Posted by Brent Wilson on 8/25/2016 to Planting & Growing Tips
Dogwood trees are not the easiest tree to grow. Mother Nature does a fine job growing them but human gardeners aren't so good at it. That being said, when planted in the right environment and using the right method, anyone can have success growing a dogwood tree.
Here's a breakdown of what you need to know...
Dogwood trees, Cornus florida and Cornus kousa, prefer an organically-rich, fertile soil that is well-drained but moist. They do not like wet feet. Constantly soggy or wet soil can be a killer. When established, they tolerate dry periods fairly well.
How To Test Soil Drainage If you are uncertain about soil drainage in the area you intend to plant your dogwood, it's well worth taking the time to test the drainage before planting. To test soil drainage, dig a hole 12" wide by 12" deep in the planting area. Fill the hole with water and let it drain. Then, after it drains, fill it with water again, but this time clock how long it takes to drain. In well-drained soil the water level will go down at a rate of about 1 inch an hour. A faster rate, such as in loose, sandy soil, may signal potentially dry site conditions. A slower rate indicates poor draining soil and is a caution you need to improve drainage, plant in a raised mound or bed, or look for a tree species more tolerant of wet or boggy conditions.
Dogwood trees grow best in an acid to neutral soil ranging from 5.5 to 7.0 on the pH scale. Most average garden soils fall between a pH range of 6.0 to 7.0.
Testing Soil pH Soil pH is a measurement of the alkalinity or acidity of soil and is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. Any measurement below 7 indicates acid soil conditions, and anything above 7 indicates alkaline. If you're unsure about the pH of your soil, or whether or not it's suitable for growing dogwood, it's a good idea to test the soil pH in the planting area. You can quickly test soil pH with an inexpensive soil pH tester probe. To raise the pH (make more alkaline) you can add pelletized limestone to the soil. To lower the pH (make more acid) you can apply Soil Sulfur, Aluminum Sulfate, or Chelated Iron. Adding organic compost to the soil or using compost as mulch can also help to increase acidity and maintain acid soil conditions.
Learn More: What is Soil pH and How To Adjust It?
Dogwood trees will grow in sun or shade, however, in their natural habitat, you would usually find them growing as understory trees in the dappled sunlight of the forest, or on the edges of woodland borders. Ideally, and especially in the Southern U.S., Dogwood trees prefer to be grown in locations that provide shade or filtered sunlight during the afternoon hours. Direct afternoon sunlight in these hotter regions does not kill trees but the newest leaves of some varieties may burn and/or scald. This being said, Chinese dogwoods tend to handle sun better than the American native species.
(Scroll down to see planting instructions for containers and pots)
TIP: Water the root ball deeply before removing your Dogwood from its container.
Start by digging your planting hole at least three times as wide and as deep or not much deeper than the root ball of your dogwood. The wider the hole the better. Place native soil removed from planting hole around the perimeter of the hole, in a wheel barrow, or on a tarp.
Depending on the type, fertility and porosity of the soil in the planting area, it may be beneficial to amend the native soil. When planting in dense clay or very poor soils it is beneficial to thoroughly mix in some aged compost, bagged top soil, and/or a good planting mix at a 50/50 ratio with the native soil removed from the planting hole. When planting in very sandy, quick-draining soil you might want to consider mixing in some top soil, peat moss and/or compost to help retain moisture. When planting in fertile, loamy, well-drained moist soil there is no need for adding a soil amendment.
To remove your tree from the nursery container it was growing in, firmly grasp the tree by the base of its trunk and try to gently lift and remove it from its container. If the root ball is stuck in the container either cut the container away or place the plant on it's side and gently pound on the side of the container to loosen the root ball. After having removed the plant from the container, loosen some feeder roots around the surface of the root ball. If root bound, you can spray the sides and bottom of the root ball with a stream of water from a garden hose. This will help to wash away some soil from the exterior of the root ball making it easier to loosen roots.
If you are planting in well-drained soil set your dogwood tree in the planting hole so that the top edge of the rootball is slightly above ground level, maybe 1-inch or so. If your soil drains slowly, holding water for an extended period of time after rainfall or irrigation, the top of the root ball should be 3-4 inches above ground level. If necessary, add some backfill soil mixture to the bottom of the hole to achieve proper planting height.
NOTE: If the soil is poorly drained (constantly soggy or wet) plant the root ball in a raised mound entirely above ground level or select a different tree species more tolerant of wet soils.
