Caring for Forsythia, the Flaming Yellow Sign of Spring

By: Alia Hoyt  | 

forsythia
Forsythias are a traditional harbinger of spring. Khanh Ngo Photography/Getty Images

Forsythia is the ideal shrub for garden-lovers who want maximum output for minimum effort. Named for the Scottish botanist William Forsyth, forsythia is sometimes known as "golden bell." A cinch to plant and tend, forsythia is beloved for its vivid yellow blooms, which are bell-shaped and grow in clusters. They're also popular because they promptly mark the beginning of a very popular time of year — spring.

"The bright yellow blooms appear before the leaves and are a standout in the spring landscape. Many find it a welcome and traditional sign spring has arrived," emails Melinda Myers, gardening expert, author and instructor for The Great Courses' How to Grow Anything DVD series.

"In the spring the flowers can bloom up to two to three weeks unless the temperatures drop below freezing," explains University of Maryland Extension commercial horticulture educator Ginny Rosenkranz, via email. Forsythia can also get confused by the weather from time to time, blooming in late fall on occasions where cold weather is followed by unseasonably warm weather, she notes.

There are multiple sizes of forsythia, ranging from as small as 3 feet (1 meter) to 8-10 feet (2.4-3 meters) tall. Although most often associated with bright yellow blooms, forsythias actually range in hue from pale yellow to nearly golden. The type you plant should be climate appropriate. "Selecting the right variety for the climate of your region is critical to ensure flowering, as is proper pruning," Myers says.

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Where to Plant Forsythia

Forsythia is delightfully easy to plant, as it's not nearly as fussy as some of the other flowering shrubs out there. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a spot, according to Myers:

  • Choose a location large enough to accommodate the forsythia breed you picked, otherwise you'll have to cut it back pretty often.
  • Make sure the spot is in full sun where the plant will get a minimum of six hours of sunlight.
  • Although forsythia is known for growing in all types of soil, try to plant in an area where the soil drains well. "The roots don't like to be in wet soil for more than an hour or so, so swampy or low ground that holds water would not allow them to grow well," Rosenkranz says.

It's also important to carefully consider location from an aesthetic perspective. "Once it is done blooming it looks like any other green shrub," says Myers. "So, place it where you can enjoy the spring flowers but where it blends into the background the rest of the year and doesn't take up valuable space for other seasonal interests."

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How to Care for Forsythia

Forsythia is low maintenance, but it does still require some basic care. Here's what to do:

Planting:

  • Dig a hole that's at least twice as wide as the root ball. The hole should be the same in depth.
  • Next, place the forsythia in the hole and fill in dirt. Pack the soil firmly.
  • Water the shrub to the point of saturation. This will cause the soil to become more compact, so top off with additional soil, if needed. For the next week, at least, make sure the forsythia gets plenty of water. After that, water well once per week. Myers says that once the shrubs are well established they are fairly drought tolerant.
  • Don't fertilize forsythia when initially planted. Instead, wait until it's been in the ground for about a year. Then, fertilize with one cup of granular fertilizer, spread around the base of the plant and outward about 18 inches (46 centimeters).
  • After that, forsythia doesn't require fertilizer, but it won't hurt to do it once a year in the beginning of spring.

Pruning:

"Proper pruning is key to keeping the plant looking its best and producing great flowers," Myers says. "Prune only if needed and after the blooms fade for maximum flowers."

  • Only prune soon after the plant is done flowering for the season. "This plant's flower buds are formed the summer before the following spring bloom," Myers explains. "Pruning any time other than soon after it flowers eliminates or greatly reduces the amount of spring flowers."
  • Avoid over-pruning, because excessive pruning stimulates excessive growth.
  • To prune correctly, Myers says to occasionally remove older (fatter) stems to the ground to contain growth and encourage new growth. Shorten wayward branches, if needed. Remove no more than 1/3 of older stems on mature plants at one time. Overall, remove no more than 1/4 to 1/3 total mass of the plant to avoid a burst of excessive growth.

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