(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 24, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

Forsythia bushes are everywhere in New England. First I see them forced, blooming cheerily in vases while there's still snow on the ground—the kind of snow or muck that makes trudging out to our forsythias, which are on the back corner of our yard, away from the street and the house, too much to ask. So every year in January, February and March, I wish our forsythia bushes were just a little bit closer to the house.

Then it gets to be April. The first day of SPRING has come and gone, the first crocuses are up, and overnight, everybody has forsythia blooming. In their front yards, their side yards, their back yards. As specimens and as privacy fences. Pruned into formal hedges and allowed to grow wild and free. It's even planted along the side of the highways. (I start hating yellow.)

beautiful forsythiaI've seen a lot of different styles of pruning forsythia just on the streets of my little neighborhood, and I'd like to offer a few tips to maximize your future blooms. Everyone wants their forsythia to look like this lovely specimen on the left: lush, full, and loaded with blooms. Forsythia may need a little maintenance to stay looking this way, though.

For the standard forsythia (I'm not talking about the new varieties, but the old ones already growing when you move in, for instance), pruning comes in two kinds. The first is renewal pruning, where less than a third of the canes or branches are removed. This might be done every three or four years or as needed. Be careful to prune the new tips and leave the old wood; forsythia blooms on old wood. Inside that old wood next year's blossoms are already forming. The picture to the right shows a forsythia in need of renewal pruning. lightly prune this forsythia, please


forsythia hedge
sad forsythia
You may wish to prune your forsythia in the shape of a hedge. Remember to leave it wider at the bottom than on the top so it all gets plenty of sun. This one on the left will probably look okay next year. I'm not sure there's any hope for the one on the right side—it needs more sun and to be allowed to grow more than two feet tall, to start with.

please cut me way, way back! The other kind of pruning is called rejuvenation, which is just a fancy word for cutting the bush way, way back. This next forsythia on the left has been ignored for at least 20 years. It is a definite candidate for being rejuvenated. Now if only I could get my husband—oh, never mind.

•pruning pointers for spring-flowering shrubs•

  • These tips can also apply to lilac, spirea, azalea, and other shrubs which flower in spring.

  • Any time your tools are sharp is a good time to prune, say some. I think right after blooming is the best time; as you can tell which canes or branches are successfully blooming and which have stopped.
  • If you prune before blooming, you risk snipping off all those little yellow flowers you were hoping for. Forsythia form the next year's blossoms during the season after they bloom, in other words, during the late spring and early summer. If there aren't many blooms anyway, what have you got to lose?
  • If possible, find out which cultivar of forsythia you have.
There are some new cultivars of forsythia which claim they don't need to be pruned. Prostrate cultivars which can be used as ground covers have been developed. (Maybe that's what I see by the highway?) There are dwarf forsythia and forsythia with variegated leaves, forsythia which grow very tall for hedges, and even ones which claim to have beautiful fall color. Named for Scottish horticulturist, William Forsyth (1737-1804), forsythia are hardy from zones 5-7, or even colder. If you don't have forsythia in your yard yet, maybe you should check out some of the new varieties on the market! Before pruning something other than forsythia, please do a little research to find out what you have and when the best time to prune it is in PlantFiles.
Read what DG writer April Campbell has to say in this article about forsythia. She graciously allowed me to use one of her photos. And this article on Managing Elderly Lilacs by Toni Leland is surely relevant if that's what you're dealing with.
The thumbnail photo is by MorgueFiles photographer mensatic, who also wanted to know about pruning forsythia. The "bad" forsythia examples were my own photos (but only one was from my own yard).