How to Plant and Care for a Dogwood Tree

Dogwood trees have an intriguing and storied history. It has been said that Native Americans would make daggers from the tree.

Its very name seems to confirm that. Dogwood is derived from dagwood, a name that connects the material used with the tool created.

The exceptionally strong wood made great swords, walking sticks, and other specialty tools. Also interesting to note is that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted them at their respective residences in Mount Vernon and Monticello.

This well-known, deciduous tree is native to Asia, Europe, and North America. Depending on where you live, you may picture a certain type of dogwood tree.

There are about 60 different varieties of these trees. In Eastern North America the pink or white flowering dogwood is easy to spot.

But in Western North America, the fruit-bearing, non-flowering variety is more common. For the sake of simplicity, why don’t we focus on the flowering dogwood?

After all, it is the most popular variety in horticulture. Plus, who doesn’t love a magnificent tree with a breathtaking structure and fragrant flowers?

Flowering dogwoods are beautiful year-round making them a stunning addition to an already glorious garden. Perhaps that’s why it is such a popular tree throughout the country.

Offering a four-season presentation of gorgeousness, this tree takes well to home landscapes. It grows quickly—at the speedy rate of over a foot a year.

A flowering dogwood that is healthy and mature can grow as tall as 15 to 30 feet with a reach of 15 to 20 feet. Assuming that you planted the tree this year, you could expect it to reach full-size in roughly ten years.

2 full grown dogwood
A fully grown dogwood tree can reach impressive heights such as the one pictured here.

During those years you’ll appreciate that the tree lacks demanding care requirements. That makes the dogwood as practical as it is pretty.

It’s a sight to behold all year. During the spring, between March and mid-May, you can expect lovely, white, or pink blooms to come forth.

Rubra and Prairie Pink are varieties of the flowering dogwood that will enliven your garden each spring with branches lined with pleasing pastel blossoms. These beauties will last three or four weeks.

In the summer your blooms will make room for shiny, light green leaves. You’ll appreciate the striking contrast of yellow or white on some of the leaves as well as the shade they bring.

As the weather cools and autumn descends the foliage will turn crimson-purple or vibrant red. Scarlet-red berries will also make an appearance and attract some birds. The berries may stay until winter.

If they do, consider yourself fortunate. They will complement the tree’s scale-like bark and horizontal branching scheme that command attention during the cold winter months.

Since there will be no leaves to hide these mesmerizing features, it will be easier for the structure of the tree to take center stage.

Of course, all of this glory will only be possible if you plant and care for your dogwood tree properly. So without further ado, let’s get down to the business of what it takes to successfully grow a dogwood tree.

3 planting sapling of tree
The best time way to lay the groundwork for having a thriving, beautiful dogwood tree is to start pampering it from the beginning. Handle your dogwood with tender loving care as you see pictured above. 

Dogwood Care Requirements

Giving your dogwood tree the proper care it needs will lay the foundation for these divine trees to reach the apex of their beauty. As you will see, these alluring trees are easy to maintain.

You can expect them to bloom by their second year assuming they are healthy. Yet, it may surprise you and make an early appearance in its first year.

You should plant dogwoods in the spring when the soil is moist. There are also other considerations to give to caring for your dogwood, as outlined below.

Water

Until your newly-planted tree is well-established you will need to water it regularly and thoroughly. This tree doesn’t demand a lot of water.

As far as watering needs go, it runs average. Once it has become established, you should water it once a week unless the weather is unusually dry or hot.

You don’t want to allow it to dry out. So during periods of heat or drought make sure that you give your tree access to extra water.

This is especially important because the tree has shallow roots. Make sure that when you water your dogwood that you thoroughly soak the root-zone area and beyond.

If you live in an area that receives its full share of rainfall you won’t have to water as often. Using three to four inches of mulch around its base will help protect the root system and allow the tree to hold on to moisture.

5 fertilizer
Grab some mulch like the kind you see here and add it to the soil to help it retain moisture to prevent the dogwood from drying out.

This will be a critical step to take during the hottest part of summer. It will also help reduce weed growth. Just be careful to keep the mulch back a few inches from the trunk of the dogwood tree.

