Forsythia – Should You Use Them In Your Landscape?

Design, Plantings · Written by Roger

28 Comments

Forsythia has to be one of the most well known plants.  Heck, I’ll bet it’s right up there with Christmas trees and roses.

Forsythia actually makes me think of childhood.   Probably because it was what we saw when the weather first started to get warm and we could play more outside.

Forsythia intermedia - Border Forsythia

Forsythia intermedia - Border Forsythia

Although Forsythia is not a plant I use frequently, it does have its place and use in the landscape.

Up close (and especially when leafless), they tend to look a little “helter skelter”.  Dare I say ratty?

However, from a distance (and especially in leaf) they do have a pleasing mounded form.

How Do Forsythias Operate?

The two types of forsythia you’re most likely to see are Forsythia intermedia (Border Forsythia) and Forsythia suspensa (Weeping Forsythia).

Border Forsythia has a broad rounded shape when it gets older (presuming it doesn’t get annihilated by a power shear, of course).  It can get up to 10′ high and equally wide if given the space and license.

Forsythia suspensa - Weeping Forsythia

Forsythia suspensa - Weeping Forsythia

Weeping Forsythia is a bit different from Border Forsythia.  It has more of a spreading look about it with long trailing branches.  It too can get 10′ wide; maybe not quite as tall.

Both have the trademark trait of flowering yellow in early spring (around early April here in the Northeast).  Weeping Forsythia, however, does not have as rich a color or profusion of flower as Border Forsythia.

Forsythia are not finicky and will adapt to most conditions.   I have seen Forsythia bothered by spider mite when the plant becomes drought stressed.  They flower and grow best in sunny locations.

A well-established plant will push out some suckers around its base; you could, therefore, call it a “colonizing” plant.

Basically, Forsythia is not meant to be pruned.  If pruning is necessary because its growing out of its space or its getting a little too “wild and woolly,” here are 2 strategies:

  1. Because Forsythia bloom on “old wood,” you must prune soon after flowering in the spring. Selective pruning with a hand pruner works great on cutting back aggressive branching.  If you really need to get the beast under control, you can cut the entire plant back as far as you want – it will “rejuvenate”.
  2. Another technique is to go inside the plant and prune out the oldest, heaviest stems leaving the younger.

Note: Early spring, right after flowering and before the leaves come out, is the best time to do any of this pruning/rejuvenating work on Forsythia.

So, Should You Use Forsythia?

We’ve all heard the adage “use the right plant in the right spot”.  Using Forsythia off in a distant border planting with plenty of room to “do its thing” is fine.  Another use is on a large slope where there’s an expansive area to plant.  Here the fountain-like branching of Weeping Forsythia could work well; the “colonizing” suckers would help stabilize the slope.

Oh, and let’s not forget Forsythia’s claim to fame, that gorgeous show of yellow flowers.  They’re like the town crier announcing the arrival of spring.

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    28 Responses to “Forsythia – Should You Use Them In Your Landscape?”

    1. angel Says:

      which forsythia would you recommend in el paso texas

    2. Roger Says:

      El Paso is in hardiness zone 8, and both Forsythia intermedia (Border Forsythia) and Forsythia suspensa (Weeping Forsythia) are hardy there.

      Unless you have a situation where the weeping characteristic is important, I’d choose F. intermedia (Border Forsythia).

    3. Sonya Says:

      Would the Border Forsythia do well being planted under an old oak tree?

    4. Roger Says:

      Sonya,
      Forsythia is best grown in full sun. It will tolerate some shade, but at the expense of its flowering.

      If the oak’s canopy is up high and some lower light or filtered light is getting through, you might be OK with an acceptable amount of flowering. More light/sun = more flowering.

      If you’re planning a large planting of forsythia (e.g. a hedge or mass planting), you could experiment and plant 2 or 3, and then see how they react next spring after a 1 year growth cycle. I realize this may not be practical for you.

      Alternatively you could consider using a viburnum that would tolerate partial shade (e.g. Viburnum X rhytidophyloides, common name: Lantanaphyllum Viburnum, or Viburnum dentatum, common name: Arrowwood Viburnum). Also, I’ve grown Hydrangea paniculata, common name: Panicle Hydrangea under high-canopied oaks with success. Hydrangea quercifolia, common name: Oakleaf Hydrangea, would also do well.

    5. Shanda Says:

      The Oakleaf Hydrangea is very confusing…… Many websites say Morning Sun to afternoon Shade for the pretty fall foliage. What is your opinion?

      Also, I have an area that I have found dificulty getting other plants to grow because of the runoff…….. It does get full sun….. maybe a home for my 2 forsythia? what do you think?

    6. Roger Says:

      Hi Shanda,
      Culturally, Oakleaf Hydrangea will take sun to part-shade. The further south you are the more shade, and perhaps moisture, you want to provide. In terms of the degree of fall color, I don’t believe there’s too much correlation between sun exposure and fall color (i.e. from sun to part-shade). It’s noted by Michael Dirr (plant expert and author) that there are “phenomenal variations in virtually all traits (flowering & fall color) within the species”. This certainly has been my experience too.

