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The Everyman's Shrub

forsythia, common shrubsForsythia is a shrub of firsts. It’s the first shrub to bloom in the spring. It’s the first shrub new gardeners buy. It’s the first shrub people learn by name. Everybody knows Forsythia, the first of thousands of shrubs I hope to examine on this web site.

Forsythia evokes a cheap landscape job. It ubiquitous in run-down neighborhoods built prior to the end of World War II. It is old-fashioned. Forsythia is the shrub everyone loves to disrespect. In my opinion, its unending popularity despite its dubious quality is what makes it cool! It carries with it the nostalgia of new life, ephemeral fairy bells, and the childhood delight of bright color in the dormant landscape, but it doesn’t merit the label “heirloom shrub.” Forsythia is super easy and inexpensive to propagate from cuttings, and nurseries make a killing on sales of the shrub when it blooms.

Forsythia has its own unique bloom time, so it gets universal attention for about a week every spring. Garden club ladies will take cut stems and place them in water after Christmas to force the bloom even earlier. Professional landscapers often time the application of pre-emergent herbicides to Forsythia flowering. If you wait to apply chemicals after their bloom, you’re too late. About the only other plants seen blooming at this time are Crocus bulbs and ‘Okame’ Cherry trees. Even Daffodils and Bradford Pears come later. The early bloom brings Forsythia more attention than it deserves.

Forsythia is a weak, thin shrub with little else to recommend it than its brief bloom. If temperatures fall below 10 degrees, the buds will be killed, and any open flowers will be zapped to mush. Zone 6 is a safe bet, but designers in colder areas need to consider other options. Who needs a scruffy shrub without blooms with so many worthy selections of plant material in the trade? In colder climates, pick something else.

Forsythia is invasive. Allowed to sucker, it will take over an entire residential lot. The new suckers will not bloom with the vigor of the original plant. Keep Forsythia planting beds edged to force all the plant vigor back into the flowering stems. Grown properly and in the right spot, it is a loveable thug.

Forsythia is a survivor and is often proposed for the intolerable landscapes of interstate interchanges. The roadside environment is one of brutal competition. Invasive plants can easily overpower loose, open, deciduous shrubs. Public landscapes with limited funds for hand-weeding in their maintenance budget are better planted in thick, dense foliage plants. For residential sites with poor soil, Forsythia is a reliable toughie. I do not recommend using it for roadsides.

Forsythia is a worldwide poster child of bad pruning practices. The weak, thin structure calls out to hedge-shear-welding brutes to trim the sprawling fountain of branches to give it density and form. The resultant amputated limbs form a sad, scruffy ball with naked legs and forgettable foliage. Often, this vicious pruning is done in late winter, destroying any potential blooms that might flower later in the year. The poor shrub is rarely ever given an opportunity to realize its potential.

Given potential in a well-planned design, Forsythia is actually a wonderful, beautiful shrub. It must be planted and maintained just so. A good designer should take an “old money” approach to succeed.  Use Forsythia where you have unlimited property and can spare a large portion of it to grow a long border which will have only a week of useful color. Locate Forsythia masses where they can be forgotten most of the year.

forsythia, common shrubs

  • Plant Forsythia as an old-fashioned shrub border. Don’t plant just one! Plant an immense, staggered row of at least a dozen and allow them to sprout their ungainly limbs freely. Because the branches arch and weep, they look good at the top of a retaining wall, but only in long masses. After a heavy frost, the row will be a heap of brown stems.
  • Never, never, never prune a Forsythia! Instead keep the edge between the Forsythia shrub border and the lawn mowed to prevent suckering and encroachment into the grass. If you think your Forsythias need rejuvenation as a result of decades of neglect, wait until after they bloom and then cut them to the ground. If you think they should be pruned back by a third each year after flowering, you have too much time on your hands.
  • Allow room for each Forsythia shrub to grow and mature into a large mass of tangled stems. Only then will it bloom prolifically. Let each adjacent Forsythia intertwine with their neighboring plant until the distinction between individual shrubs is imperceptible. The result should be that of a molten blob of yellow, ten feet tall and twelve feet wide with at least two or three feet of clean mulch between the outer edges of the mass and the next group of plants. Forsythia take time to reach the blob stage and will look scruffy until they develop layers of limbs over limbs over limbs.
  • Plant Forsythia in full sun. They can survive heavy shade but will not produce blooms without the sun’s fuel. Part shade will produce half-assed flowering. Remember, Forsythia only shine for one week each year, and only because they produce the cheery yellow-bell flowers along their long, arching stems. You want the bloom to be glorious.
  • After flowering, leave the Forsythia shrub border alone. Forget about it. Do not try to tidy it up with pruning shears. Just keep the edges of the border mowed to prevent suckering. Accept the fact the blob of ho-hum green foliage will do little to enhance the landscape from late spring through the following winter.
  • Enjoy the luxury of a large Forsythia border by bringing cut stems inside for arrangements to celebrate the coming of spring and warmth and happiness.

For years, nurseries offered hybrid Forsythia x intermedia types like ‘Spectabilis’ and ‘Lynwood Gold’ (more lemon yellow than gold). There are other cultivars, but rarely do you see them sold. There are some unproven, low-growing, variegated forms, but they are expensive. My guess is they will readily revert to the older types and need vigilant hand-pruning. Best stick with the common, cheap, locally available plants. Forsythia grows quickly, so you can work with small container plants or even bare-root offerings.

Forsythia will no doubt regain popularity as new cultivars (low, improved foliage,  heavy flowering). Exciting new things are happening as nurserymen learn how to manipulate genetic material. But, the old-fashioned ‘Spectabilis’ will still be the best choice for historic, pre-World-War-II properties. Planted in the right way, in the right spot, in the right number, with the right maintenance, it is a glorious burst of cheery yellow in a cold, grey winter landscape.

Forsythia