Fertilizer

Well-drained, acidic, and rich soil won’t need fertilizer. But soil that doesn’t have organic matter and doesn’t drain properly will need to be improved to make it suitable for dogwoods.

You can improve the soil by adding compost both when planting and routinely thereafter. Break out your shovel and dig a wide hole. Without going overboard, add compost to the native soil.

Next, you will need to add a thick layer of mulch to feed the soil and protect the tree’s roots. Covering the area with a four-to-six inch layer of natural tree leaf mulch will get the job done.

During the first summer you will need to water deeply—but not too frequently. Fertilize your tree when you plant it and during its first watering.

Hold off on adding slow-release fertilizer until the second year. You’ll need to fertilize twice during the second year, once in February and again in mid-June.

When your dogwoods grow and become established, they’ll appreciate receiving a light feeding in the spring.

During very dry summers, they’ll love getting a slow, deep soaking at least once a month. A word of caution is needed when talking about fertilizing your dogwood.

Adding too much can kill a young dogwood tree. Waiting to fertilize your tree until it is in its second season is a good way to play it safe.

4 mulch
Grab some fertilizer to improve soil that isn’t rich or acidic enough. Once your dogwood is established you can add fertilizer twice a year. DSC02896 by Jerry Norbury/ CC by 2.0

Another good idea is to have your soil tested with a soil test kit before adding fertilizer. This especially applies to an older and more established tree.

Also, bear in mind that it’s important not to wait until it’s too late in the season to add fertilizer. Doing so can trigger growth. Your tree will be more prone to winter damage as a result.

Diseases

Dogwoods aren’t immune to diseases. There is one fungal disease it is particularly susceptible to called anthracnose.

It causes twig dieback and light brown leaf spotting. Left unchecked, it can kill a tree within two to three years.

The only flowering dogwood that is resistant to anthracnose is Appalachian Spring. If you have a different kind of dogwood you can still take steps to keep anthracnose from ruining your tree.

A couple of helpful things you can do are to make sure that you give the tree good air circulation and access to the morning sun. Doing so will keep the foliage dry.

Also, make sure that you water it in the summer. When the fall comes, rake fallen leaves away from the base of your tree. Doing so will reduce the chances of rot and can help prevent the dogwood anthracnose fungus.

You don’t want it to dry out during periods of drought. Another important step to take is to remove any diseased branches and twigs. With careful planting and some tender, loving care you’ll help your dogwood tree ward off several common problems.

6 diseased leaves
Take notice of your tree’s leaves. When they show brown spots such as the ones seen here it’s an indication of disease. Northern Catalpa by jantec6 / CC by 2.0

Pests

Yet another threat to your blossoming dogwood tree is the dogwood borer. Once its larvae hatch, they burrow under the bark of the limbs and trunk by working their way into the trees’ open wounds or broken bark.

Be careful not to damage the bark while you are pruning or doing lawn maintenance. You don’t want to make it easy for the larvae of the dogwood borer to damage your tree.

In addition to the dogwood borer, you may encounter aphids, powdery mildew, scale, mites, or the Asian ambrosia beetle. If you see signs of infection, treat the area with insecticide spray and horticultural oils.

Play it safe and choose a dogwood tree that is resistant to anthracnose, dogwood borer, and powdery mildew. Such dogwood trees belong to the Stellar series and include:

  • Aurora
  • Celestial
  • Constellation
  • Stellar Pink

Yet another good option is the Kousa dogwood. It is resistant to anthracnose. But it only has moderate resistance to powdery mildew.

Light

Dogwood trees are versatile growers. They will blossom when placed in the sun or shade. But they thrive in areas that expose them to the rays of the morning sun and cover them with shade in the afternoon.

Blazing sunlight can cause discoloration of the leaves and result in sun-scald. Filtered sunlight during the afternoon hours is best.

7 filtered afternoon sun
For the health of your dogwood tree be sure to position it in a location where it can receive filtered light in the afternoon such as what you see here. Looking at the sun by akselsenroy/ CC by 2.0

The right combination of mulching and watering will help this tree perform well when exposed to full sun. Four hours a day of direct sunlight with the remainder of the day in the shade is advised.

Chinese dogwoods can brave the sun better than the American native species. But it too will benefit from being in an area where it can receive shade in the afternoon.

