For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Cascading forsythia hedge

My sister Cindy was born in late March and every spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. I can still remember my mother’s voice: these are for-Cynthia she would say. My little sister would puff up with pride and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that later on she naturally gravitated towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary yellow bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.

Although I was secretly envious that a flower bloomed specifically for my sister (or at least our mother led us to believe that was so), I grew to welcome the appearance of the sunny blooms each spring. Forsythia, for me, will be forever linked to my sister Cynthia, to March and the happy return of warmer weather.

 

It’s not the best choice for a martini

It may not taste good in a tapenade either, but forsythia is nonetheless a part of the olive (Oleaceae) family. Together with other showy members of the same family (most notably lilac, jasmine, privet and osmanthus), it is cultivated primarily for its beautiful and fragrant flowers. The genus is pretty small – just 7 species of mainly deciduous shrubs from Eastern Asia with one species from southeast Europe. Of these, a number of hybrids have been produced.

Flowering forsythia in botanic garden

 

It’s all about the flowers

Forysthia’s early spring flowers are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this deciduous shrub. Opening before the leaves unfurl, the abundant, bell-shaped blooms are produced in clusters of 2 to 6 on last year’s wood.

Forsythia buds

Forsythias flower on last year’s wood

Formed of four petals and joined at the base to form a tube, the flowers can range in tone from pale to deep yellow depending on the variety.

Close-up of a forsythia flower

The blooms are immediately followed by dark green foliage that sometimes turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall.

Leaves following the blooms on a forsythia shrub

Forsythia foliage follows blooms

Barring any unforeseen cold snap, forsythia flowers can last for between two to three weeks. Or if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to snap off a few branches, put them in a vase of water indoors and in a few weeks you’ll have sunny yellow blooms right smack in the middle of winter.

Forced early-spring blooms in a glass vase

Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors

Why isn’t my forsythia blooming?

This is a question I’m often asked as a garden designer. Since flowers are produced on the prior year’s growth, it’s important to prune the shrubs right after they flower. Otherwise you risk cutting off all of next spring’s blooms. Less frequently, unusually cold weather for prolonged periods of time can also negatively affect blooms for the coming season.

If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll trim off next year’s flowers

One drawback to some of the larger varieties is that forsythia can get large and unruly pretty quickly. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive with the pruning shears at the appropriate time. (I hack mine down by a third every year after bloom.) They’ll quickly push out new growth the following year.

I’ll never understand, though, why some people insist on pruning these shrubs into boxwood-or lightbulb-like shapes.

 

Why is it called forsythia?

The genus forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804) who was superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace and founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

William Forsyth (1737-1804)

What are the best cultivars to plant today?

Two native Chinese species, Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) and Greenstem forsythia (Forsythia viridissima) were the earliest species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. Each has played a role in the development of most modern garden species. Forsythia suspensa remains a popular plant and is still widely cultivated for its size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10- high. Its characteristic weeping form makes it a great hedge plant, especially on embankments where its cascading blooms can be fully enjoyed.

 

pale yellow-flowering Forsythia suspensa

Forsythia suspensa

But perhaps the most popular variety today is a cross between Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima called Forsythia x intermedia. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border Forsythia, the medium sized shrub has the golden yellow flowers most commonly associated with the plant and an upright habit (although as it matures it takes on more of an arching form.) Many hybrids have been selected from this cross including dwarf and compact forms.

Golden yellow-flowering Forsythia x intermedia

Forsythia x intermedia

Save the larger, deep-yellow cultivars like ‘Beatrix Farrand’ for hedges where the plants can grow unimpeded to 8- to 10- feet or more and plant the smaller, more compact varieties close to the house or in the flower border. Great cultivars like Golden Peep (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Courdijau’) and Goldilocks (Forsythia ‘Courtacour’) are dwarf varieties that grow to 24 to 36 inches tall and wide. Or try the slightly smaller Show Off brand Sugar Baby.

I’ve had experience with Gold Tide (Forsythia ‘Courtasol’), which is also considered a dwarf, but likes to be wider than tall, so beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.

 

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 as desirable in a garden. Most springs, I mercilessly chop off these offspring from the parent plant to keep things under control.

Plant forsythia in full sun to part shade. To produce blooms, the shrub needs a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day, with the most flowers being produced in full sun. Like most plants, forsythia performs best in well-drained soil.

 

What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter during a warm spell. With all the erratic weather patterns we’ve been experiencing lately, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.

 

The underground world of bulbs

To understand why spring bulbs can withstand a little early growth, it helps to take a peek underground.

Just like a seed, a single bulb contains the entire life cycle of a plant, including roots, food storage “leaves” and a flowering shoot. As soon as you plant them in the fall, spring bulbs start growing.

