Neil Sperry: Want sunshine on a shrub? Try yellow forsythias.
I suppose it might be because I chose it for my master's degree research studies. Or, maybe it's because bright and clear greenish-yellow has always been my favorite color in flowers. (Thanks to yellow-petaled, green-throated daylilies for that.) Or, it just might be because I've found a flowering shrub that expects little and delivers a lot. Yeah. That's it. A shrub you can almost plant and forget. Almost.
Actually, for all those reasons and more, forsythias have been among my favorite spring-flowering shrubs for almost all of my life. They're sprinkled around several spots in our gardens now (have been for 25 years), and I have three more ready to plant.
Curiously, when I drive around the Metroplex in the spring, it seems like I'm in the minority. Most North Texas landscapes are lacking this plant, and that's sad. I thought maybe I could help swing that tide if I wrote about forsythias now, a few weeks ahead of their spring blooming season. That way, you'll be able to watch for them in nurseries and make ready for them in your gardens.
But, as usual, I do get things out of order. I need to make you understand why you'd even want to consider the plant, and so the rest of this story will read as if from a really active member of the Forsythia Fantasy Fan Club. Here are the facts that I'm sure will bring you over to our way of thinking.
Forsythias are well suited to our soils and our climate. While they're quite common in the North, and even though they're native to China and Southeast Asia, they also thrive here in Texas. Where plants like peonies and lilies throw in the sweatband when temperatures climb into the 90s, forsythias just keep on growing. And, since they're adapted to the Great Lakes in the winter, the wimpy cold spells we have here in Texas pose absolutely no threat to forsythias. They need moist soils, but if they wilt a bit now and then, they revive very quickly once they're given a drink. They have a great "can-do" attitude that Texans want in their plants.
I've never seen insects bother forsythias, and very few diseases will ever trouble them. Admittedly, they are susceptible to the cotton root rot soil-borne fungus, but so are 80 or 85 percent of the plants that we grow, so we mustn't let that shut us down. Unlike azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas, forsythias don't run into iron deficiency, and they are suited to full sun. Of course, they'll also tolerate part sun without any fall-off in their flowering potential.
Forsythias grow to be 6 or 7 feet tall and 5 or 6 feet wide, and they can get there very quickly. If you plant a 5-gallon pot this spring, and if you keep it properly watered, you can expect it to be at full size within three or four years.
Speed your forsythias along by applying a high-nitrogen or all-nitrogen fertilizer around the plants in late March (after the flowers have fallen) and again in early June. You'll see and hear recommendations of a September feeding for other types of shrubs, but you need to bypass it with forsythias. That's because nitrogen promotes leaf and stem growth (at the expense of flower bud production). Because forsythias and other spring-flowering shrubs and vines set their buds in the fall, you need to avoid nitrogen at that time.
You will find several species and an increasing number of cultivars of forsythias in nurseries this spring. All will have yellow blooms, although the shades of yellow will vary a little. Most will grow to 6 or 7 feet tall, although a couple of types will stay smaller. Rather than trying to give an exhaustive list of all our cultivated forsythias, it's probably best that you talk with your local Texas certified nursery professional to see what will be offered come early spring. But, be careful that you don't wait too long. When the plants come into bloom in the garden center, they won't stay around very long. Plan now. Shop early, and enjoy your forsythias for years.
Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.