The Q&A Archives: trouble growing dogwoods

Question: I have tried gowing several dogwoods, different colors and varieties in different locations of my yard, but no success. Any ideas how I can keep them going? I know that they prefer acidic type soil.Any suggestions for me? My neighbor accross the street does not seem to have any problems. I currently have a dwarf japanesse maple and a flowering cheery tree that are thriving on my property where or near where these dogwoods were once growing.

Answer: Dogwoods and Japanese maples enjoy similar conditions so I think you should be able to grow these trees. First and foremost, dogwoods need an acidic soil that is evenly moist yet well drained. Ideally the soil should also be organic and humusy, but I have also seen them growing in a clay based soil. If you have clay soil, planting it midway on a slight slope can help improve the drainage. Avoid planting it in a low spot where water collects, or in an especially dry spot.

These trees occur in nature at the edge of the woods where they receive bright but often dappled light. If possible, plant in a spot with morning only sun or bright dappled light all day. Avoid a spot with hot afternoon only sun, or south facing with heat reflecting off a building or pavement.

Avoid a spot with competition from large tree roots, these would steal moisture and nutrients from your dogwood and make it difficult for it to become established. (Also avoid planting near a black walnut tree as these exude a toxin from their roots called juglone. Another site to avoid is one where road salt or sidewalk deicer contact the soil.)

At planting, loosen the soil over a very wide area but only as deep as the container. Make your hole rough sided, not smooth. Then plant the tree a half inch to an inch higher than it grew in the container. Check carefully that the flare at the base of the trunk (where the trunk ends and roots start) is above the surface. (Sometimes especially with a machine dug ball and burlapped tree comes with soil inadvertently mounded over the flare.) Planting too deeply will kill this tree. Roughen the perimeter of the root ball and loosen any encircling roots and direct them outward. Backfill and tamp the soil so it has good contact with the roots.

Water thoroughly to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets at planting time. Be sure the tree has not settled too deep after you water it.

Then water as needed to keep the soil slightly moist, not sopping wet or saturated and never dried out. Dogwoods, like Japanese maples, are shallow rooted trees. So it is especially important to watch the soil moisture any time it is not frozen. To know if you need to water, dig into the soil with your finger. IF it still feels damp, do not water yet. When you do water, water slowly and thoroughly so it soaks deep into the soil. After watering, wait a few hours and then dig down to see how far it went. This can be surprising. Correct watering is usually the most important aspect of care, assuming it is planted in a suitable location.

Mulch over the root area with an organic mulch such as pine bark to a depth of two inches. Maintain this depth year round. Do not allow it to touch the trunk of the tree. Avoid growing lawn grass or groundcover beneath the tree as this can compete with the tree's shallow roots.

Do not fertilize much, if at all, unless your soil tests indicate a need for it. This is a naturally slow growing tree. Overfertilizing can "burn" the roots so if you do fertilize, use a slow release complete granular such as Hollytone. Be sure to read and follow the label directions. Do not lime the area where you are planting the tree as this will raise the pH and make it more alkaline.

This tree is subject to some pests and diseases that may be naturally prevalent in your area. Avoid damaging the trunk by pruning or staking or accidently with the weedwhacker as these wounds create points of entry for pests such as borers as well as bacterial or fungal infections. There are some diseases that can affect dogwoods such as anthracnose and wilts that can be present in the environment or even soil borne, so do not plant a dogwood in the same place as a previous one that died.

Finally, make sure you are starting with a good healthy plant from a reputable supplier that has been well grown and well cared for at the retail nursery prior to purchase. Plant in very early spring or in early fall for best results.

Here is some additional information to possibly help you troubleshoot what has happened in the past, and knowing that, take steps as needed to avoid them happening again. You may need to cut and paste the complete url into your browser to make it work correctly.

If your new tree shows signs of trouble, immediately contact your county extension for help in diagnosing the problem. Based on knowing that, you may be able to treat it. If it is something that requires a chemical control, they will also have the most up to date recommendations on what to use and how/when is best to use it.

I hope this helps.

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