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Growing and Caring for Dogwood Trees: What You Need to Know Now

Flowering dogwood

Flowering dogwood. Photo by liz west

If you’ve ever seen a gorgeous dogwood tree in bloom, that may be enough to send you on a mission to grow one in your yard. These long-time flowering favorites can be a real showstopper in your garden, and there are numerous colors to match virtually any palette. Read on to learn all the dogwood tree information you need to know to add this flowering ornamental species to your yard and have it thrive for decades to come, including dogwood trees planting and care tips.

Where do dogwood trees grow?

Dogwood trees, or Corunus florida, as they are known in Latin, are native to the eastern half of the United States. Now, they can be found throughout the United States, but they are always associated with the American South, where they do particularly well. You can find dogwood trees on public lands and in private gardens, and they are a popular addition to many college campus landscaping schemes, perhaps because of their association with the welcome arrival of spring after a long winter. In some parts of the country, you can even still discover dogwood trees growing in the wild in forest lands.

How big do dogwood trees get?

Dogwood trees generally grow from about 25 to 30 feet, although the average home garden tree usually winds up on the small side, about 15 to 25 feet tall. One of the reasons homeowners love dogwoods so much is that they don’t become so huge that they are hard to maintain or a hazard to power lines or roofs. When you plant a dogwood tree outside your window, you will be able to enjoy the blossoms when it is full grown, and you won’t be staring at the trunk, while the more decorative part of the tree towers over your home.

How fast does a dogwood tree grow?

Dogwood trees, when properly tended, grow at a rate of a little over one foot per year. This is another reason home gardeners favor them. If you plant a dogwood tree this year, you may be able to enjoy it as a full-size tree in about a decade. That’s a pretty short wait for such a beautiful addition to your garden.

How do you know where to plant dogwood trees?

Flowering dogwood tree

Flowering dogwood tree. Photo by Heather Katsoulis

The easiest way to decide where to plant a dogwood tree in your yard is to mimic as closely as possible the environment in which it grows naturally. In their wild forest environment, dogwoods are understory trees. This means that they grow with other trees above them. Try to plant your dogwood tree on the edge of a group of trees to replicate this natural protection. Evergreens pair well with dogwoods and offer a nice backdrop for the white or pink dogwood flowers of spring and the purplish foliage of autumn.

From this description, you probably guessed correctly that dogwoods do best in partial shade. While you can grow dogwood trees in both full sun and complete shade, an in-between location is ideal. Too much shade, and you’ll experience poor flowering with your dogwood, while too much sun limits growth. Hot, dry locations also subject the tree to heat stress and make it more likely to fall victim to dogwood borers. You’ll have to water your tree quite a bit more too if you plant it in full sun.

What are some tips for how to grow a dogwood tree?

Dogwood 4

Dogwood 4. Photo by John Walsh

1. Look for healthy specimens.

Immature dogwood trees come in several types of packaging at the nursery. Bare root or burlap-wrapped trees are meant to be planted in late fall or early spring, whereas those in containers can be planted any time they can be watered after planting. Either way, look for sturdy, straight trunks without any damage and healthy looking leaves with no brown or yellow spots. Check the bottom of trees in containers to make sure they are not root-bound; the ends of the roots shouldn’t be sticking out of the container in an attempt to find more space.

2. Pick the proper soil.

Dogwood trees need well drained, humus soil that is ideally slightly acidic. You can test the pH of your soil easily with a kit purchased at the nursery or online. The soil quality shouldn’t be too sandy, nor should it be heavy clay. A dogwood tree planted in clay soil will eventually rot and die as it will hold water for too long. Know that dogwood trees have roots that extend at least 12 inches below the plant and beyond the leaf canopy horizontally. If you make improvements to your soil for your tree, make sure it covers the entire area the tree’s roots will occupy when mature. Read our Ultimate Guide for Having the Most Rewarding Soil here.

3. Use the right planting technique.

Plant your dogwood tree about two-thirds of the depth of the root ball. Leave the very top of the root ball exposed. Replace the soil around the root ball carefully, and make sure the soil has been loosened to allow for good drainage around the roots.

4. Mulch your dogwood tree.

Many gardeners find it helpful to mulch the area under the tree. This keeps weeds at bay, offers some nutrients to the soil as the mulch decomposes and helps hold water during warm, dry spells. Don’t mulch all the way to the trunk of the tree; leave a few inches of space around the trunk mulch-free. You can prepare compost yourself using a chipper shredder.

5. Water your dogwood tree regularly.

Your dogwood tree will always need regular watering when it doesn’t rain, but it will be particularly susceptible to drying out when it is first planted. Make sure to give it a good watering when you first plant it to help it settle in, and then water it regularly thereafter, depending on your climate and natural precipitation. If there is no rain, it will likely need a good soaking to get the water down to the level of the ends of the roots, at least 12 inches.

6. Use judicious pruning.

Dogwood trees typically don’t need a lot of pruning. Most gardeners usually find they prune their dogwoods solely for aesthetic reasons, such as a stray branch growing in the wrong direction. If you plant your dogwood far enough from any structures, you won’t have to worry about pruning to protect the roof line. Use a pruning saw to make any cuts, and step back to view your tree from a distance between cuts, so you don’t over-prune.

7. Stake your tree if necessary

Some immature dogwood trees need staking the first season or two for support. This may be the case for your tree if you live in a windy area or if your tree is under four feet tall when first planted. Place the wires above the first level of branches, so the trunk receives good support but the top can sway in the wind, helping the tree build strength. Cover the wires with old garden hose or a similar material, so they don’t cut into the branches.

8. Don’t over-fertilize your dogwood tree.

Many gardeners over-fertilize their dogwood trees because they think they’re not growing fast enough or want them to grow faster than they naturally do. If your dogwood truly needs nutrition because of poor soil, you can use an all-purpose fertilizer, such as a 16-4-8 formula. You will need about one-half pound, or approximately one cup, of fertilizer for every inch of tree trunk diameter. Spread the fertilizer around the entire root area, and don’t concentrate it too close to the trunk.

9. Protect your tree from pests.

Dogwood borers are the most common insect pest you will probably encounter. The larvae enter the tree through the bark and eat it from the inside out. Protect your tree from dogwood borers by making sure you don’t nick the bark with garden tools when doing yard maintenance or pruning.

10. Try growing dogwood trees from seed.

If you like your dogwood trees and want a bunch more of them, you can grow them from seed, although bear in mind that these will almost always result in white dogwood trees, even if the seeds come from a pink dogwood. The “flowers” that bloom in spring are really “bracts,” or colored leaves, with a true yellow flower in the center. When these fall off, the tree starts to produce seeds that look like red berries and appear in the fall. When the seeds begin to fall from the tree, they are mature enough to plant other trees. Soak them in a pail of water for about a week to soften the pulp, then squeeze them to push the seeds out of the pulp. Discard any seeds that float to the top of the pail, and use the seeds that remain on the bottom. Nick each seed with a knife, and plant them right away in the fall, protecting them from squirrels and other critters that might want to dig them up.

Many people who start with one dogwood tree find they can’t stop there and wind up planting many more. Follow the tips above, and you too can have a yard full of these flowering beauties!

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  1. My Pink Dogwood tree has white blooms on it this year. The tree is about 7 years old and has had pink blooms in the past. Why are the blooms white this year?

    1. Usually color can depend on the acidity of soil. If the soil has become alkaline, try adding pecan hulls or other ammendment to change soil acidity around the tree.

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