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Forsythia Pruning and Other Tidying Up

Wayward shoots on several of my shrubs, and deer grazing on others, got me into the garden this morning before the heat settled in. Pruning is one of those chores to look forward to. It makes such a difference—it’s so satisfying to improve the health of the plant and neaten things up at the same time.

I started with the Hartlage Wine calycanthuses. They had a nice overall shape already, so I just cut back the tallest shoots to the height of the rest of the shrub. Now the oakleaf hydrangeas behind them can show off their brand new green-white blooms. It’s much prettier now.

Next I did the same with a Jelena witch hazel that had gone rogue. We have four of these, but only one had decided to grow absurdly tall. The others are spreading more than ascending, so I made the tall one like those. The idea is that, one day, they will form an archway over the path. We’ll see, but in the meantime, I’ll keep pruning with that in mind.

I took the dead wood out of a couple of clethras, several deciduous azaleas, a few beautyberries, and three winterberry hollies. Then I cut off all the wild shoots on the Asian azaleas, and tried to minimize the lopsidedness that deer grazing had created. Ahhh, so much better!

Finally, the forsythia. Why do I even have forsythia (overused exotic that it is), I’ve asked myself. Well, maybe because it was here when we moved in and I like keeping some “heritage” plants around. It doesn’t seem to reseed or otherwise become invasive, so it’s a relatively safe exotic to keep.

I’ve recently learned that forsythia has a long history of medical use in China, which also makes it more interesting. The tiny fruits are used, sometimes with honeysuckle, to create cold remedies. It is even used intravenously on occasion for infections. I don’t know that I’ll ever get around to using it medicinally, but I like this part of its story.

These are reason enough to keep the plant, but forsythias also have unbeatable cheery yellow bells every winter, just when the gray skies and chilly temps have gotten really tiresome. The fall color isn’t bad, either.

Although they look good right now, I know that after bloom is the best time to prune forsythias, so I cut to the base any stems that have lots of branching. Incidentally, please do not shear these shrubs! Forsythias should not be cubes or meatballs. (Although it is your garden, and it should please you primarily!) But with the old stems removed and fresh new ones growing from the base, light and air gets into the shrub and they look less uptight and more naturally beautiful. They are so vigorous that even if you take out half the stems, they will recover quickly. I removed about a third of mine today. They look better, and the green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) under them will be happier, too.

It was warming up to the beginnings of uncomfortable just as the task was done—perfect timing! The lemon balm is ready to harvest, so I snipped a little on the way in. It will be nice to sit outside when it cools down again later and sip some lemon balm iced tea.

What have you been working on lately? Do you have a favorite garden chore?

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