After setting your dogwood tree in the planting hole, use one hand to hold the tree straight and your other hand to begin back-filling your soil mixture around the root ball, tamping as you go to remove air pockets. When you have filled the hole to the halfway point you can soak the soil. Then continue back-filling to the top edge of the root ball. If you are planting higher than ground level taper your soil mixture gradually from the top edge of the root ball to the ground level, as shown in the planting diagram above. To avoid suffocating your tree, do not put any soil on top of the root ball. You can place mulch on top of the root ball later.
Step 6 (Optional)
When planting a dogwood tree in a location that is far from a water source, you can use remaining soil mixture to build a water retaining berm (catch basin) around the outside perimeter of the planting hole. This basin will help to collect water from rainfall and irrigation often reducing the need for hand-watering. The berm can be removed after a year, when your tree has established itself.
Next, deeply water the planting area, including the root ball, to a depth equal to the height of the root ball. For an extra boost, to stimulate early root formation and stronger root development you can also water you newly planted dogwood tree with a solution of Root Stimulator, which reduces transplant shock and promotes greener, more vigorous plants.
Apply a 1 to 2" layer of aged, shredded or chipped wood mulch or 4" layer of pine straw around the planting area to conserve moisture and suppress weed growth. As the mulch decomposes it will add vital nutrients to the soil that your tree will appreciate. Do not use freshly chipped or shredded wood for mulch until it has cured in a pile for at least 6 months, a year is better. Avoid placing or piling mulch directly against the base of your plant as this could cause the bark to rot.
How To Plant a Dogwood in a Container
Dogwood trees growing in pots appreciate a moist but well-drained soil. Constantly soggy soil can and often will cause root rot or other harmful or deadly plant diseases. Therefore, when planting a dogwood tree in a container or pot I recommend using a quality potting soil or potting mix, or a 50/50 combination thereof. You can also add some pumice (maybe 20%) to the soil mixture to help with drainage. Pumis is an excellent soil conditioner, as it is highly porous providing excellent water, air, and nutrient holding capabilities. Pumice will not decompose or compact over time and is very lightweight. Agricultural grade pumice can usually be found at local feed stores as a product called Dry Stall. The particle size is about 1/8". It's a good idea to wash the product before use to remove the fine particles. If you can't find Pumice you can substitute with perlite.
Choose a container with drainage holes at the bottom and one that is large enough to allow for 2 to 3 years of growth before shifting up to a larger size container. This might mean your planting pot would be 6-8 inches or more in width than the root ball of your tree.
Keep in mind the wind. When planting taller growing trees in containers, wind is always a factor. Choose a pot with a low profile and make sure to place your container where it will not be exposed to high winds. Heavy objects can be placed in the bottom of large pots to enhance stability.
Container color will matter as well. Not only will you want to pick a container color that goes well with the flower and foliage color of your tree, you'll also want to pick a container that matches the style of your home or other structures and other plants in the surrounding environment.
Many nursery & garden centers offer a wide variety of containers to choose from. Before heading out to buy a container take pictures of your home and the surrounding environment. Doing so will help you to choose just the right color and style.
Container Planting Instructions
Before filling your container with the soil mix, we recommend lining the bottom with shade cloth or a porous landscape fabric. This will keep the drain holes from becoming stopped up with soil.
To remove your dogwood tree from the nursery container it was growing in, firmly grasp the base of the tree by its trunk and try to gently lift and remove it from its container. If the root ball is stuck in the container either cut the container away or place the plant on it's side and gently pound on the side of the container to loosen the root ball. After having removed the plant from the container, loosen some feeder roots around the surface of the root ball. If root bound, you can spray the sides and bottom of the root ball with a stream of water from a garden hose. This will help to wash away some soil from the exterior of the root ball making it easier to loosen roots.
Pour a small amount of your soil mixture in the bottom of the container. Set your tree in the container and make necessary adjustments by adding or removing some soil so that the top edge of the root ball will sit 1/2 to 1" below the rim of the container.
Backfill with your potting soil around root ball, tamping as you go, until the level of potting soil is even with the top edge of root ball.
Water thoroughly until water starts to drain from the holes in the bottom of the container. Add more potting mix if settling occurs during watering.
Step 6 (Optional)
Apply a 1/2" layer of wood chips or sphagnum moss to soil surface to help conserve moisture. You can also incorporate low growing, spreading plants in your container planting that will serve as a permanent soil cover.
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