Forsythias need to be free

By Barbara Eckstein via Creative Commons

As much as I long for spring, there is one sight I am dreading. It’s the clipped hedges that were once beautiful spring-flowering shrubs, but now have become boxy travesties of their natural selves, dotted here and there with a few flowers that have managed to survive the pruning frenzy. The worst offenders are the over-pruned forsythias. These are really noticeable, because the yellow of forsythia is among the first signs of spring in Western New York. It should be a wild blaze of yellow, not a tortured row of bare branches dotted with yellow.

Here’s a quote from my cooperative extension site:

Hedging destroys the natural beauty of the shrub and limits the number of blooms to a thin mantle of blooms on the sheared surface. The most beautiful shrubs have blooms throughout the plant, up and down the stem.

Right. That’s what I’m saying. I’m no pruning expert, but there are plenty out there and a survey of them indicates that the best time to prune forsythia is after it blooms. And here are a couple quotes from a guy we all respect, Michael Dirr: “Forsythia was not made for extensive pruning,” and “does not belong in foundation plantings.” Foundation planting forsythias are generally the ones you’ll see chopped down into boxes or balls.

Full disclosure: I don’t have a forsythia. They require a lot of sun and are the type of one-hit wonders I simply can’t afford to give space to. But I love enjoying the forsythias of other gardeners and many that I see along country roads: big, sprawling yellow explosions, all. Just a few weeks more …

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I understand Elizabeth. I love forsythias–once a year, when they bloom, as I walk or drive by them. Not likely to ever plant them. I feel the same way about lilacs too; unfortunately, I inherited some on my property, so I have to prune them. They are hard to get rid of once they’re established.

  2. If you have forsythia, you might feel different about pruning them. I tried letting mine be “free”… and the tips of the branches drooped and rooted. If I let them be, they would take over the yard. While I love seeing them in the spring, I am going to let other people grow them while I try to eradicate mine, or at least tame them.

    • There are alternative ways to prune forsythia beyond shearing them. That said, sometimes plants are just too big for their location.

  3. Here’s another reason not to waste garden space on Forsythia: it was given a sore of ZERO on both pollen and nectar. It has no significant benefit to pollinators or other wildlife. I used to think “Oh, that’s good, an early blooming plant for those just waking up bees and butterflies,” but no, the flowers might as well be plastic! Another illustration of the problems that result from embracing alien plants, even those that are not invasive!

  4. It pains my soul to see these and other tortured shrubs. My fantasy is to change the world one shrub at a time!

    There is a camellia in my southern hometown that has been pruned into a “Go Dogs Go” cartoon tree for years. Nary a leaf out of place in the perfect hard, outer shell atop a single trunk. Evil!

  5. Cannot agree more. However …they are Deer proof & make good hedging material. So many other Hedge plants are highly invasive, not so Forsythia – I put on the blinders and suffer though the repulsive bloom stage and forgive.

  6. Can’t imagine a forsythia hedge, however, agree with the poster above that forsythias need AGGRESSIVE pruning. I have one that I will take a chainsaw to after it blooms this spring, and then next year the blooms will be more abundant and it will be somewhat easier to stay ahead of. Currently it is about 9 feet tall and way too wide for the space. They spread through runners as well as aggressively self-layering, so unless they are in a large field they need to be kept in check.

    • Came to post the same. Forsythia, crocus and daffodils blooming are my harbingers of spring (I even bring some forsythia twigs inside earlier to bloom in a vase), but darn that forsythia and its desire to run as well as form new plants from droopers. Can’t imagine liking it as a hedged shrub though.

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