The action begins in the bottom part of the bulb known as the basal stem. During the winter months, roots begin emerging from the underside of this base. As they penetrate the surrounding soil, they absorb water and other nutrients, which they store in the fleshy leaves of the bulb called scales.

In some flower species (think allium), a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the bulb’s scales from damage and drying out.

Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out

The scales provide food and protection to the flowering shoot, which contains the above-ground parts of the plant, including stems, leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot grows slowly upwards within the bulb. Once warmer temperatures hit, the leaves break first through the soil where they begin converting sunlight into energy. Weeks later, the flowering stems begin to emerge.

The key thing to remember is: Leaf development occurs independently of flower development. The leaves might jump the gun, but flowering shoots need an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before they begin sending their stems up out of the bulb and towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.

Strategies for protecting early growth

If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause its leaves to yellow and die back, but your bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.

There are a few strategies, though, you can undertake now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flower shoot.

1. Cover your plant

Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

 

2. Water

Bulbs will rot with too much water, but if there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, providing them with a little extra water during the day helps the bulb expand and grow. Make sure your soil has good drainage, though.

 

3. What to do if flowers start to appear 

If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually doesn’t affect flowering in the coming months.

 

4. Plant bulbs late in the fall

The later you plant in the fall, the longer the bulb will take to sprout in the spring. Wait until the temperature is cool enough (40s or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. I plant mine in early December.

And make sure to plant bulbs at three times their height in depth with base down and bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can cause premature growth.

 

 

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

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You could say that evergreens are the stars of cold weather, infusing color, texture and form into drab winter landscapes. 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 cold, winds and exposure to bright winter sun. These are the plants that benefit from a little extra TLC to help prepare them for colder temperatures.

Without proper preparation, cold weather can spell disaster for some evergreens. Here are steps you can take now to prepare your most vulnerable plants for winter. HINT: The most important step is to water.

 

WATER YOUR PLANTS

The most important thing you can do to prepare your evergreen shrubs and trees for winter is to water them. And that means making sure they’re well hydrated beginning in early fall, a time when many people stop watering.

Rainfall can help with the job, but if you experience a dry spell it’s important to water your evergreens and continue to do so regularly until the soil freezes. Plants will hold on to the water and use it throughout the winter.

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The most important thing you can do for your evergreens is to water them

Watering is crucial because all evergreens, and especially broadleaf varieties like rhododendrons and hollies, lose moisture from their foliage in a process called transpiration. Once the ground has frozen, it deprives plants of water, making it impossible for them to replace what is evaporating. This can lead to a common type of winter injury called desiccation, also known as ‘winter burn.’

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Signs of desiccation can begin appearing as early as mid winter, when leaves of a plant may turn brown at the tips or several branches start to dry out or die. (This kind of damage typically shows up on the side of the plant that faces into the wind or has a southwestern exposure.) Other plants will hold on to their green color until spring or early summer when they begin to push new growth. Then their leaves will suddenly turn brown, start to curl and fall off.

TO DO:   “Winterize” your evergreens by deep watering, which promotes deep rooting of plants and shrubs. Water them every other week, making sure the soil is moist to a depth of between 12 to 18 inches. Do this until the ground freezes.

 

PROTECT WITH SPRAY

Evergreens that are prone to desiccation, especially the broad-leaved varieties, often benefit from a little help in the form of spray. Anti-transpirant (or anti-desiccant) sprays, readily available at nursery and hardware stores, can protect tender leaves and stems by reducing water loss during times of plant stress.

www.wilt-pruf.com

www.wilt-pruf.com

Sprays provide a protective, film-forming coating that slows down moisture loss and protects plants from drying out. The transparent layers wear off gradually without interfering with plant growth or respiration.

In the winter, most sprays can remain effective for up to four months. Proper timing is key: it’s best to spray your plants in the morning when temperatures are above 50 degrees so the product has time to dry. You’ll need to reapply the spray once or twice during the winter.

(By the way, the sprays work great on indoor holiday greenery, too.)

TO DO: Spray plants once in December and again in February to prevent water loss and protect their leaves.

 

BUILD A SCREEN OR SHELTER

Shelters and screens are great for smaller shrubs that you’d like to protect from excessive wind, falling snow and road salt damage. Although you can buy ready-made frames at the store, burlap, some lumber and a few stakes are really all you need to make one on your own. Steer away from plastic, though. You could cook your plants.

How to at hgtvgardens

How to at hgtvgardens.com

To make a screen, drive the stakes into the ground on the windward side of the plant or on its southern exposure, where it is at greater risk of exposure to swings in temperature. Staple the burlap to the stakes.

