Pruning forsythia in mud season

– Posted in: Forsythia, Mud Season, Plant info

The standard advice for pruning spring-blooming shrubs is to prune them no later than two weeks after they’re done blooming. This is because most spring-flowering shrubs, at least, all those commonly grown, develop their flower buds on the previous year’s wood. So if you prune them in high summer, or autumn, you are cutting off the wood that has the next spring’s flowers.

Pruning forsythia in March has its advantages

However, it is far easier to see the structure of the shrub you are pruning in late winter, when the temperatures have moderated somewhat but the shrub hasn’t leafed out or started blooming yet. And, in the case of forsythia, you can bring the prunings indoors, stick them in a container of water, and, in about a week, have forsythia blooming in the house. These in the photo were cut about a week ago, on one of those nice days just before winter returned.

Since the forsythia outside will be blooming in another week (or two, weather depending), some people might wonder, “Why bother?” I can only speak for myself. At a time when the mild weather has vanished and interminable gray days with flurries have taken its place, forsythia blooming in the house is incredibly cheering. And if past experience holds true, it will not dampen in the least my appreciation of forsythia blooming outside later this month.

And I’ve accomplished two goals at once: I thinned out a shrub that needed it and brought in blooms for the house. According to this article, forsythia branches can be brought in as early as January. Hmph. Maybe if there’s a spring thaw about then. I personally can’t bring myself to do much more than run down the driveway to our rural mailbox and run back with the mail when the wind is blowing and the snow is flying. Not to mention that the branches that need pruning might be under snow. Also, the closer in time to the natural blooming of the shrub, the better the results.

Bud-Hardy Forsythias

The fact that forsythia blooms on old wood is one reason why some northern gardeners get little or no bloom on their shrubs. (The other big reason is growing in the shade. Unless you pruned all the flowering branches off. Duh.) Those delicate little buds don’t always make it through the winter. I was sure glad I found this out before I plunked down my plastic for the forsythia of my childhood, ‘Lynwood Gold.’ ‘Lynwood Gold’ is rated hardy to Zone 4, but it’s only bud-hardy to Zone 5–in a good year. I grow ‘Meadowlark,’ which is supposedly bud hardy to -35. (That’s minus. thirty-five. degrees. Fahrenheit.) Fortunately, I haven’t had to personally verify this. You can also look for ‘Northern Gold, ‘Northern Sun,’ ‘Vermont Sun,’ ‘New Hampshire Gold,’ or ‘Ottawa,’ which are all supposed to be bud-hardy to Zone 4.

Further Reading

For those of you who save all your back issues of gardening magazines, here’s some more information on forcing branches:

  • Ann Lovejoy, “Boughing to Spring,” in Horticulture (February 1994), pp. 44-48
  • Wayne Winterrowd, “A Harvest of Winter Color,” in Horticulture (November 1998), p. 32-38

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Alistair May 11, 2014, 3:59 am

Pruning forsythia at the right time, as soon as you can after flowering, is so important. So many people leave it too late and miss out on the flowers the following year.

Deborah Banks April 24, 2014, 2:25 pm

We usually don’t get forsythia blooms except on the branches below the snow line. I’ll definitely have to look for one of those bud-hardy cultivars. And BTW love the new website format!

Kathy Purdy April 24, 2014, 5:22 pm

I am still tinkering with the new website design–glad you like it!

Lorraine April 1, 2009, 5:24 pm

What to do? I have waited for spring to come so as to prune the forsythia. Now that it is arriving so are the forsythia buds.
How much harm will I do if I prune NOW as the buds are just starting and the snow is gone?

Kathy Purdy April 1, 2009, 7:28 pm

If you prune now you will lose flower buds but you won’t harm your shrub. As I said in this post, it is a good time to prune from the shrub’s perspective, because it hasn’t put its energy into making leaves and flowers only to have them cut off. But for the gardener hoping for a big spring show, the best time to prune is right after blooming is done. If you don’t mind losing that bloom, go ahead and prune now.

Pat M. April 26, 2007, 2:01 pm

We just bought a house and the forsythia is very over grown and old. It has many branches deep in side the bush that have nothing at all on t hem.
Do we try to cut out all those old, non-blooming branches and hope for the best?
We love forsythia.

The County Clerk April 13, 2007, 9:38 am

wow. that’s something interesting and beautiful.

I’d never even thought about something like this.

I think I have to get some of these plants. Thank you

Ted B April 12, 2007, 8:25 am

‘Meadowlark’ has also done very well for me in the mid-west. I always start bringing braches indoors in February and keep going through April. When it’s cold outside I’ll soak the braches in tepid water overnight.

Crabapples, Abeliopyllum (aka white forsythia) and Cornus mas also force well.

kerri April 12, 2007, 7:04 am

We have 3 very small bushes planted just last year. When they get bigger I’ll have to try this. Blooms in the house would be very welcome right now!