Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading

How To Cope With Boxwood Blight: An Expert Weighs In

It’s not every day you get to discuss your problems with an international expert. But Lynn Batdorf is the real deal. Batdorf is the world’s top resource on everything boxwood, including all of the diseases and pests that affect this diverse species. Recently he spoke to me about how to deal with the latest threat to our gardens, the dreaded boxwood blight. Continue reading

Why Star Magnolia Deserves A Spot In Your Garden

First introduced from Japan in the 1860s, the star magnolia has become a staple of many American gardens. And for what it may lack in size, it sure makes up for in personality. Considered one of the smallest magnolias, it nevertheless produces a big tree’s worth of flowers. Tinted pink or white, the blossoms hang like fallen stars from the shrub’s smooth, bare branches in early spring. Continue reading

Native Pawpaw: The Best American Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

They say if you’re mama don’t know, you should go ask your papa. But, it’s anyone’s guess why Americans aren’t growing and eating the delicious fruit known as pawpaw. The small-sized tree produces the largest edible fruit native to North America. Continue reading

Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica 'Cheryl Lynn'

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Couple strolling past cascading forsythia hedge

(Updated March 2019)

My sister Cindy was born in late March. And every spring, when the forsythias bloomed, we celebrated with a family-coined phrase. My mother would say: These are for-Cynthia. My little sister would puff up with pride and it wasn’t long before she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I’ll never forget the canary carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.

Although I was secretly jealous that a flower bloomed especially for my sister, I grew to welcome the arrival of the sunny blooms. In my mind, forsythia will be forever tied to my sister, to March and the happy return of warm weather.

 

IT’S NOT THE BEST IN A MARTINI

It doesn’t taste good in tapenade either, but forsythia nevertheless belongs to the olive family, Oleaceae. Along with other showy members like lilac and jasmine, it is grown primarily for its bright, fragrant flowers. There are about 11 species, most of which are native to eastern Asia with one hailing from southeastern Europe.

Large flowering forsythia in a botanic garden

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FLOWERS

Forsythia’s early yellow blossoms are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this multi-branched, deciduous shrub. Developing before the leaves, they are produced in brilliant clusters on the previous year’s wood.

Forsythia buds on a bare branch

Forsythias flower on last year’s wood

Ranging in color from pale to deep yellow, each flower is composed of four elongated petals. 

Close-up of a forsythia flower

The flowers are followed by bright green foliage that turns shades of yellow or purple in the fall.

Leaves follow the blooms on a forsythia shrub

Forsythia foliage follows blooms

Best of all, barring a cold snap, forsythia flowers will last for two to three weeks. And if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to force them indoors

Forced forsythia blooms in a glass vase

Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors

WHY ISN’T MY FORSYTHIA BLOOMING?

As a garden designer, I am often asked this question. The answer usually lies in when the shrub was pruned. Since forsythias produce their buds on the prior year’s growth, it’s imperative to prune them right after they flower. Otherwise, you risk cutting off the majority of next year’s blooms.

Less frequently, prolonged periods of unusually cold weather can negatively affect flowering for the coming season.

Close-up of forsythia leaves

If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll cut off next year’s blooms

Forsythias are fast-growing. When left untended, they easily become leggy. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine back by a third every spring right after flowering.) The shrubs will quickly bounce back and push out new growth the following year.

WHAT ARE THE BEST VARIETIES AVAILABLE TODAY?

Most of today’s modern varieties are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. These were the first species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. 

Forsythia suspensa, commonly called Weeping forsythia, is a popular plant all on its own and is still widely grown for its large size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10-feet. Its characteristic weeping habit makes it an excellent hedging plant. It also looks great on a slope or hanging over a wall where its drooping blooms can be fully appreciated.

Forsythia suspensa

Forsythia suspensa

That being said, it is the hybrid of Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima, Forsythia x intermedia, that is behind many of the most popular cultivars today. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border forsythia, the medium-sized, upright shrub has the bright yellow flowers most commonly associated with the species. The cross has also produced many new varieties, including a number of lower-maintenance, more compact forms. 

Golden yellow Forsythia x intermedia

Golden Bells

If you’re looking to create a hedge, I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow cultivars Arnold Giant, Lynwood Gold, Karl Sax and Spectabilis. They’ll happily grow unimpeded to 8- to 10-feet or more. The dwarf varieties Arnold Dwarf and Gold Tide are two popular forms that grow to just 3 feet and are often used as groundcovers. However, in my experience, Gold Tide likes to be wider than tall. So beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.

Golden Peep and Goldilocks are small and have compact branching. They look great close up to the house or in the flower border.  They also make great container plants. The slightly larger Sunrise is a great choice if you’re looking for fall leaf color.

FORSYTHIA LIKES TO PUT DOWN ROOTS

Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not so desirable in a garden. Most springs, I chop off these offspring to keep things under control.

Close-up of forsythia flower

BEST BLOOMS IN FULL SUN

For the best blooms, plant Forsythia x intermedia varieties in full sun to part shade. The shrubs need a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day to flower. Like most plants, forsythias perform best in well-drained soil.

 

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

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You could say that evergreens are the stars of cold weather, instantly infusing drab winter landscapes with color and texture. When well sited, watered and fed, most can stand up to the harshest of conditions. Still, some evergreens are less equipped than others to battle icy winds and harsh winter sun. These are the plants that can benefit from a little extra TLC to prepare them for colder temperatures. Continue reading

Boxwood Care: How To Identify And Treat 4 Common Pests and Diseases

Boxwood balls in the landscape

Boxwood has been a garden staple for centuries. Not only does it add structure to outdoor spaces, but its dense, evergreen foliage can be sheared into almost any shape imaginable. For those of us on the East Coast, the fact that deer won’t eat it only adds to its appeal. There’s just one problem: it’s plagued by a bunch of pests and diseases. Continue reading

How To Create Winter Interest In the Garden

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“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”

~  Andrew Wyeth

I grew up near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. The American painter, Andrew Wyeth, drew his inspiration from this place, beautifully capturing the winter landscape in a subdued mix of browns, whites, tans and grays. My winters were painted in the same palette, made all the more rich by the stark outlines of bare branches silhouetted against a white sky. Nature sure knew how to create a lot of winter interest. Continue reading