To make a shelter, place stakes all around the plant to form an A-frame. Stretch the burlap across the structure. Or, you can attach plywood panels to the stakes to create an even sturdier frame.

TO DO: Take an inventory of your landscape and pinpoint any plants that may be vulnerable to winter stress. Evergreens that face the wind or have a southern exposure may need screens to guard against winter burn. Pay particular attention to plants that are located under the roof line, where falling snow could be a hazard. A-frame shelters are great at shedding heavy snow and ice. For a great tutorial on how to build screens and shelters, go to thisoldhouse.com.

 

TIE THEM UP

How to at gardeners.com

How to at gardeners.com

Evergreens can be damaged by heavy snows or ice storms that snap their branches. Foundation plantings can be particularly vulnerable, since they are often exposed to snow falling from the roof. A good way to protect your plants is to tie them up to give them a little extra support.

Using heavy twine or string (I use green-colored twine so it doesn’t show), begin by attaching the twine to the base of the plant and wind the plant up, drawing in clumps of branches as you go. Once you end up with a tight spiral, you can leave it alone or cover the shrub with burlap.

TO DO: Tie up foundation plantings like boxwood and azaleas to prevent against breakage and dust snow off of fragile bushes with a broom or by shaking to make sure it doesn’t accumulate.

 

MULCH

mulchMulching in the fall is a great way to protect your evergreens from fluctuations in soil temperature and damaging moisture loss. Mulches are proven water conservers; able to reduce moisture loss anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. Adding a protective layer of mulch insulates your plant and prevents water from from escaping from the subsoil.

TO DO:  Depending on how big the root zone is, make a 3- to 6- foot diameter circle around the shrub or tree and apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, making sure to mix in some organic materials to add nutrients to the soil.

A word of caution: don’t pile the mulch up around the plant crown or tree trunk. This could cause the plant to rot and die. A distance of six inches or more is a good rule of thumb to follow.

 

Last word

Even if your evergreen looks bad, try to refrain from pruning brown foliage or branches until after the winter. Wait until the spring or you risk further damaging the plant.

 

The ‘Roomba’ of Gardening: A Robot That Weeds

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Franklin Robotics ‘Tertill’ promises to weed your garden for you

Last year was a particularly big one for weeds, with many of us struggling in vain to control them in our gardens. But thankfully, just in time for next summer, there’s an invention that just might alleviate this tiresome chore. It’s called Tertill and it proposes to do the weeding for you. Continue reading

How To Deadhead Flowers And Maximize Blooms

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So the name doesn’t sound that appealing, but regular deadheading is an essential practice in the life of a garden. Not only does it keep flowers looking neat and attractive, it ensures a maximum amount of blooms over an extended period of time. I’ve come to appreciate the added work for the all the extra flowers it produces. There’s nothing like getting a plant to re-bloom that looks like it’s called it quits for the season. Continue reading

How To Add ‘Hot’ Colors To Your Summer Garden

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There’s nothing like a healthy dose of hot color to add sizzle to your summer garden. And come mid-July, after the initial flush of spring pastels, flower borders can start looking a little tired. This is the time of year when I like to inject some fiery reds, bright oranges and brilliant yellows into the mix of flowers in my garden. The key is to balance hot colors with cooler ones so that they don’t overpower the other plantings.

What are hot colors exactly? On the primary color wheel, red and yellow are the hot colors.

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Secondary colors result when two primary colors are mixed together. Among these blends, orange is also considered hot.116177736

And there are also tertiary colors, which are created by mixing a primary with a secondary color. Colors like red-orange, yellow-orange and all tints and shades of these hues are hot colors.

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HOW HOT COLORS WORK IN THE GARDEN

In the garden, red and orange glow more intensely than other colors, especially when the sun is low in the sky. Nature provides us with a perfect example of how the sun’s position affects colors’ intensity. As the sun sets on the horizon, the predominant colors we see are orange, yellow and red. And at sunset, the only remaining visible color is red.

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And in the summer garden, just like in nature, the primary color red forms the basis for hot color harmonies.

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Andrew Lawson, one of the world’s leading landscape photographers and author of one of my favorite garden books, The Gardener’s Book of Color, has this to say about adding hot colors to your garden:

“By putting together three of the brightest, most intense colors, you increase their vitality and encourage each to ‘sing out’ at full strength. Concentrate these colors together in the garden and sparks seem to fly.”

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Red-colored flowers can add fireworks to the summer garden.

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And by combining red flowers with yellow and orange and all of the tertiary colors in between,  you can infuse your summer garden with vitality and interest.

 

HOW TO BALANCE HOT COLORS WITH COOL ONES

While it’s clear that red, yellow and orange can be visually uplifting, in strict combination these colors can be anything but restful.

