How And When To Prune Forsythia

Every spring, Forsythia bushes explode in brilliant bursts of yellow flowers, blasting through the muted tones of the typical northern winter landscape. A flowering shrub that is hardy and easy to grow, forsythias are one of the first plants to bloom in spring. The spindly branches erupt with tiny yellow flowers, ushering in the spring with a magnificent splash of color.

Blooming forsythias bring back memories of spring in my grandfather's garden. A massive tangle of forsythia sprawled along the property line of his suburban backyard, its spreading free-form shape contrasting against the rest of his orderly and carefully designed landscape. Another large forsythia, selectively pruned and shaped, showcased the design versatility of a plant that is often dismissed as ubiquitous.

Forsythia is a common landscape plant for good reasons: forsythia grows well in full sun and tolerates partial shade, isn't fussy about soil conditions, resists pests, grows quickly in naturalized mounds or responds well to pruning, and it is easy to propagate new plants from woody shoots and trimmed branches. After a long winter, the bright yellow blooms of forsythia are a welcome sight, punctuating the arrival of spring to our New England garden.

Forsythia Photos by the Author

Forsythia Pruning, Forcing, Transplanting & Growing Tips

When To Prune Forsythia

Forsythia Pruning One of the best characteristics of forsythia is their brilliant yellow blooms. Though each flower is only an inch or so across, the shear number of simultaneous blooms adds up to a spectacular spring show. After the flowers fade away and the petals fall to the ground, tiny green leaves emerge to fill the void.

Forsythia plants are fast growers. These naturally unruly shrubs with arching branches can easily grow up to 10 feet high and spread out almost as wide. An annual trimming helps to control the size and shape of the plant, but forsythia should be planted in areas where they will have enough room to reach their full potential.

So when is the best time to prune forsythia?

Well, my thoughts on this topic tend to go against the grain. While the conventional gardening advice tends to recommend pruning flowering shrubs shortly after they finishing blooming to avoid forfeiting any flowers, I prefer to prune my forsythia plants in late winter before the plants burst into their springtime display. The reasoning is simple: the bare structure of the plant is clearly visible before the plant leafs out, making it easier to shape the plant. I can easily spot and remove dead and broken branches, trim away any crossing canes to prevent rubbing, and reach into the center of plant to thin out weak and older shoots without having to reach in through the leaves. And best of all, I can bring the fresh trimmings inside and force the flowers to bloom for an early spring treat.
Flowering Forsythia Forsythia blooms are hard to resist, and I trim a few of the wayward tips after they start to bloom to bring inside. Forsythia cuttings work well in floral arrangements, and the flowers can last for several weeks if you change the water in the vase every few days.

You can also prune Forsythia after they finish blooming. Prune a mature forsythia bush to control its shape by clipping off the ends of branches and removing any broken or damaged limbs. Thin out overgrown bushes by removing 1/4 to 1/3 of the branches, cutting the off the canes just above ground level. Removing the shoots opens the interior of the plant, increasing air circulation and light penetration to stimulate new growth.

And new growth means more yellow flowers!

Forsythia send out new shoots from the base of the plant, and these can be dug up and transplanted to grow into new forsythia plants. All of the forsythias in our yard started as small shoots from my grandfather’s garden. He used a sharp spade to cut into the soil around the base of the shoot, freeing the little shrub from its parent plant. Grand Pop transferred the little transplants into re-purposed gardening center pots for the journey to their new home, but you can easily transplant the shoots directly into the ground. Select a sunny location in the landscape where the little plant will have lots of room to spread out and grow for many years of springtime blooms.

When transplanting forsythia, keep in mind that the plant can easily grow up to 10 feet tall and wide, and will naturally develop a wild and unkempt appearance. Choose the locations for planting forsythia accordingly and let the plant grow unrestrained rather that trying to keep it small and orderly through harsh pruning. If you only have a small space for a plant, the forsythia may not be the best choice. But if you have the room to let it grow out naturally (with a little selective pruning, of course), then forsythias will reward you with years of bright yellow blooms.

Grand Pop is gone now, but his legacy still thrives in my gardens and in my memories. Every spring when the forsythias are in bloom, I’m reminded of how much he loved these common yellow plants, and I’m glad that he shared his appreciation with me.

