When I’m faced with a plant that’s not doing as well as expected, I try to analyze the situation before taking action. In the case of the forsythia, I observed that the flowers were only on the ends of the branches. If it were cold damage, I would expect the flowers below the snowline to bloom, and the ones exposed to the cold higher up on the shrub to be missing. That’s not the case, and besides, this variety of forsythia is supposed to be bud-hardy to 30 below zero Fahrenheit, and it didn’t get that cold this winter.
I know that most flowering shrubs need lots of sun to give them the energy to form flowers, and I think this is getting closer to the problem. At first, I thought the lilac bushes on either side were shading the forsythia too much, but that doesn’t quite fit with the blooming pattern. All the missing flowers are towards the center of the shrub. I’m coming to the conclusion that the forsythia is shading itself too much, and needs a substantial thinning.
So in a week, two at the most, I’ll use my loppers to prune the thickest branches as close to ground level as I can manage. I hope this will let more light into the center of the shrub, enabling it to produce more flower buds for next year. If that doesn’t help, I’ll have to suspect the general root competition from those lilacs. If that’s the problem, the choices are:
- Remove one or more lilacs
- Relocate or get rid of the forsythia
- Make an effort to give the forsythia more water and perhaps fertilize it
- Reconcile myself to a less than optimum display
Given those choices, I will probably go with number 4. I don’t want to get rid of any of the shrubs (they do their job of screening us from the road quite well), and anything I do to help the forsythia in terms of extra water will no doubt help the lilacs just as much. The point of the forsythia is to give me pleasure in spring, and it does that, even without a maximum amount of bloom. I find that bright yellow immensely cheering. I need it; I want it; I’m gonna have it–but I know I don’t have time to baby it. For me, that’s an acceptable trade-off.
A Reader’s Forsythia
Recently, a reader commented:
We just bought a house and the forsythia is very overgrown and old. It has many branches deep inside the bush that have nothing at all on them. Do we try to cut out all those old, non-blooming branches and hope for the best? We love forsythia. Help!!!!
This sounds like the same problem my shrub is having, only to a much greater degree. If a branch truly has nothing on it–no flower buds and no leaf buds, either–the branch is dead. By all means, prune it out. For branches that have leaves, but no flowers, the first step is to look around the shrub. Are other trees or shrubs shading the forsythia in summer? If so, no amount of forsythia pruning will help. You’ll have to prune away whatever is shading the forsythia, and that might not be worth the ugliness that might ensue.
You also have to consider if the forsythia isn’t bud-hardy for the climate. Any forsythia in the warmer part of zone 5 and south of that should be fine.
If both the above conditions don’t seem to be the problem, it does sound like a radical pruning is in order. Forsythias are very vigorous shrubs, and many people would advocate cutting the whole thing to the ground, watering and fertilizing well (using fertilizer suitable for flowering shrubs), and letting the shrub rejuvenate itself.
That’s just a little too scary for me. A more conservative approach is to cut out one-third of the branches for each of three years, gradually bringing the shrub into a more productive growth habit.
A “new” garden needs patient observation
When you first move into a house, you’re all excited and you want to roll up your sleeves and whip everything into shape. But really, the best thing to do is to wait a year and observe your property through the four seasons, taking lots of notes. For my first spring at this place, if I had assumed that the foliage coming out of the garden beds was old tired tulips that were no longer able to bloom, and had dug them out immediately, I never would have seen the colchicum blossoms that fall, and discovered a plant that has fascinated me for years since. Having said that, I can’t see how it would hurt to thin out your forsythia by pruning it this spring. Just watch where you step, there could be another plant growing at its base!
What discoveries have other gardeners made when they first moved into an established yard and garden?