Temperature

Dogwoods can handle a broad range of temperatures and soil conditions. But it’s important to note that they do not like extremes.

Although established dogwoods are quite tolerant of drought, it won’t do well if it becomes too hot or dry. It craves being in shady areas with access to a lot of damp, rich soil.

Soil

Your dogwood will perform best when given soil that is

  • Moist
  • Well-drained
  • Nutrient-rich
  • Fertile
  • Slightly Acidic.

On the other hand, it will not do well in soil that is always soggy or wet. Overly damp soil is a killer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its plant hardiness zones are 5 through 9.

Test Soil pH

Give your dogwood a stronger chance to thrive by making sure the soil is in good shape from the beginning by testing it. If you don’t know whether your soil will be hospitable to your dogwood, then it’s a good idea to figure out what the soil’s pH is.

A measurement of the soil’s pH will determine how alkaline or acidic it is. The scale ranges from 1-14, with 7 serving as the neutral zone.

8 pH test kit
Use a tester kit such as the one you see depicted here to rate the soil’s pH level. Soil PH testing by missellyrh / CC by 2.0

If the soil is tested and receives a measurement below 7 then it is acidic. If your soil scores anything above 7 then it is alkaline.

You’ll find that dogwood trees flourish when they grow in an acid to neutral soil. The pH should range from 5.5 to 7.0. It isn’t hard to test the soil pH.

You can use an affordable pH tester probe. If you discover that your soil’s pH is not up to snuff, there are a few easy fixes you can employ.

When you need to increase the pH or make it more alkaline, just add pelletized limestone to it. When you need to decrease the pH or make it more acidic, just add aluminum sulfate, chelated iron, or soil sulfur. Another way to boost the acidity level is to add organic compost to the soil.

Test Soil Drainage

Another factor that can make or break your dogwood is soil drainage. If you don’t know whether the soil drains properly in the area you plan on putting your dogwood, it is strongly recommended that you have the drainage tested before planting anything.

Dogwoods absolutely depend on well-drained soil to thrive. So this is a step you can’t afford to take lightly.

You will need to break out your trusty shovel to test the drainage prowess of the soil. Dig a hole that’s 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep in the spot where you want to plant your tree.

9 dig hole with shovel
Break out the shovel and get ready to dig a hole to test your soil’s drainage ability. weed02-at-800-by-G.E.Sattler by Gary & Anna Sattler / CC by 2.0

Grab a water hose and fill the hole with water. Next, let it drain. After the water drains, fill it once again with water.

On this second time around you will need to time how long it takes for the water to drain. In an ideal area that has well-drained soil, the water level will start to go down at a steady speed of roughly one inch every hour.

A slower pace signals that the soil drains poorly. It is a red flag warning you that it’s time to improve the soil’s drainage.

You can do this by planting your tree in an elevated bed or mound. Another option is to look for a tree species that can handle boggy or wet soil conditions.

On the other hand, if the soil drains at a faster rate, it is a sign that you have potentially dry site conditions. When this is the case, you will need to add peat moss, topsoil, or other organic matter to help the soil hold onto moisture.

Prune

Pruning your tree is a great way to improve its vigor and shape. One of the best things about dogwood trees is that they do not require much pruning.

These trees already have an appealing rounded shape, so they don’t need to be trimmed frequently unless you’re going for a different look. Sometimes the limbs of the tree can rub against each other.

10 trim tree
Wait until later in the year around the late fall or winter to prune your tree. It will be easier to shape the tree as you desire. Pruning by Laurel F / CC by 2.0

If you want to open up the canopy you can prune to enhance the attractiveness of your dogwood. But do pay attention to the health of your tree.

When you notice dead or diseased limbs it is time to break out the pruning shears. Storm-damaged limbs can also be trimmed so they won’t mar the tree’s appearance.

Done carefully, pruning is a great way to restore a storm-damaged dogwood to its previous, appealing shape. It is best to prune either in the late fall or winter. During this time the tree is dormant.

Fungus

Some types of fungus, such as mycorrhizal, can benefit soil and help roots grow better. It is not uncommon for horticulturists to add this special type of fungus to the soil.

Mixing this fungus into your soil can have a phenomenal effect on your tree’s growth and survival.

