Our Forlorn Forsythia and the Subtle Spicebush

We used to have a whole hedge of Forsythia along the east side of the house. All had to be dug up a few years ago when we waterproofed the basement. I was not devastated to see them go, as their departure meant it was time for:  Border Makeover! Which means the purchase of all sorts of new plants. But that is a topic for another day.

Our depressed Forsythia
Our depressed Forsythia

There is one Forsythia that remains. It is in the back garden, and it seems depressed. I don’t have a picture of the whole thing, but from this photo you should be able to see that it is blooming sparsely.

The happy Forsythia across the street.
The happy Forsythia across the street.

Across the street one of the neighbors has a fine example of what a happy Forsythia should look like.

We need our Forsythia to perk up. After it’s done flowering (the proper time to prune Forsythia), I was thinking I would cut out the older stems. Also treat it to some composted manure, maybe some fertilizer. I could also try nagging, constantly asking our Forsythia why it can’t be more like the Forsythia across the street.

Do any of you have suggestions for reviving a sad Forsythia?

Spicebush flowers.
Spicebush flowers.

Very near our Forsythia we have several Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that seem reasonably content. Spicebush is a native shrub that also has yellow flowers in early spring.

More Spicebush flowers.
More Spicebush flowers.

While Forsythia (when happy) is like a marching band, Spicebush is more of a string quartet. Its flowers are fuzzy and small, and a softer shade of yellow.

And even more Spicebush flowers.
And even more Spicebush flowers.

Spicebush does offer more multi-season interest than Forsythia, in my opinion. The larger oblong leaves are attractive and have a citrus scent if crushed. They provide food for the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, though I personally haven’t seen any.

Spicebush has red fruits (loved by birds) in late summer and decent fall color.

But back to the sad Forsythia. Can anyone offer some advice?

48 Comments on “Our Forlorn Forsythia and the Subtle Spicebush

  1. I know that the ‘rules’ state that Forsythias benefit from a bit of fertilizer applied in spring (something high in potassium to encourage flowering), but it doesn’t look like your neighbour gives theirs much attention to get the results! Did yours once flower well? If so, removing at least 1/4 of it (to within no more than 4″ of the ground) might get it to perform well in a few seasons’ time. It won’t be fantastic by next spring, maybe the one after. Otherwise, if it has never really flowered brilliantly, it might just be the cultivar….

  2. If it’s an old shrub and hasn’t been pruned much I would cut it right down this year and give it a completely fresh start… I have done the same here (about 5 or 6 years ago) and it will take a couple of years to flower well, but it worked for me and mine now looks like your neighbour’s!

  3. When I was feeling energetic one year, I pruned out the old branches of my forsythia (as you mention) and it came back like your neighbors’ the next year.
    I love cut a few forsythia branches in February and bring them indoors to force for a spring preview.

  4. ooooH, that spring quartet is gorgeous. As to forsythia it may not get enough sun?? I have never known a forsythia that doesn’t deliver. Sometimes cutting them back almost to the ground makes them bushier and you know the proper time to do this. Good luck.

  5. When you speak to her are you certain that you are using a forsythia loving tone? A fresh start helps with kids and grandkids; perhaps that might help your forlorn one.

  6. Mark Zamparda at CBG is teaching us that the buds are often killed in zone 5. But that doesn’t explain why everyone else’s is blooming. Mine isn’t blooming either, so off with its head this year! And if it doesn’t come back with blooms next year, it’s a goner. Phooey to fertilizer for it. Problem will be digging up the horrible roots!

    • I wish I were taking that class, but my schedule won’t allow it. Last year the buds were killed by a frost, but I hadn’t thought that was the case this year.

  7. I say chop it back hard. It’s got two chances to redeem itself and if not, get rid and choose a new one or perhaps even a different shrub.

  8. Wow. I’ve never seen a depressed forsythia. I thought they could thrive despite any abuse. I bet if you chuck it into the compost pile it will perk up!

  9. I agree…spicebush is a better shrub. my forsythia wouldn’t bloom well here either so I took them out except for the dwarf that blooms profusely in full sun next to the driveway where it is buried in snow every winter.

  10. I ended up with a forlorn forsythia in my last garden, after Hurricane Sandy came through; it looked pretty much exactly like yours does: sparse and stressed-out. I took a deep breath and cut it back hard. That was last spring, and coincidentally I drove past my former house yesterday (I am morbidly curious to see what things the new owners will end up ripping out) and noticed it now looks much better. It gets full sun until the adjacent linden trees leaf out (mid to late May here) and then only part shade until October.

  11. Your neighbor’s forsythia does look really good. I can’t give any advice because mine didn’t even survive.

    When you said the turkeys at your brother’s house — you mean towards people?

  12. Love the spicebush! I tend to agree with the other commenters that replacing the forsythia with something more interesting (more seasons of interest) is the answer, but have you tried threats? If a peony isn’t blooming, I threaten it with the compost pile, and so far, that has always worked.

    • I have not used threats, but it is worth considering. Another option would be guilt. I could mope around the Forsythia and sigh, saying things like: “I really wanted lots of bright flowers here in spring, it helps my arthritis so much. But never mind, I’ll be fine, I guess.”

    • Darn, Corylopsis isn’t quite hardy here. But I can always tell the Forsythia that if it isn’t happy where it is, there are PLENTY of shrubs willing to take its place.

  13. I wonder if the forsythia gets enough sunlight. They act just that way when they don’t and after 25 years I’m sure the surrounding trees must have grown quite a lot. Spicebush grows naturally in the woods, so it wouldn’t be affected by the increasing shade in the same way.
    In any case you’ll know after your pruning / fertilizing experiment. You could try root pruning in late summer too. That sometimes shocks sulking plants into blooming.

  14. No, I don’t have any advice. We have a sprawling, creeping set of low-growing Forsythias that I’m just about to pull out. I rarely do that, but these guys are driving me crazy. They’re impossible to rake under, because they’re so low-growing. I’d much prefer the taller cultivar. Mine barely bloom, too. I think I’ll clip the set way back this year and see what happens. So, I’m following the advice of all your commenters, too. Thanks!

  15. I had an old forsythia which stopped flowing, I cut it back hard and it began to flower again, but it did take it’s time. I do like the lovely flowers on your spicebush.xxx

  16. Hi, Jason! Glad I could see your blog. Previous days it was not available, why? Love the second photo – forsythia is wonderful!

  17. I’m going to go with the not enough sun diagnosis. Whack it back anyway though. They always seem to like that.
    We used to always get poor flowering on the bush nearest the bird feeder. The house sparrows enjoyed picking apart the flower bubs all winter, and when spring rolled around there were no blooms left wherever they perched.

  18. Hello Jason, we just bought a Forsythia this weekend to go in a new border! I think they respond well to pruning so I would try the rule of thirds (take the third oldest out this year, another third the year after etc.), a good manure mulch and fertiliser high in potash should also help it on its way. I don’t know what the lifetimes of these shrubs are but I do know they also take easily from hardwood cuttings so try that too for insurance. Failing everything, they’re pretty cheap plants anyway!

  19. I have a single Forsythia left from a row that was taken out. Replaced the rest with red twig dogwoods that have been so so. I often think it’s lonely back there all by itself. It definitely has on and off years, and seems to behave independently of the others in the area. I might try pruning it this year too.

  20. They used to look great and then a few years ago they got a fungus that attacks old wood. They’ve been in recovery for a few years now. Still don’t look great. The neighbor’s beautiful huge ones acting as a privacy hedge died completely.

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