How to grow winter stem colour dogwoods
Producing a fiery display of orange, red or yellow stems in winter, these shrubs light up the garden and look great underplanted with early flowering bulbs. For the most vibrant stem colour, plant in full sun, prune annually in spring and make sure the soil doesn't dry out.
- Easy to grow in many situations
- Looks good in late winter and early spring
- Can be planted all year round, ideally planted in autumn
- For best stem colour, plant in full sun
- Cut back hard in spring for optimum stem colour
- Enjoys a moist soil. Put a layer of bark chips around your plant to stop it drying out and suppress weeds
- Make more plants by taking hardwood cuttings
All you need to know
Choosing a winter stem colour dogwood
As a reliable shrub, Cornus (dogwoods) are versatile and grow well in many garden situations. They really thrive, however, in moisture-retentive soil in fun sun or dappled shade.
Most dogwoods, if pruned for stem colour each spring, will reach about 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) tall. As a result, it’s the different colour of the stems that is the biggest factor when choosing a dogwood. These range from yellow and green, through vibrant flaming shades of orange to black. Choose what you really like. It’s also a good idea to go for a couple of plants of two contrasting colours so they really shine out in winter.
Buying a winter stem colour dogwood
Widely available in garden centres, DIY stores, nurseries and mail-order suppliers. You can buy dogwoods in a range of pots sizes.
Most RHS gardens have stunning examples of cornus planted in large groups in their winter gardens. However, RHS Garden Rosemoor in Devon contains the most different types as it holds the National Cornus Collection.
You can plant dogwoods at any time of year. However, autumn planting is easiest because the plants can establish their roots over the winter and will need less watering than if it was planted in summer – and you get to look at the lovely winter stems.
- For the best stem colour, plant in sunny spot (but they will tolerate a bit of shade)
- Dogwoods really enjoy damp, moisture-retentive soil. An overly dry site will produce weak plants with poor stem colour
- To make a winter display with impact, plant the dogwoods close together – spacing them about 50-60cm (16in-2ft) apart, to create a dense block of colour
- In smaller gardens, try to plant dogwoods in front of evergreen shrubs and climbers to make the stems stand out. Avoid planting in front of red brick walls as the red and orange stems will blend into the background
- Dogwoods can be allowed to grow to full size at the back of a border, however the older wood loses its colour as it matures
- Cornus sanguinea is a UK native and can make an excellent addition to a wildlife area, providing for insect, birds and mammals. Do note, though that hard pruning in spring is best avoided as this cuts off the flowers
- Dogwoods are tough and are full hardy, making them useful for chilly frost pockets
See our guide on how to plant a shrub for more planting details.
- Once the plants are established, they only really need watering during long, dry spells
- Do check the soil before you water, but water if it feels dry about 15cm (6in) down. Cornus are very good at wilting in the heat and will perk up again once the sun is lower in the evening
- On poor soils you may wish to promote growth by applying a balance feed in spring, such as Growmore or Blood, Fish and Bone
- Improve your soil by mulching with well-rotted organic matter or composted bark. Just avoid the mulch butting up to the base of the stems as this will cause rot
- Apply your fertiliser and a layer of mulch after pruning the stems down in spring (see above). This gives you easy access around the plants and a chance to get on top of the weeds at the beginning of the growing season
Caring for older plants
- Low-growing stems from the main base of the dogwood can naturally lie on the ground and root. Dogwoods can also sucker, which shoots randomly coming up near the parent plant, and spread. This is not a problem with regular pruning, but you may come across a bit of a tangle in a newly acquired mature garden
- Over time, dogwoods can become tired and send up less shoots. Take cuttings and make replacements or buy new ones to keep the cheerful winter glow going
For the best, bright stems every winter, cut your dogwood back hard between late winter and mid spring. This method is known as coppicing.
- Only coppice your shrubs once they have been in the ground for at least two years and are growing strongly. This is because the plants need to become established to be able respond after pruning with lots of colourful new shoots for next winter
- Once the plants are established, cut back all shoots to 5-7.5cm (2-3in) from the ground in late winter to mid spring (early to mid April is often the best balance between enjoying the shoots and pruning to produce good colourful stems for next year). Over time, a stump will form with a collection of stems coming from it, this is called a stool and is the base framework of your dogwood
- As the plant matures, the stubby stems of the stool can either get damaged or congested, so after cutting back the shoots, tidy up the stool by sawing off unwanted bits (including dead sections) with a small saw
- This is a lovely pruning job to get stuck into, however do watch your eyes with the long thin stems. Safety goggles come in handy for this task
- Not all dogwoods are strong enough to be pruned every year. This could be down to growing in ‘not ideal’ growing conditions or due to the particular cultivar. Keep an eye on how it’s looking and prune more lightly if they didn’t grow too well (they’ll usually be quite short in height) – there is always next year to prune harder but you can’t stick it back on!
Select pencil thick, healthy, disease free stems for propagating.
Hardwood cuttings: From late autumn to mid winter, select woody stems that are straight and pencil thick, about 20-30cm (8in-1ft) in length. Keeping them the right way up, insert them into a pot of firm compost and keep in a cold frame or cool greenhouse over the winter.
Check from time to time to make sure they haven’t dried out or are sitting in soggy compost. New shoots will appear from the buds in spring. Cuttings should be ready to plant out in autumn and then can be coppiced after two to three years of establishment.
Layering: Stems on the outside of the shrub are ideal for layering in spring by bending them down and pegging them to the ground with a small hoop of wire.
Soft-wood and semi-ripe cuttings: You can take soft and semi-ripe cuttings, but they are not as successful or as easy as hardwood cuttings.
RHS guide to semi-ripe cuttings
RHS guide to softwood cuttings
Seeds: Pick fresh ripe berries then clean away the flesh and allow the seeds to dry. Sow them in autumn before they become dormant or store them in a fridge to be sown in spring. This will result in a new plant that might not look like its parent – if you want an identical copy, hardwood cuttings are still your best option.
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