It will colonize plant roots and lengthen their reach by twenty or more times. It does all this while also lowering the chances that your tree will be susceptible to root diseases.

Buy mycorrhizal fungi online or at a garden center. Here are some incredible options worth your consideration.

Wildroot Organic Mycorrhizal Fungi Concentrate

Wildroot’s carefully selected blend serves up a powerhouse variety of friendly fungi that are beneficial to nearly every kind of plant. It is organic and non-GMO making it completely safe to use around kids and pets.

This product boosts the surface area of the root zone up to 1,000 times. As a result, the root zone is infused naturally by the greater absorption of essential nutrients, air, and water.

This is what brings about the explosive root growth. It also strengthens roots so they become disease resistant. But, you don’t get a lot in the smallest package, so you may need to go up a size which can get expensive depending on how much you need.

Xtreme Gardening Mykos Pure Mycorrhizal Inoculant Organic Root Enhancer

This organic root enhancer brings high levels of vitamins and minerals to the table ensuring that you’ll have a tree that is immune to various stressors such as drought, disease, and pests.

Myko’s beneficial fungus will increase nutrient and water uptake by forming a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant.

This powerful root enhancer will grow with your tree becoming an extension of the roots and providing better efficiency and sustainability. Just be careful about applying it to other vegetation such as heirloom tomato plants. It may stunt their growth.

Great White Mycorrhizae

This powerful formula by Great White will ignite plant and root growth. Your tree will have everything it needs to yield maximum results.

Expect stronger roots as well as increased flowering, nutrient, and water absorption. Your dogwood will be healthier and more attractive.

On the other hand, it is hard to dispense the product lightly. So make sure that you use a gentle hand when applying it to your soil.

Prepare to Plant Your Dogwood Tree

When your new dogwood comes to you it will be in the form of bare-root saplings that are about 12-inches long. You must take care of them prior to putting them in the ground.

The saplings’ roots will be covered with material to keep them moist. Do not remove this covering until you are ready to plant the saplings.

As soon as you can, plant the saplings to help improve the tree’s chances of survival. If this is not a viable option, then you need to place the saplings in the refrigerator.

Keep the temperature between 33 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit with 85 to 95 percent humidity. When you are ready to plant your saplings, be mindful of the location you choose.

The dogwood tree is typically protected or surrounded by other larger trees in its natural habitat. You should bear this in mind when picking a spot for it in your garden.

11 dogwood natural habitat
Notice how the dogwoods are much shorter than the taller trees when it is in its natural habitat. Keep this in mind and plant your tree near wooded areas or close to shrubs.

Placing your tree close to wooded areas or in groups is more agreeable to its natural habitat. Your landscape will look quite inviting if you use your dogwood as a backdrop for spring-flowering shrubs such as brightly colored azaleas.

Bear in mind that the space you select should be big enough to make room for the tree’s mature size. An established dogwood can reach fifteen to thirty feet tall and wide.

Once you get your location picked out, you will need to consider the time of year to plant your tree. It’s best to plant in the early spring or fall if you are planting bare root stock.

Doing this will allow the tree to get settled before it starts to bud and flower. If you are planting your dogwood as a root ball tree you can plant it at any time.

But, it will still be more beneficial to the tree to plant it during the spring and fall. You will put less stress on your tree. If you decide to grow dogwoods in a container then you can plant or transplant them during any time of the year.

As a matter of precaution, make sure that you call the utility company before you start digging. They can send someone out to mark where the utility lines have been placed.

Planting Your Dogwood Tree

1st Step:

Give your tree a good soaking for three to four hours before planting it if you’re dealing with a bare-root dogwood.

12 soak plant
Submerge your plant in the water and let it soak as pictured. Minty water by surtr / CC by 2.0

If you’re working with a container-grown tree you should water it thoroughly before taking it out of its container. Next, you will need to soak its roots in water for three to four hours.

2nd Step:

You may need to amend the soil if it isn’t well-drained, slightly acidic, and rich in organic matter. Infuse your soil with compost in a 50-50 ratio.

Also, if you are planting in very sandy, quick-draining soil you should consider mixing in some peat moss or topsoil to help retain moisture.

