would look so nice together.

DebMartin on February 22, 2014:

I love forsythia but mine need help. Not sure what the issue is. I got my forsythia from my father whose forsythia gave an amazing show. I can't trim mine in late winter as we have so much snow I often can't even find the plant. I wonder if I have a soil issue. Any tips?

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on February 21, 2014:

I always love seeing these pretty yellow blooms, as it means SPRING at last! Congratulations on LotD!

AnonymousC831 from Kentucky on February 20, 2014:

Nice lens.

anonymous on February 20, 2014:

I don't exactly have a green thumb but this is a groovy lens. Congratulations on getting LotD!

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 20, 2014:

What a pretty plant. At first I thought it was witch's broom. But, I don't think so.

RoadMonkey on February 20, 2014:

I love forsythia and have done for many years. Such a bright plant - one of the harbingers of spring.

MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose from Washington State on February 20, 2014:

Congrats on LOTD. Great pruning tips.

TerriCarr on February 20, 2014:

I don't know if these bloom in the DC area....but if they do, I can't wait to see one of the first signs of spring. It can't be very soon though with all the cold we have had.

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on February 20, 2014:

I like your winter pruning idea, I have used the same approach with Roses and had a lot of success with it. I will have to try a Forsythia or two. We have a couple of Brooms that flower in the spring and again in the fall that these would complement very well.

Eugene Samuel Monaco from Lakewood New York on February 20, 2014:

Congratulations on LOTD!! and Thanks for the Winter Tip, something I never knew:)

Delia on February 20, 2014:

Congratulations on LOTD! This is a great lens for me, as our neighbor has a huge bush that has grown into our yard (no fencing here) they never maintain the this year I will prune it for more flowers and shape. I love Forsythia!

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on February 20, 2014:

I don't have forsythia now, but have always had it in my yard -- my parents' yard, too. We have relocated to central Florida, and have a very small yard, so forsythia, or yellow bells, as we often call it, is a bit too large and untamed for my yard now. I really miss having it, and watching it open every year. In my home of Alabama it opened in late January or early February. It was always one of the earliest signs of spring, along with crocus bulbs. I love my tropical plants here, but I miss my forsythia, so I really enjoyed your article on this wonderful plant. Contrats of LOTD -- well done.

Carol Houle from Montreal on February 20, 2014:

Congratulations on your lens of the day. No time to be bored when one has such interesting hobbies and lenses to write.

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on February 20, 2014:

I always love these beautiful first signs of spring. I have a Forsythia wreath that I put on my door each I just need to get me one of the bushes.

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on February 20, 2014:

I always love these beautiful first signs of spring. I have a Forsythia wreath that I put on my door each I just need to get me one of the bushes.

Fay Favored from USA on February 20, 2014:

Came back to congratulate you on LotD. Nicely done Anthony.

Susan Holland from Southwest Missouri on February 20, 2014:

I love Forsythias. I do not have one, but our neighbor does. I may ask if I can dig up some shoots to try along a fence line. Thanks for this great, informational lens! :-)

MsBertie on February 20, 2014:

Hmmm, the memories. Forsythias are one of the things I miss about a northern spring. Here in the south it's Azaleas, pretty but I miss the cheerful yellow! Great post. Congratulations on Lens of the day.

tonyleather on February 20, 2014:

Great Post. I love my Forthysia hedge, ans have been expanding it sideways, in both directions, for several years now. It looks incredible in bloom!

pawpaw911 on February 20, 2014:

You described the behavior of Forsythias perfectly in your opening text. I think you grandfather would be pleased that his appreciation for Forsythias survived through you. We don't have any, but that is due to my laziness rather than their beauty. Congratulations on LOTD. Well done as usual.

PaynesGrey on February 20, 2014:

I have a Forsythia hedge, it is very easy to trim once it has stopped flowering. The green leaves make an attractive screen until the Autumn.Thank you for a lovely lens!BTW I spotted my fist spring leaves today from a Hawthorn bush, after all the storms and flooding in the Uk this year it does seem that things may be on the up!

getupandgrow on February 20, 2014:

Just waiting for that burst of colour (probably won't be here until at least March in the UK). In the meantime, there's your beautiful lens-I *love* your photographs. Thanks for creating this.

JenApple on February 20, 2014:

I love it. I wish we can plant it here in the Philippines. I just love the bright color. congrats

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on February 20, 2014:

So happy to see your Lens of the Day. Congrats! I used to have forsythia when I lived in Texas. I miss those lovely spring rays of flowering sunshine.

VioletteRose LM on February 19, 2014:

Beautiful blossoms they have, wonderful lens!

JohnCumbow on February 18, 2014:

We always like to take early spring cuttings from our forsythias and bring them into the house for some bright color as winter winds down and spring begins to take hold.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on February 18, 2014:

The yellow sure stands out against the cooler colors of the other bushes in the early spring. A very decorative bush.

Pat Goltz on February 17, 2014:

I like your contrarian approach to managing these plants. Your reasoning makes sense to me. I am not aware that forsythia can be grown in my climate.

John Dyhouse from UK on February 17, 2014:

I have a soft spot for forsythia. I remember when I used some pruned twigs as pea sticks one year after they had been drying out for some time; and they started to grow

Fay Favored from USA on February 17, 2014:

I look forward to the first blooms of Forsythia each year. It let's me know spring is near. I didn't know there was also a white flowering one.

RinchenChodron on February 17, 2014:

I like to do Ikebana using forsythia twigs with blooms. You are right so springy!

Renee Dixon from Kentucky on February 15, 2014:

My mom has one of these in her front yard it's really beautiful

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on February 15, 2014:

Alas, we have no yard and only street trees surround this apartment building, but every home I owned prior to moving to the city had a forsythia bush--or three. I loved pruning them so carefully that they always cascaded in lovely yellow fountains of brilliant sunshine color on cold March days. What joy! Thank you for this page--a kind of ode to one of the best plants of spring.

GrammieOlivia on February 15, 2014:

Just added a link to your post on the Weekend Gardeners FB page. You can find it right here and like it too! am the Weekend Gardener Contributor on Squidoo and always looking for interesting lenses to promote!

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on February 15, 2014:

I've been watching our forsythia buds develop despite the harsh winter we've had here in Arkansas this year. Now, this week we should get temps into the 70s which may get them blooming, though a bit early this year. I need to go check today for shoots that I can transplant; I'd love to cover the entire bank where they're planted. Thanks for the information!

Charito Maranan-Montecillo from Manila, Philippines on February 15, 2014:

Nice plants!

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on February 15, 2014:

Interesting lens and lovely photos!