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Old-fashioned forsythia brings brief golden beauty to landscapes

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.
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Diedra Laird - 2013 Observer file photo
Forsythia’s shape is billowy and graceful – not pruned into a large meatball.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I’m wondering if mixing in ashes from my fireplace with planting beds in general and my vegetable beds in particular is a good idea?

    A. Wood ashes are a good source of potash, or potassium, which is an important element in plant growth. You can spread them on rose beds, flower gardens and vegetable beds. Wood ashes have been credited with pushing reluctant peonies into bloom. Do not use them on acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, blueberries and hollies.


Keen as we are to embrace new shrubs, some old favorites simply cannot be ignored.

That becomes so obvious in mid-March, when forsythia erupts as a golden blast of color, standing out like no other shrub at this time of year.

There is nothing quite like it. And even though its presence is fairly anonymous most of the year, forsythia makes up for this when in bloom.

It is old-fashioned, and some gardeners probably can’t forgive that, opting instead for shrubs that promise something interesting for a longer stretch of time. Others may see forsythia for what it is: a no-nonsense large shrub that is a real beauty for a couple of weeks. It may also be a reminder of other people, other places. Since forsythia has been grown widely in landscapes for so long, it is possible you remember it from a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s garden.

Beyond its lovely bloom, forsythia is useful as a screen. And even though the leaves are gone in the winter, the stems of mature forsythia are dense even while bare. It also makes a good, neutral green background for a plant collection, such as daylilies, which bloom after the forsythia.

A popular named variety, Spring Glory, is particularly suitable for a screen. That is because it grows upright to about 8 feet and spreads almost that wide to create a roundish shape that is very pleasing. The flowers are a softer shade of yellow than other forsythias, which tend to be more golden-yellow.

While a long stretch of forsythia used as a screen can be delightful, a single one is also delightful. However, it must have space to develop properly. This is not a plant to stuff into a tight spot where annual pruning is required to keep it out of the windows or driveway. This destroys the natural shape of the plant, which should be billowy and graceful – not pruned into a tight, geometric shape. Many types of forsythia lose their beauty because their owners insist on trimming them back into round, large meatballs.

Forsythias require sunshine, but no other particular care. A slow-release fertilizer applied in the early years will encourage the plant to adjust to its new environment and begin growth at a moderate pace. Pay attention to the mature width specified on the label when you set out the plants. Typically, it is 4 to 6 feet, but some may be much wider and require more space.

When pruning of an old plant is necessary, do it lightly, after the blooms fade. The best way is to use long-handled lopping shears that allow you to reach into the center of the plant and remove the oldest, least productive flowering stems. Cut them off close to the base of the plant. At the same time, you may notice younger stems just beginning to rise. Take care not to injure them with your loppers. These new stems will keep the forsythia looking fresh and lovely as the years go by.

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