The optimal time to amend the soil is one or two seasons before you start planting. You’ll give your compost the time it needs to lay the groundwork for success. But you can amend the soil at planting time and still reap the rewards of a healthy tree.

3rd Step:

Grab a sharp knife and carefully remove any damaged roots first before you start planting.

4th Step:

Don some protective gloves, grab a shovel, and start digging your hole. The roots will need room to spread out.

So aim to make the hole at least one foot wider than the spread of the root. Make sure that your tree’s roots are pointing straight down. Avoid planting too deeply.

5th Step:

Form a tall mound directly in the middle of your planting hole. The height of your mound should be tall enough to allow the base of the tree to rest slightly above ground level with the soil gently mounded around the sides.

13 root ball
The root ball, the mass formed by the roots of a plant and the soil surrounding them, should rest on your mound. Don’t completely cover the root ball. Root ball by Chris Baranski / CC by 2.0

You won’t need to put soil on top of the root ball—unless you want to suffocate it. Later you can go back and put mulch on the top of the root ball.

Next, take the tree’s roots and spread them evenly over your mound. Grab some soil and fill the hole with one hand as you hold the tree straight with the other hand. Lightly press to remove air pockets and firm the soil around the dogwood’s roots.

When you get to the point where the hole is halfway full begin to water your tree thoroughly, including the root ball. You should water as deeply as the depth that is equal to the height of the tree’s root ball. Keep back-filling the soil to the top edge of your tree’s root ball.

6th Step:

It will help to lay down a two-inch layer of mulch around the tree to conserve water. This will also help to keep the soil slightly acidic, cool, and moist.

When the mulch begins to break down it will supply nutrients and organic matter to your dogwood tree. Only use freshly chipped or shredded wood as mulch if it has been allowed to cure in a pile.

14 shredded wood mulch
Make sure that if you decide to use freshly shredded wood such as you see here that you allow it to cure in a pile for 6 months to a year before applying it to your tree. Mulch by Cindy Monroe / CC by 2.0

That process requires a minimum of six months. But a year is ideal. Keep the mulch a couple of inches away from the trunk to maintain the health of the tree. You don’t want to deal with rotting bark.

7th Step:

Continue to water your tree regularly until it becomes established. Do not let the soil dry out. During times of drought and heat, you will need to deeply water your growing dogwood.

After your tree becomes established, you can get away with watering the tree less often. At that point, it will be strong enough to handle short dry spells.

Even so, you should never allow the soil to dry out thoroughly. Trees that have been under stress from drought are more prone to pest infestation.

8th Step:

You may find it helpful to use a stake to keep the tree straight in its first year to avoid damaging the bark of your flowering dogwood. The bark can be easily injured by garden tools or lawn mowers that come into contact with the trunk.

Openings in the bark can give pests and diseases an easy route to your tree where they can wreak havoc. For the health of your tree, get rid of any grass close to the trunk.

15 damaged bark
Protect the health of your dogwood tree by not damaging the bark. You don’t want to allow bugs to enter through wounds in the bark and damage the tree. Bark Beetle Damage by Dustin Blakey / CC by 2.0

Maintaining Your Newly-Planted Dogwood

Now that your dogwood is planted, it’s important to protect it while you wait for it to mature. You can do this with a protective tree sleeve.

If you don’t have a tree sleeve then just use a wooden or metal stake. Drive it into the ground next to your new plant to clearly mark its location.

Doing this will protect your vulnerable baby tree from damage caused by unaware people or over zealous lawn mowers. It’s also important to safeguard your tree from local rodents such as mice and rabbits.

These garden menaces can severely hurt your newly-planted tree. Make good use of preventative measures such as wire-mesh guards.

Place them around the base of the plants to help deter eager critters from damaging your tree. If you live in an area that has larger animals such as deer you will need to use larger wire guards.

Also, it will help to schedule a routine for tracking the progress of your dogwood’s growth. Monitor the health of its leaves, branches, and flowers.

You won’t have to worry about pruning until the second year. Trimming your dogwood is only necessary when you need to get rid of injured or dead branches.

As the tree becomes established it may attract unwanted pests. Use an insecticide to remove harmful bugs. To prevent diseases from taking over your tree give it access to good air circulation and morning sun.

1 How to Grow Dogwood Tree

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