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Forsythia and Beautiful Bulbs; How to Make sure that Spring Springs Again!

Q. Mary in Telford, PA writes: "We moved into an old house in August. There is a mature forsythia bush that we were anxious to see bloom this spring, but it's only flowering on the top and the edges. The whole middle is bare. Should we prune? How much and when? Note: I hate to see forsythia bushes pruned into geometric shapes. Should I just feed it something?"

A. No. I have two huge forsythia in the very front of my front yard and they are blooming so brightly that they're overshadowing the Spring bulbs behind them; despite the fact that they also bloomed (in confusion) last November. They have never been fed (unless you count the road salt they are exposed to most winters). I have no idea how old they are; they were big when we moved in 35 years ago; and they have never failed to put on a remarkable show.

Actually, there were three out there originally, but they formed a wall that was cutting off airflow to my roses, so my friends and I spent a month (no exaggeration) digging the middle one up. If it had taken much longer we were considering dynamite (that's an organic input, right?) It took three of us to haul the root ball out and roll the monster into a nearby wooded area, where it continues to bloom every year; on its side.

I just went out to take a closer look at my plants and, yes, the biggest concentration of those amazing yellow flowers does seem to be on the new growth, but I don't see any kind of 'bare spots', so I suspect that yours is the victim of either lack of sun down low or improper pruning. The only thing you can do about lack of sun is to let the plants grow taller, but if they get good sun, the culprit is pruning. And I agree with you; people who try to prune forsythia into a boxwood hedge should be imprisoned; it is one of the ugliest, saddest and most misguided sights in all of horticulture!

Anyway, forsythia is a spring bloomer, and as with other spring bloomers, like azaleas, rhododendrons, flowering cherries, lilacs and the like, the time to prune them is right after the flowers fade, because shortly after that, they'll begin to set the buds that will produce next year's show. I typically use hand pruners to cut back the tallest stems and the sideways ones that make it difficult for our mail carrier to pull up close to the mailbox.

Then I'll step back and look for what I suspect Mary is describing: old, thick wood in the center of the plant. I'll remove some of that with a bowsaw. And that's it. Over the course of the summer, new shoots will spring up all over the plants. It is these "unruly" shoots that tempt people to 'tidy things up' in the fall, which is a mistake for two reasons.

One: You're cutting off the parts that produce the most vibrant show in the Spring. And two: Forsythia is not supposed to be 'tidy'; it is a wild child riot of golden shoots that explode in all directions. It can't be' trained' any more than you can train a housecat.

Q. We move on to Michael in Parts Unknown, who writes: "Can I divide all varieties of spring bulbs? Is after the blooms have faded the best time?"

A. No. You don't want to do anything with Spring bulbs until the leaves have lost all of their green color. That's why we chose this question today; many people rush to cut off the leaves, which starves the plant of the energy it needs to grow another flower deep inside the bulb. The result the following Spring is all leaves and no flowers. And tying the leaves up is almost as bad. (Plus having Bulbs in Bondage may reveal more about you to your neighbors than you might have intended.)

After the leaves have lost their green, you can safely dig them up, but 'dividing' doesn't exactly apply here. That term is typically used for herbaceous perennials like hostas. When their distinctive leaves emerge in the Spring you can dig them up and divide them into multiple plants. A classic method is to use two garden forks to pull the plant into sections. Some people will split the plant apart with a sharp shovel; or more excitingly, a machete.

Once, when I had to divide a really huge hosta, I dug it up and used a chainsaw to cut the monster into quarters. Cowboy gardening at its finest! And because hostas cannot be killed, all the sections flourished when replanted.

Spring bulbs are another story. Were you to chop a big tulip or daffodil bulb in half, you'd get two dead half-plants. But bulbs that have been in the ground for years will often have babies; little 'bulblets' that grow next to the parent bulb. Carefully dig the bulbs up and carefully and gently snap these bulblets off. Carefully. Then you can either return the mother bulb to the ground or store it indoors in a cool dark spot and replant it after Halloween.

Plant the baby bulbs in a 'nursery bed' and they will grow bigger over time and eventually flower; but only if you let their greenery turn brown naturally!

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