Hard Pruning Small Forsythia Plants

Though I prefer selective pruning, this method of hard pruning reduces spindly growth and encourages a young forsythia to sprout more branches and canes for a fuller plant. Older plants that have grown out of control or are failing to bloom prolifically can be cut back to the ground to rejuvenate the plant.

Forsythia are vigorous growers, and the hard pruning method stimulates new growth. The hard-pruned plant will sprout new canes from the base of the plant and within a season or two, the forsythia will be blooming again.

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Forcing Forsythia To Bloom Indoors

Enjoy Spring Blooms in Late Winter

February and into early March is the ideal time to try forcing forsythia cuttings to bloom indoors. The forcing process is easy, gets you out and into the garden (even if there is still snow on the ground), and the reward is a vase full of bright yellow forsythia flowers to enjoy indoors.

It takes about two to three weeks to force a forsythia cutting to bloom indoors.
  • 1
    Go get some cuttings: Trim several branches from a dormant forsythia plant, using sharp bypass pruners to make a clean cut. Make sure that each cutting includes a number of buds, and cut the stems into different lengths for variety. Arranging different heights of blooming forsythia adds more interest than if every cutting is the same length.

    Submerge the cut ends of the branches into a bucket of warm water.
  • 2
    Prepare the cuttings: Forsythia cuttings need to take in water before they can be forced to bloom. Scrape the bark away from the lower couple of inches on each stem. Using a sharp knife, make two or three vertical incisions up from the bottom of the stem (you can also use a hammer to gently smash the ends of the stem).

    Soak the cuttings overnight in cool water. This will help the cuttings to absorb more water.
  • 3
    Fill up a vase: Place the cuttings upright into a vase, and add water. Some folks like to add a few drops of bleach to the water, but I prefer tepid water straight from the tap. Change the water every few days to keep it clean and fresh.

    Place the vase of cuttings in a cool area away from direct sunlight, such as in the basement or garage. Wrapping the cuttings with damp paper towels helps to prevent the buds from drying out.
  • 4
    Pop out the flowers: When the buds begin to swell and change color, move the vase into a well-lit location, but avoid placing the cuttings in direct sunlight. The buds will soon pop open with a burst of color!
  • 5
    Enjoy fresh forsythia blooms indoors! From cuttings to flowers, it takes about two to three weeks to force a forsythia cutting to bloom indoors.

More Gardening Pages To Explore


The Tangle of Forsythia Blooms in Our Garden

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Tell Us About Your Forsythias and Flowering Shrubs

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  • StephenJParkin Mar 03, 2014 @ 7:36 am
    I love to see these yellow flowers as it is one of the first signs that the long Canadian Winter is finally on its way out. Great Lens thank you for writing it.
  • JanetG Mar 02, 2014 @ 10:42 am
    Yellow forsythia burst forth and make me jump for joy when I see this early sign of spring. When you see those yellow blossoms, you know it's time to apply crab grass killer in our northern area. Beautiful lens with lots of great info. Thanks for sharing this sunny lens. It lifts my spirits to see it.
  • VickiSims Mar 01, 2014 @ 8:43 am
    My current yard is too shady for forsythias, but I look forward to the day when I have a sunnier location where I can enjoy their spring flowers.
  • River_Rose Feb 28, 2014 @ 4:20 pm
    Great info here. Thanks for sharing. Never had a Forsythias bush, but they are pretty.
  • PaulaLeDuigou Feb 26, 2014 @ 4:29 pm
    Beautiful lens! Its being featured on our "The Green Thumb: A Place For Gardeners To Gather" Facebook page. Please like/share it with your friends.
  • mountainmist Feb 25, 2014 @ 12:35 pm
    Great lens! I want to mix forsythia and lilac bushes. I think the yellow and lavender would look so nice together.
  • DebMartin Feb 22, 2014 @ 7:35 pm
    I love forsythia but mine need help. Not sure what the issue is. I got my forsythia from my father whose forsythia gave an amazing show. I can't trim mine in late winter as we have so much snow I often can't even find the plant. I wonder if I have a soil issue. Any tips?
  • partybuzz Feb 21, 2014 @ 9:20 am
    I always love seeing these pretty yellow blooms, as it means SPRING at last! Congratulations on LotD!
  • Anonymous831 Feb 20, 2014 @ 9:58 pm
    Nice lens.
  • Feb 20, 2014 @ 8:42 pm
    I don't exactly have a green thumb but this is a groovy lens. Congratulations on getting LotD!

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