Cornus, commonly known as Dogwood, provides us with colourful stems of red, orange, purple, black, yellow and lime green in the winter garden.
But do your dogwoods shine with the ruby glow of the one in this photo?
Old, tired-out Cornus shrubs
But it is sometimes a mere shadow of it’s true self. Left unpruned and unloved for years.
Or incorrectly pruned, either at the wrong time of year – in winter (!)
Or possibly ‘tip pruned’. This latter technique results in thick, dull stems with a short, colourful stem at the tip; that year’s growth. It is often, but not always, a result of using a hedge cutter to create a neat finish where a group of Cornus have been planted together.
Poor horticultural skills are to blame for these pruning mishaps. Understanding when and how the shrubs should be pruned is not that difficult.
Your gardener, if you employ one, should know (or they’re no gardener).
If your garden has been designed, then the garden designer should have left you with a ‘looking after your new planting’ guide as part of their service. (Or they’re not doing their job properly).
But perhaps you’re a newly formed gardener recently moved into the house and garden. My advice is to use good reference books (bought and borrowed from the library), reliable websites, a garden consultant. And lots of visits to open gardens in all the seasons.
Discover how beautiful those dull dogwoods could be with some tlc. Because they will respond to pruning.
Planted en masse in larger gardens the effect is totally stunning, as you’d expect. Superb to see with the low winter sunlight shining through.
The planting scheme may have differently coloured dogwoods grouped in drifts.
Or a contrast of ghostly white stemmed Rubus with ruby red Cornus alba sibirica.
But don’t think this is just for you to admire when visiting large gardens and parks. Similar effects, albeit on a lesser scale, can be achieved in your own garden. Look at the spaces in your garden. Where would you best enjoy that bright zing of colour during the winter? It could be a part of the herbaceous border that you see from the kitchen window during the day. Or it might be in the front garden, so you know you’ll see them daily.
A small border could have one each of three differently coloured dogwoods. They’ll set each other off, but underplant with white cyclamen and snowdrops for extra winter pleasure.
A group of five rather than fifty-five Cornus will look effective in a domestic border setting. As dogwoods like damp soil, they’re an excellent shrub to have next to a garden pond. If you prune a third of the plant each year, you’ll be able to enjoy the autumn leaf colour too.
Caring for Dogwoods
These are easy maintenance plants!
Shrubby dogwoods that are grown for their winter stem colour are delightfully unfussy about the soil they sit in. They like it damp but will tolerate a drier soil if organic matter is added.
A sunny spot or partial shade are both acceptable. If you can find an area where the winter sun will shimmer through the stems, then that will enhance your pleasure.
As with any new shrub planting, you will need to water for the first 2 – 5 years. More in the early stages, and then less as time goes on. As ever this will be dependant on your soil, location and the weather.
Newly planted cornus are best not pruned for the first year or two. This is to be sure they’ve established.
Many people prune back their cornus in spring by a method called coppicing. This gives the most colourful stems as the new growth is the brightest. Prune in late March / early April when other plants are sending up growth to hide the pruned dogwood.
Have you planted your dogwoods in a shadier spot or poor soil? Then either coppice every other year or prune back just 1/3 – ½ of the stems each year.
Cornus cultivars for colourful winter gardens
The retail therapy bit! There are many cultivars to choose from so this is only a small selection.
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (Siberian dogwood) has rich red stems and red autumn leaves; plus an AGM to prove its garden worthiness
Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ has purple-black stems and purple foliage. Not one for a shadier spot as it will seem to disappear
Cornus sanguinea ‘Amy’s winter orange’ has stems which are yellow at the base, moving through orange to red tips
Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea has lime green stems and an AGM
Cornus sericea ‘Bud’s yellow’ has showy yellow stems
Cornus amomum (silky dogwood) has red-purple stems
If a garden designer is creating the planting scheme for you then they will have considered which stem colours will work with the other winter interest flowers and shrubs.
Of course, if you’re choosing for yourself, then your main criterion is likely to be colour. I am presuming that soil and location are fine. Ask yourself if the border where you’re putting the dogwoods is empty of other plants. If there are some, are they also winter interest plants? Or are they summer flowering herbaceous perennials that have died down?
In other words, will your cornus have competition? If the border is bare, then you can just choose your favourite colour!
Are Dogwoods Wildlife Friendly and Pet Friendly?
To which the quick answer is yes.
The native British dogwood is Cornus sanguinea and has reddish stems. A classic addition to a native species hedge, it can be grown as a shrub in a wildlife garden. The flowers attract insects and birds enjoy eating the berries.
As for dogs and dogwoods; the latter is non-toxic. So if your puppy chews on the cut stems they’ll come to no harm as a result. They’re also safe for kittens, rabbits and small children.
Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog
Shakespeare – The Winters Tale – Garden Design Inspiration
Ten Winter Flowering Shrubs – Planting Ideas for your Garden
Snowy Winter Gardens
Coppiced Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden
Evergreen Shrubs for Foliage Interest
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