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Intense color harmonies can quickly become overpowering if not carefully combined and ‘cooled’ down by other, contrasting colors and foliage. Those contrasting, ‘cooling’ colors, can be found opposite the hot ones on the color spectrum.

In this hot-colored flower border at Cliveden, the color purple in the form of purple-blue salvia pokes its head above cascading drifts of Alchillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ (Yarrow) and burnt orange Helenium ‘Wyndley’ (Sneezeweed) to create a stunning visual display.

Cliveden 'hot' border: flicker.com

If your summer border is composed mainly of hot colors, Lawson recommends surrounding your red, orange or yellow flowers with deep green hedges or other types of enclosures for maximum impact. The gardeners at Washington, DC’s Hillwood Museum & Gardens do this beautifully. Notice how the deep green hedge provides a solid backdrop to the hot-color flowers while the lighter green ferns and luxurious lawn have a ‘cooling’ effect.

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Or, choose dark-colored foliage to tone things down a bit. Great examples include the red-leaved varieties of the shrubs barberry and smoke bush as well as the dramatic purple-black foliage of canna lilies. In this photo I snapped at  Hillwood Gardens (below), the plant’s own burgundy-toned foliage provides a cooling contrast to its orange flower.

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Another way to offset all those vibrant reds, yellows and oranges in the summer garden is to incorporate purples and blues into your hot-color border. These ‘cool’ colors, found opposite their ‘hot’ cousins on the secondary color wheel, provide a classic color contrast that has been used in gardens for centuries. Spiky blue salvias and veronicas, dark purple delphiniums and lavender-blue perovskia (Russian sage) are just a few good options for setting up these kinds of color contrasts.

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The color pink is considered a ‘tint’ of red, or a color that has been lightened by adding white

 

THE MAGIC OF WHITE

The color white acts as a ‘light’ in the garden. In the hot-color border, small splashes of white can ‘lift’ the garden composition, while providing tonal contrast with other plants. Be careful not to use too much of it, though, or your eye will be attracted only to the white patch to the exclusion of your other hot colors.

In a section of my own hot-colored summer border (below), I use the re-blooming bearded iris ‘Immortality‘ to provide just such a contrast.

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Pure white plants like Phlox paniculata ‘David’ and Echinacea purpurea ‘Milkshake’, when used sparingly, can also provide great tonal contrast, while the softer-hued Artemisia lactiflora ’Guizhou’, Gypsophila (Baby’s Breath) and Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’ deliver subtle lights to the garden.

 

GREAT HOT COLORED PLANTS FOR THE SUMMER BORDER

Ready to add some great, hot-colored flowers to your summer border? Here are some tried-and-true suggestions.

 

REDS

Purple-leaved Canna ‘Australia’, Chrysanthemum ‘Matchsticks’, Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’, Gerbera ‘Drakensberg Scarlet’, Hibiscus ‘Fireball’, Lobelia ‘Cardinalis’, Malvaviscus drummondii (Turks’ Cap)and any red dahlia.

 

YELLOWS

Yarrow ‘Coronation Gold’, Daylily ‘Happy Returns’, Daylily ‘Stella d’Oro’, Goldenrod ‘Fireworks’, Oxeye ‘Tuscan Sun’, Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’ and Shasta Daisy ‘Banana Cream’.

 

ORANGES

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Dahlia ‘David Howard’, Daylily ‘Primal Scream Orange’, Lantana ‘Southern Fried’ and Lilium ‘African Queen Group’.

 

COOL HOT COLORS DOWN WITH THESE PURPLES AND BLUES

Agapanthus ‘Elaine’, Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, Buddleia ‘Ellen’s Blue’, Nepeta ‘Purple Haze’, Salvia ‘May Night’, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or ‘Victoria Blue’.

Finally, sprinkle in some white flowering plants and sit back and enjoy your hot-color summer border. Happy planting!

 

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

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Most of us who grow flowers in pots during the summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading

12 Great Plants for Seaside Gardens

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Gardening at the shore can present its own set of challenges. Plants that look one way in the suburbs or city can take on an altogether different appearance by the sea. Still, there are many good options to choose from that enjoy a good, stiff breeze and a little salt in their soil. All it takes is a little bit of know-how and the right kind of plants, and you can easily create a colorful garden that will provide non-stop blooms from now until fall. Continue reading

How To Create An All-White Garden

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All-white garden by Here By Design

It’s true that we all see colors differently, but it’s rare to find someone who can’t see white. That’s because white, like sunlight, is composed of all the colors of the visible spectrum. In the garden, white plants reflect light, instantly brightening the look of shady spots. And the all-white garden is a symphony of light, where distinct sections of flowers and foliage come together in a timed succession of harmonious arrangements. Continue reading