      Here in northern NJ I have Oakleaf Hydrangea on the east side of my home. There is also a canopy of shade trees overhead. So it gets a minimum amount of filtered sun and is sometimes dry during the year because I am not a fan of regimented watering for woody plants. Most years it flowers beautifully and is now (mid-Oct.) in full fall color.

      I would say that if you can provide Morning Sun to Afternoon Shade that would generally be a great exposure for Oakleaf Hydrangea.

      With regard to the difficult area you have to get things to grow, yes the runoff is not helping. Of course there could be other things at play here… But the forsythia would be a great plant in terms of toughness and its ability to adapt. We have certainly used it on exposed slopes for its hardiness and erosion control.

    7. Gary Says:

      Is the Weeping Forsythia good for a hedge? I have about 100 feet along the road that I want to plant as a hedge for privacy.

    8. Roger Says:

      Forsythia works well as a border hedge. However, give it plenty of room width wise, especially near the road. It would not be unusual for the hedge to occupy 8 to 10′ of width/property as it matures.

      Yes, you can keep it in-check to some degree, but try to avoid creating a difficult maintenance task for yourself.

      If you have the room, position the forsythia at least 7 to 8′ (measuring from the center of the plant) from the road. If you’re in an area where road salt is used during snow falls, the further away from the road the better.

      Also, remember to think about “line of sight” in terms of traffic, pulling out of a driveway, etc. Town codes sometimes come into play here too.

    9. Carol Says:

      I just bought 3 healthy looking forsythias and want to plant them on the north side of my house. It is shady in the morning and hot and sunny in the afternoon. Is this enough sun to make them bloom? We have clay soil but it’s on a hill so they should drain well. Thanks.

    10. Roger Says:

      Hi Carol,
      I think the forsythia will be fine. It sounds like they’re going to get at least 4 hours of sun in the afternoon, and that should support the flowering. It could be that the flowering is not as profuse as if they had full/all-day sun, but I think you’ll be pleased with the amount.

      The fact that the land is sloped is good, especially with the clay soil.

      You sound like a knowledgeable gardener. :-) Good luck!

    11. Kristien Says:

      I wanted to know what is the distance from the home that I should plant the bush? I do not want any root issues or anything like that.

      God Bless and Thank you,
      Kristien

    12. Roger Says:

      Hi Kristien,
      You should not have any root issues with forsythia. Their roots are fibrous and would not harm the foundation. If you had a french drain of sorts (perforated pipe w/ gravel) for drainage nearby, then you might be concerned that the forsythia’s root system could grow into that system.

      An important consideration is the mature size of the plant so it’s not crowded against the house in the future. Yes you can cut them back severely, but you don’t want to have to do that – it looks terrible and will affect the flowering.

      So if you think of the average “mature” width of a forsythia (there are many varieties) at 8′ +/-, then you would want to be 5′ or more from the building. This measurement is from the “center” of the plant to the building.

      I know that when a plant is young and small this amount of spacing can seem like a lot, but keep in mind that mature size.

      When proper spacing on a job can seem too much because the plants are young, we’ll fill in with perennials and other herbaceous plants. These fleshy filler plants don’t compete with the woody shrubs and can easily be removed as the woody shrub grows to fill the space. Daylily is a good example of a filler plant, but there are many to pick from.

    13. Charlie Says:

      Roger,

      Great responses to the questions asked and really helped me decided where to place my forsythia.

      Here in Central Oregon, I am at 3600 feet elevation and I need drought resistant plants. Saw the forsythia for sale at the local market so thought I would try it.

    14. John Ahlstrom Says:

      I, too, remember Forsythia fondly as the 2nd harbinger of spring – after crocuses – in southwestern New York. I would love to have the brilliant yellow in Portland, OR, but I don’t have the room for a 10′ by 10′ bush.

      What would be an early spring bright yellow alternative ?

      Thanks

    15. Roger Says:

      John,
      You could try Kerria japonica ‘Picta’, which stays relatively small.

      I’ve used Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’ with great success, but it does get a bit large. Not as big as forsythia though.

    16. Patricia Says:

      We had to remove old growth maples. Can I plant a forsythia in the hole after the stump is removed without fear that the roots won’t be able to grow?

    17. Roger Says:

      Patricia,
      It’s good you’re removing the stump(s) and not grinding them.

      With the stumps removed you should not have a problem getting forsythia to grow.

    18. Susan Says:

      Hello Roger,

      The photo at the top of your article (the Border Forsythia), how many plants are there? Is that one mature plant or a couple? It is hard to tell from the photo and I am trying to imagine the mature plants after spacing. Can you say a bit more about that photograph (e.g., number of plants, spacing if more than one).

      Thank you! I appreciate your responses and the questions people have asked. They are exactly the ones I have!

      Susan

    19. Roger Says:

      Susan,
      It’s hard to say what the exact spacing on these forsythia is. But because they get up to 10′ wide, you might space new plants 5-6′ center-to-center. You could certainly space them further apart (e.g. 6-8′ C-C), and they’ll eventually join, but that initial spacing may seem too much to you if you’re planting basic nursery sized plants (e.g. 5-6′ tall).

