Posted by Brent Wilson on 8/25/2016 to Planting & Growing Tips
To be honest, 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 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 moist but must be well drained. They do not like wet feet. Constantly soggy or wet soil is a killer. Established dogwood trees are quite drought tolerant.
Test Soil Drainage Before Planting!
If you are uncertain about soil drainage in the area you intend to plant your dogwood tree, because they require a well-drained soil, it is strongly suggested to take the time to test the drainage in the planting site 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, which is what dogwood trees require, 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 and the need to amend the soil with top soil, peat moss or other organic matter that will help to retain moisture. 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 partially shaded woodland borders. Ideally, and especially in the Southern U.S., Dogwood trees prefer growing and perform their best in locations that provide shade or filtered sunlight during the afternoon hours. Morning sun with afternoon shade or filtered sun is perfect. Direct afternoon sunlight often results in sun scald and discoloration of leaves. That said, Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) tend to handle sun better than the American native species, but we think they fit and look their best in a shaded environment.
(Scroll down to see planting instructions for containers and pots)
VERY IMPORTANT TIP: Because dogwood trees require a well-drained soil, we always advise testing soil drainage in the planting area. For instructions on how to do so scroll back up this page to find instructions or click here.
To begin the planting process, 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 tree. 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 other heavy 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 or other organic matter that will help to 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 pot it was growing in, firmly grasp the tree by the base of its trunk and very gently try to lift and remove the root ball from the container. If the root ball is stuck in the container it is best to use a cutting tool to cut the container away. After having removed the plant from the container, gently loosen some feeder roots around only the surface of the root ball. Avoid tearing the root ball apart to spread the roots as doing so can cause more damage than good.
Because Dogwood trees require a well-drained soil, and a soggy soil at any time of year can cause root rot and kill trees, we almost always suggest planting in a raised mound. This is especially true when planting on level ground and in areas that have rainy winters. The only exception might be when planting a Dogwood tree on sloped ground, in which case we might suggest planting with the top edge of the root ball at or slightly above ground level. How high to plant will depend on the soil drainage in the planting area. To find instructions for testing soil drainage in the planting area scroll back up this page or click here.
Moist But Well-Drained Soil (Drains 1-inch per hour): If you are planting a Dogwood tree on level ground where the soil stays wet for only 24 to 48 hours after a heavy rain or deep soaking, or drains at a rate of at least 1" per hour during the soil drainage test, set your Dogwood tree in the planting hole so that the top edge of the root ball is approximately 3 to 4 inches above ground level.
Moderately Drained / Somewhat Poorly Drained Soil: If you are planting a Dogwood tree on level ground that drains slowly and the soil stays wet for 72 hours or more after rainfall or irrigation, or drains at a rate of 1/2 inch or less per hour during the soil drainage test, set your Dogwood tree in the planting hole with the top edge of the root ball 6 inches or more above ground level. If necessary, add some backfill soil mixture to the bottom of the hole to achieve proper planting height.
Poorly Drained Soil: If your soil drains so slowly that it remains constantly soggy in all but extended drought periods, or little to no water drains from the hole within 24 hours or more during the soil drainage test, we strongly advise improving soil drainage in the planting area or selecting a different tree species that is tolerant of boggy conditions.
Well-Drained Dry Soil (Quick Draining): If you are planting your Dogwood tree on level or sloped ground soil that drains water rapidly at a rate of 2 inches or more per hour during the soil drainage test, set your tree in the planting hole so that the top edge of the root ball is at or maybe 1 inch above ground level to allow for settling. To reduce the need for supplemental water, amend quick draining soils with top soil, peat moss or other organic matter that will help to retain moisture. Thoroughly mix soil amendment at a 50/50 ratio with the native soil removed from the planting hole.
Dogwood Tree Planted in Moist But Well-Drained Soil
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 with the root ball 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, avoid placing 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 well-drained or quick draining site that is far from a water source, you can use the remaining backfill soil or additional native soil to build a water retaining berm (catch basin) around the outside perimeter of the planting hole, as shown in the planting diagram above. This basin will help to collect water from rainfall and irrigation, which often reduces the need for hand watering. The berm can be removed after year or two.
Next, deeply water the planting area, including the root ball, to a depth equal to the height of the root ball. 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. Avoid installing mulch at a depth more than 2 inches. Avoid the 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 Tree In A Container
Dogwood trees growing in pots require 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, we suggest a pot with a drainage hole(s) at the bottom and 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 to 8 inches or more in diameter than the width of the tree's root ball.
Keep the wind in mind. 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 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 a porous landscape weed barrier fabric. This will keep the drain holes from becoming stopped up with soil.
To remove your tree from the nursery pot it was growing in, firmly grasp the tree by the base of its trunk and very gently try to lift and remove the root ball from the container. If the root ball is stuck in the container it is best to use a cutting tool to cut the container away.. After having removed the plant from the container, gently loosen some feeder roots around only the surface of the root ball. Avoid tearing the root ball apart to spread the roots as this can cause more damage than good.
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 for decorative purposes and to help conserve moisture. You can also incorporate low growing, spreading plants in your container planting that will serve as a permanent soil cover.
Plant Long & Prosper!
Questions? Contact Us!