Dogwood trees: pruning, planting & propagation

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

Dogwoods can grow into pretty impressive shrubs and trees, providing stunning autumn colours and some even bear edible fruit. Here we will introduce you to some of the most versatile types of dogwood and give tips on planting and care.

Yellow flowers on Cornus mas
The flowers of Cornelian cherry appear as early as February [Photo: Picmin/ Shutterstock.com]

The hardy dogwood (Cornus) is extremely versatile in garden design. Here we provide tips and advice on planting, propagation and care.

Dogwood tree: origin and characteristics

Cornus, also known as dogwoods, forms a genus within the Cornaceae family. The hardy shrubs which grow to the size of small trees are mainly found in the Northern Hemisphere where they inhabit wetlands, forests and hedges. Numerous species originate from North America or East Asia, mainly from Japan, Korea and China. Common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is native to the UK and can be found growing along woodland edges and hedgerows.

Dogwoods are perennials that usually grow into multi-stemmed shrubs 2 to 6 m tall and often just as wide, but they can also grow as ground covers. Apart from a few exceptions, the dogwood’s leaves are opposite on the shoots and are pointed, oval or elliptical. Lots of deciduous species enrich the garden with their bright autumn colours and striking yellow or red shoots. However, some dogwoods are evergreen, such as the wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa).

Dogwoods form umbrella-shaped panicles or flowerheads, often framed by large, white to pink coloured bracts. But are dogwoods bee friendly? Bees and other beneficial insects love cornus species as they provide a rich source of nectar and pollen-rich flowers. The fruits of the dogwood ripen from midsummer. These are single or compound fruits called drupes, most of which are edible. For example, the kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) and the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) are high-yielding wild fruits.

When does dogwood bloom? Depending on the species, dogwoods flower between February and August. In our article on dogwood species and varieties, we give an overview of the main species and their characteristics, such as growth height, flowering time and growing requirements. 

The red leaves of the dogwood tree
Dogwoods begin to display their colourful autumn foliage from September [Photo: LSP EM/ Shutterstock.com]

How to plant dogwood

When planting dogwood, the right location, planting method and plant spacing are the key to success.

The right location for dogwood

Dogwoods prefer areas in full sun to partial shade. However, the lower part of the trunk and the roots should always be well shaded, cool and moist. Most species thrive in fresh, well-drained, nutrient-rich soils with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. Chalky soils with a higher pH are only well tolerated by Cornus alba and Cornus sanguinea.

Growing dogwood

Most dogwoods grow into impressive tall shrubs or small trees. So, they are better suited for planting in beds rather than pots. Depending on the growth width, plant your dogwoods with a distance of 3 to 6 m from other plants. Apply a layer of mulch or put in a low underplanting around solitary dogwoods to create a natural look that also shades the root area and keeps the soil moist. Ground-covering perennials such as liverleaf (Hepatica), Ivy (Hedera helix), catmint (Nepeta), coral bells (Heuchera) or barrenwort (Epimedium) are perfect for this. Dogwood is also commonly planted as a hedge – dense, multi-stemmed, shrub-like plants are suitable for planting in this way.

However, low-growing species such as the dwarf dogwood ‘Kelseyi’ or the creeping, ground covering dwarf cornel (Cornus canadensis) and dwarf honeysuckle (Cornus suecica) can be cultivated in pots and containers. As forest dwellers, these two species prefer a more acidic soil. We recommend using ericaceous compost, which can be used for growing in pots or to create a bog bed in the garden. Some dogwoods, such as Cornelian cherry, can also be grown as a bonsai.

Dogwood plants in autumn
The optimal planting time for dogwoods is in autumn when the plant has shed its leaves [Photo: Svetlana Klaise/ Shutterstock.com]

The optimal time for planting dogwood is in autumn (between October and November), once the plant has shed its leaves. A freshly planted dogwood then focuses on developing strong roots which support good growth the following year. Alternatively, you can plant in early spring, but make sure they have a good supply of water in the summer as their root system will be less established.

Before planting, remove unwanted weeds from the area, then turn over and loosen the soil. Enrich poor soils with a mature compost at this stage. Next, dig a large planting hole about twice the size of the root ball. Place the dogwood inside, but no deeper than it was sitting in the pot before and then fill the hole with soil. Ensure the soil is slightly compacted all around and form a watering rim for larger shrubs and trees. In wind-exposed locations, tying with stakes and coir rope may be necessary to keep dogwood plants upright. Finally, water well.