      Be conscious of the space you provide front to back also. I’ve seen fences get engulfed by forsythia, and driveways/walkways get covered.

      Oh, I see you were asking about the number of plants. I’d say there are 3 plants there.

    20. Judy Quinones Says:

      Hi Roger,

      I live in central NJ and I’d like to plant forsythia as a border plant both in my backyard (flat land) and my side yard (sloped valley like). We have clay soil here and the space where I want them for my side yard is actually sloped towards the center on both sides (like a valley), ideally I’d like to plant in the valley area since the top is too close to the driveway on one side and the other top side is too far away to water. Both areas are currently full of weeds (thistle mostly). I have several questions that I would very much appreciate your help with:
      1. What is the best time to plant forsythias? If I were to plant now in June will I have a harder time due to watering everyday during the summer? I can certainly wait to plant in the fall if that’s better.
      2. Should I kill the weeds first and pull them out with roots and all or can I just weed whack them and plant. Will the forsythias drown the weeds or vice-versa?
      3. The area of my side yard where I want to plant doesn’t have great drainage because of the “valley effect”. Do I have to fill in with soil first?
      4. Due to the clay soil do I have to put top soil first so the forsythias have a better chance?
      5. Do I have to mulch the area after I plant?

      Thank you!!!

      Judy

    21. Roger Says:

      Judy,
      1. Spring would be the best time to plant. You’re right — summer watering could be a challenge, unless you set up a soaker hose. Fall is a possibility, but I’d wait until spring (if you can).
      2. I would first weed-whack the weeds down so some of their stems and foliage remain, then I’d spray with Round-up to kill the entire plant, i.e. root and all. After 7-10 days you can plant. After planting I’d mulch the new plants for the many benefits of mulch, including suppressing weed growth.
      3. Rather than fill in the low area I’d plant “uphill” from the bottom 3′ or so. You want to have the new plants out of the area of drainage.
      4. You could amend the clay soil with some peat moss. There’s ongoing discussion as to the merits of amending soil in the planting hole. I think peat will help a bit overall, and to no detriment.
      5. Yes, I’d definitely mulch.

    22. Paula Says:

      I might be hallucinating—wow, is this font LIGHT! I can’t see what I’m typing. I’m 50. Anyway….
      I rescued what I thought were two sprigs of forsythia from the property line. They were growing about 2 feet apart. I found out what they were (I thought) and that they do better in sun and transplanted it to the front of my yard.
      I planted both stems together and cut them down hard in the spring.One grew out and the other didn’t. Now I’m not sure they’re both forsythia, because the leaves on the short one are darker green and some are spatulate and some oblong, pointed at the end. The ones on the taller are lighter (maybe just new growth is the explanation) and they’re definitely oblong with points at the end.
      But some leaves on the two plants look exactly like each other.
      Is it possible to have leaves this different on the same type of plant? Are there two different types of forsythia here?

    23. Roger Says:

      Paula,
      It’s difficult to identify the exact plant without seeing it and examining the characteristics. And even then, sometimes I’m not sure.

      When that happens I send a sample down to Rutgers University here in NJ. They are our state’s agricultural cooperative extension. They offer plant ID as well as diagnostic services for all plant problems.

      I believe every state has a similar service. Here’s the USDA’s map of extension partners. Just click on your state to find who you should contact.

    24. Paula Says:

      I’m stupid. I put some photos in Photobucket then didn’t give you the link.
      I will keep the link you gave me though and check it out.

    25. Mary Says:

      Sir,
      I have two types of forsythia growing in my yard now … Although I love them both … They are very different in growing habit … One, the older grows up from the ground and spreads where it touches, kind of wild and bramble like. These plant seem to be widely available. I once found my second variety, a “bush type” plant … Growing in a somewhat controlled shape, or easily pruned, from a main stem. They flower equally and at approximately the same time of year … I am curious to know if you can tell me the name of the bush type plant … As the Lynwood golds I find for sale in my area are the bramble wild looking variety …

    26. Roger Says:

      Mary,
      I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with forsythia — it’s just not a plant I use on my projects.

      I tried to do some quick research to find a current variety that’s recommended — one that would stay neater for you. It seems the Forsythia suspensa varieties are less wild.

      There are dozens of varieties out there. Your best bet is to visit local nurseries, see what varieties they have, and then look up those particular varieties to see how their “growth habit” is described.

      There are even more compact types available, and that might be a category that is neater and more contained.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

    27. Kelley Says:

      We are having a row of old spruce trees removed. The stumps will be ground. Will we be able to plant forsythia there? Can we use the chips from the trees for ground covering/mulch?

    28. Roger Says:

      Kelley,
      Just make sure the majority of the grindings are removed from the area. They’re not ideal to mix with the planting soil.

      Fresh wood chips/grindings tie-up nitrogen in the soil until they age. Your best bet is to take the fresh chips/grinding and use them as mulch where there aren’t landscape plants, e.g. woodland paths or in the woodland itself with established trees.

      Make sure the stumps are ground down deep enough for the forsythia (12″+), then use a good soil for planting. You may have to have some delivered. Then use a nice (aged) mulch on top (3″ or so), but not up against the base of the plant.

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