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Forsythia is a very frequently-planted garden shrub, found ubiquitously in suburban gardens up and down the country. In a case of what's undoubtedly familiarity breeding contempt it doesn't seem to feature very highly on anyone's list of favourite garden plants: whenever anyone mentions it at all it tends to be in a rather sniffy manner - I remember reading a gardening article earlier this year in which someone talked about 'wall to wall Forsythia bushes' in a very condescending tone (which is I suppose what you get for picking up a weekend version of the 'Guardian'). Anyway, this generally negative media attitude towards the plant is a shame because it's easy to grow, brightly coloured, attractively shaped (if you leave it alone), tolerant of all sorts of soil and light conditions and seems to be generally problem-free.
Forsythia's downfall may be related to the fact that it can readily be trimmed into hedge-shapes - and hence as it's also a quick-growing plant that needs pruning if you want to 'keep it in check' it often is used as part of a garden hedge. To cut Forsythia into a boxy cube however is in my opinion to lose about 50% of its appeal, because left in a 'natural' shape it takes the form of a gently spreading, upright shrub with an almost willowy aspect, gained from its thin and delicate, straight, widely-spaced stems.
The other 50% of Forsythia's attractiveness comes - if you happen to like things that are bright yellow - from its flowers in spring. These burst forth early in the year, around the time the first garden bulbs are thinking of coming out, and cover the plant with a profusion of sunflower-yellow blossom. The flowers are at their best at the end of winter and add some very welcome colour and interest to the garden at an otherwise very dreary time of year. Then the pleasant, apple-green leaves come out properly and once the flowers have fallen, Forsythia retreats into the background once again, becoming much like any another garden shrub.
I was having some trouble getting anything to grow in an area of the garden I'd de-gravelled, where the soil quality subsequently was very, very poor indeed (about two inches of stony top-soil over sticky lumps of clay). I put a small Forsythia from the garden centre - about two feet high when I bought it - in at the edge of this plot and it seems to be growing very well - it's about four or five feet tall now, two years on and as I haven't pruned it, has a very attractive slightly spreading / upright shape. It's very heartening to see something growing so actively in this neglected plot and I hope that with its root system spreading underground, it'll even help condition the soil (by breaking it up) in this part of the garden. The Forsythia I got was severely reduced in a sale - down to £2 from an RRP of approx. £8 - £12 but as these are long-lived shrubs they're well worth the money.
For me spring is yellow. Have you noticed that many spring flowers are yellow? Travelling round the Mediterranean Sea in the spring months you can see fields of yellow marguerites beside the country lanes, if you have crocuses in your garden, you'll know that the yellow ones come out first and the violet and white ones follow later, and not to forget daffodils and forsythia! I asked a colleague, a teacher of biology, why that was so, but he was baffled, he didn't know and hadn't even noticed the phenomenon, however he admitted that my observation was right. Anybody out there with an explanation?
I'd like to tell you something about the forsythia shrub (the term shrub seems to be more widespread than bush), a member of the olive family but not so delicate as the olive tree, it grows well in our climate, too. We've got a shrub in our front garden which is in full bloom at the moment and a pleasure to look at. The leaves aren't out yet, they'll come later when the blossoms, four-lobed corollas, the petals only joined at the base, have fallen off.
Every other garden in our street has a forsythia shrub, as the street and the houses and with them the gardens (and the gardeners!) are quite old, I've always seen forsythia as an 'old' plant, something which doesn't appeal so much to young people. I'm happy to say that I'm mistaken, the other day I was in an area of the town with new houses where young families live and I saw a lot of forsythia, someone had planted several shrubs close to each other and pruned them into a dense hedge which looked very nice with the yellow blossoms on either side.
When we moved into our house more than thirty years ago, the shrub was already there, the fascinating thing is that we do nothing for it, we don't give it any attention before and after its spring performance, it doesn't grow in special soil, we don't feed it with mulch of well-rotted compost or bone meal as is advised in clever books on gardening, the natural humidity in our area in the south of Germany seems to suffice, it's happy without being watered regularly. It's exposed to full sun, though, which is vital for it. I can say from experience that forsythia is a low-maintenance, unfussy shrub which will stand almost total neglect and that you don't need a 'green thumb' to make it bloom.
If you don't have a forsythia shrub in your garden but have just decided that you want one, you can buy a specimen in a nursery, of course, and plant it in autumn, but I think it's more fun to wait until November and then cut off some tender tip cuttings (from a neighbour's shrub when they aren't looking which will make the shrub grow better!) and put them into soil, they'll root rather quickly. Forsythia can grow up to 3m (9 ft), most people leave it just like it is, others prune it into hedges as I mentioned before or - if they're from the South of Italy like my husband - in the shape of a palm tree. :-)
Pruning is best done when the blossoms are starting to fall off in order not to interrupt the growth and blooming cycle, another reason is that that is the time to tell older branches from younger ones, only the older branches have blossoms, the first year ones don't have any yet. It's not necessary to prune a forsythia shrub regularly, if you're content with the shape, you don't have to do it. If your shrub should ever lose its vigour and doesn't succeed in producing blossoms any more - I can't imagine when that will be the case looking at our ancient shrub in full bloom - it's advisable to cut the whole thingy off to the ground in the very early spring, it will then start all over again according to gardening specialists.
Soon the yellow show will be over and we'll have to wait another year, but we can outsmart nature and cut off some twigs in December and bring them indoors, it will only last a week or so and the blossoms will come out in the warmth and bring us a touch of spring.