Summary: Planting dogwoods

  • Depending on species, space specimen shrubs and trees between 3 – 6 m from other plants.
  • Soil preparation: remove weeds, loosen soil, incorporate organic matter as needed.
  • Dig a planting hole twice the size of the root ball then plant the dogwood in it.
  • Fill with soil, tread down lightly and form a watering rim.
  • Tie large shrubs or trees to a stake and water well.
  • Underplant with low-growing plants or mulch to shade the root area.
Dogwood plants in a garden
Underplanting keeps the root area of the dogwood shrub cool and moist [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Dogwood plant care

Dogwoods do not require any extra-special care. Here are our tips on pruning, watering and fertilising dogwoods.

Watering and fertilising

Plenty of moisture and a good supply of nutrients are essential to support healthy dogwood plants. In hot, dry periods, water regularly if the dogwood has been planted in a container or recently planted in a bed and has not yet had the chance to develop a deep root system.

Dogwood has moderate to high nutrient requirements. Fertilise dogwoods in spring when the leaves begin to appear, whether in a pot or bed. A plant-based, slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food, is ideal for improving the nutrient supply and soil health over a long period. Simply scatter the animal-free, low-dust granules around the plant, gently work in and water. Over the course of months, soil organisms break down the granules, releasing the nutrients the plant roots in a way which prevents over-fertilisation or leaching. For potted plants, simply mix the fertiliser granules with the fresh potting soil when repotting.

All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
  • Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
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Pruning dogwood

Most dogwoods are tolerant of pruning and can be regularly trimmed into shape, which is especially important for hedge plants. Dogwood trees and large shrubs rarely need pruning – simply remove dead, diseased or injured branches. On the other hand, it is best to prune cornus shrubs with brightly coloured shoots, such as Cornus albaCornus sericea or Cornus sanguinea, annually since only young shoots display bright colours. The right time for pruning dogwood is in early spring before the leaves appear.

Young red branches of the dogwood plant
Only young shoots of C. alba and C. sanguinea display bright colours [Photo: simona pavan/ Shutterstock.com]

Common dogwood diseases

Dogwoods are generally pretty robust and are rarely affected by pests or diseases. Powdery mildew (Erysiphaceae) may appear on the leaves in unfavourable years. Furthermore, root rot can develop if the plants are waterlogged. Choosing the right location before planting or providing a drainage layer and good water drainage for potted plants will prevent this. The apple mussel scale or oystershell scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi) and the horse chestnut scale (Pulvinaria regalis) are pests that suck plant sap, which can cause deformities and kill off young leaves and shoots. Only severe infestations require treatment – usually scale-eating beneficial insects will take care of it.

One common disease in Cornus plants is dogwood anthracnose caused by the fungus Discula destructiva. This causes spots to form on leaves and bracts starting from late spring, usually from the bottom to the top of the leaf. In addition, cankers may appear on the shoots and parts of the shrub or the entire plant may die. You may be able to save the plants by cutting off and disposing of diseased or damaged parts as soon as possible. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and mountain dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) are particularly susceptible to disease.

Dogwood leaves showing brown spots
Early signs of dogwood anthracnose are brown spots on leaves and bracts [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Are dogwoods winter hardy?

Most cornus species are hardy to below – 20 °C and do not require any winter protection except in harsh winters. Dogwoods in containers can be overwintered outdoors if they have a large enough volume of soil. Give the plants a protective insulating layer of jute or fleece to prevent the pot from freezing. Bonsai trees, on the other hand, should always be overwintered away from frost. Late frosts in spring can damage sensitive species such as the flowering dogwood. If freezing temperatures are forecast, wrap up these shrubs or trees for a short time.

Pruning cornus plant with secateurs
Cuttings can be taken in summer to propagate dogwood [Photo: Maria Evseyeva/ Shutterstock.com]

Propagating dogwood

Dogwoods can be propagated through runners, softwood cuttings and hardwood cuttings. In summer, propagating cuttings of the still soft shoot tips is a good option. In the autumn, woodier cuttings with no leaves can be rooted in a moist sand-soil mixture. Some species form runners, which, once rooted, you can cut off with a sharp spade and transplant in autumn. It is also possible to propagate Cornus using seeds collected from the fruits. However, this will take several years to get lush, flowering plants. The seeds are cold germinators and therefore require a period of cold stratification for several weeks before germination.

The hanging red fruit of the dogwood
The edible dogwood fruits look quite similar to lychees [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Is dogwood poisonous?

In some species, such as our native common dogwood, the bark, leaves, and roots are classified as slightly poisonous. This applies to both humans and pets that eat the plants. For horses, on the other hand, dogwood leaves are considered non-toxic.
Dogwood foliage has small hairs that can cause allergic contact dermatitis in sensitive skin. It is therefore best to wear gloves when pruning the plants. However, many dogwood fruits, most notably the Cornelian cherry and kousa dogwood, can be enjoyed raw or cooked.

Another wild hedge plant often planted with dogwood is hawthorn (Crataegus). Here we introduce you to our native hawthorn and give tips on planting, care and use.

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