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Urban Gardener: Forsythias Advance on Spring

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Drip, drop, drip, drop, splash: the great thaw begins. Each morning a red cardinal has sung to me from high up an oak tree and I whistle back his greeting. When he hears me he calls me again. I wet my lips, purse, and reply. Our lively exchange is more urgent as sunshine gathers strength. The snow pack is thick and heavy below and bird song is above. Days are longer, cold is loosening its grip and we’re all just a little tired of scarves, mittens and too many layers of clothes. What we like best is to have more cheer in our life and what’s better for family and friends than growing some lovely blooms? Now is a good time to start.

Forsythias Proclaim Early Spring

Urban gardeners are lucky in our region. Year after year forsythias were planted by gardeners and often out lived their planters. Far beyond generations of love sturdy forsythia bushes have colonized vacant lots and often define these places as once having been home. Our purposes are simple and have benefits for this vigorous shrub and gardeners too.

The forsythia proclaims early spring like few other shrubs. This early import to the USA from Japan in the 19th century was an instant gardening sensation of its day. Quick to adapt to our climate, its requirements are modest indeed. They are not fussy about soil as long as it’s well drained. Forsythia likes sunshine and will scrounge a living from soils any other plant would abandon. Don’t be altogether deceived friends. I’ve fertilized     forsythia and pampered it with compost, manure and thick mulches. It loves these nostrums. However, don’t wait until you have perfect soil before planting. Rather, let’s begin while it’s still winter and advance on spring. Here’s a garden project good for the family or those who just must have blooms in the home. Nothing uplifts the spirit more than the golden yellow forsythia bloom.

This shrub will settle in between cracked pavements, granite curbs, and survive fires, hurricanes and floods. It will form dense mounds of long stemmed shoots and blooms appear on last year’s new growth. Plants of this habit are a boon to urban gardeners. We often are challenged to revive soils disturbed for centuries by waves of industrialization and generations of construction. As we reclaim our urban spaces with greenery it’s common and practical to avail ourselves of the tried and true. Stick with this horticultural winner and have some fun.

Pruning and Care

Groomed forsythia is very productive. Gardeners of every age can soon learn to recognize the distinctive shape of the mature forsythia, rarely more than ten feet tall and often easily that wide around. The thicket like growth offers homes to sparrows and other birds. Its dense growth offers protection to soil from direct sunlight. It’s deciduous habit of shedding leaves each fall creates perpetual mulch and is an excellent demonstration of the purposes of mulches in a natural setting. This hint can be improved upon to good results. Every garden needs a place to rake the extra leaves, the spare cuttings and culled plants. Forsythias offer a natural carpet to sweep all under and out of sight. Save your back a little and keep this sort of refuge from labor and care in parts of the garden.

About this time of year I find among the garden tools a pair of pruning shears and head out to the forsythia. Very affordable to buy once and quick to establish, the stems we select from the main shrub are from last year, you can easily discern them, and cut the pencil thick stems at a slight angle from the main stem. Look carefully at the stems. A magnifying glass makes everything more interesting and engages youngsters while their gardener adults demonstrate careful handling of sharp garden tools. It’s never too early for youngsters to learn the proper handling of hand tools. The best education is through example and never be cavalier with any tool with an edge or moving parts. Firmly and will mindful attention select a goodly dozen or so stems and harvest for the home.

Beautiful Flowers

Bring the fresh cut stems and put into a water filled container. It’s best to use a dark heavy duty vase or bucket that keeps the bottom third of the stems in water and away from sunlight. Place in a sunny window. Give the stems a chance; change the water if it becomes foul or smelly. Youngsters are good at detecting yuck and a fresh change of water is quick and easy. Within a week or so, the stems will burst into bloom. Golden yellow flowers will cover the stems in glory. Defy the remnants of snow and mush with this golden tribute.

Soon after the flowers have matured, bright green leaves will follow. Keep up with the water and rotate the container a quarter turn whenever replenishing the water. These are thirsty plants. The nodules you can see on the stems are roots in waiting. As the stems flower they are also developing roots. Coax along the stems into greenery. You’ll soon have many new forsythia plants to share with family and friends. Plant them in a permanent place where they will return love and care for many years. The cuttings serve many purposes.

The flowers are lovely, the new plants extend the range of forsythias around the city and the mother plant rebounds with vigorous new growth. This winning combination is within the grasp of all aspiring gardeners and brings a smile to veterans. Advance on spring and force start some forsythia today.

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees. 


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