In their native habitats, the dogwood tree usually grows as an understory tree along borders of woodlands. Growing to heights of around 25 feet, this lovely spring bloomer prefers a partly shaded habitat and moist, well-drained soils. In the home garden, dogwoods are frequently planted as showcase specimens where they receive more sun than the species usually prefers. With the proper care, including judicious and well-timed use of the right fertilizers, dogwoods can flourish just about anywhere.
Types of Dogwoods
Valued for its year-round interest in the garden but particularly for its creamy white spring flowers, the flowering dogwood tree, or Cornus florida, is native to the eastern United States. Several flowering Asian varieties are also commercially available, including Cornus kousa, which tend to grow better in full sun. Many different cultivars have been developed for flower color and disease resistance, including the pink-flowered Cherokee sunset or anthracnose-resistant Appalachian spring.
Flowering dogwoods are medium-sized trees that tend to grow wider across than tall. Four-petaled white to pink flowers appear in early spring, followed by oval-to-heart-shaped leaves with deep green veins. Dogwoods are also star performers in the autumn when their leaves turn a deep red, and fruits ripen into clusters of bright red berries beloved by overwintering birds.
As care goes, dogwoods are strictly middle of the road. They will not tolerate drought or wet feet, and should be planted in rich, moist soil that has excellent drainage. When purchasing a young tree from a nursery, select individuals that have well-developed root systems rather than tall growth or full foliage. This will help the tree become established more quickly in its new setting.
With the best of intentions, many gardeners inadvertently harm their new dogwood trees by applying fertilizer around the tree's base immediately after planting. According to silviculturalists, this causes the tree to put on more growth than its roots can support through the first winter, or the tree is killed outright by over-fertilization.
New trees are best left unfertilized for their first year. After allowing the tree a period in which it becomes established, you may apply a general-purpose chemical fertilizer (12-4-8 or 16-4-8) according to the circumference of the trunk and tree height. Feed newly established trees using four tablespoons of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter; well-established trees can tolerate 1 cup or ½ pound. Scatter the fertilizer evenly over the soil in a 2-foot radius of the tree. Never concentrate fertilizer around the base of the tree.
Dogwoods situated in a naturalized setting alongside other shrubs and beneath taller trees usually require no fertilization at all.
An alternative method of fertilizing dogwood trees is to apply a layer of mulch around the base of the tree. This will fertilize the tree through slow decomposition of the mulch, similar to how specimens receive nutrients in a wild setting. Mulch also gives the tree's trunk additional protection from garden implements like lawn mowers and weed trimmers. Lay down a layer no more than 2 inches thick in a radius of a foot to a foot and a half, and avoid piling the mulch higher around the trunk.