Greg Bowman

Dogwood trees are one of the more popular ornamental trees in Georgia, but can be one of the most mismanaged landscape items. I remember as a younger agent going on a home visit to look at a dogwood for a client. When I arrived, the problem was very clear to see. The dogwood was planted, first, in the wrong spot and second, the mulch material was adding to the failure of the tree.

Today, I will be sharing information on growing dogwoods from a UGA publication that was revised by Bodie Pennisi, UGA Horticulturist.

Keep in mind that dogwoods should not be a tough tree to grow if you will purchase healthy dogwoods in the first place and then plant them in the correct spot. I would like to talk about the planting site first. This is where I see many mistakes. Think about where you see dogwoods on a Sunday drive doing the best. You will see them in an understory situation. This means you find them growing under hardwood and pine trees. You will see growth problems when they are planted in hot and dry spots.

The dogwood example in my opening paragraph was planted in full sun. The client was using ornamental pebbles for mulch and beyond that was a lot of cement. The poor tree was burning up. Dogwoods like spots that are high in organic matter, but also in spots where drainage is great. Do note that dogwoods should not be planted in deep shade since it can reduce the flowering of the tree. You will not see dogwoods growing in spots that has poor water drainage.

Second, purchasing healthy dogwoods is another big step in success. Stay away from trees that look stressed or have damage to the stem. If you are buying container dogwoods, you need to make sure the roots are white and are not pot bound. If you buy B & B (balled and burlapped) or bareroot dogwoods, you want to make sure their root system has been protected from drying by being heeled in either moist sawdust or some other organic substance.

Also, stay in tune with correct planting time of the year. The container grown dogwoods can be planted any time of year if they are watered correctly. The balled and burlapped or bareroot dogwoods need to be planted when they are dormant, which is normally from November to March.

Planting your dogwood tree correctly is also important in overall success. Working the soil and planting a correct sized planting hole is important. The planting hole should be large and wide and the backfill soil needs to be worked. The backfill soil can simply be the soil that was removed from the hole in the first place. Make sure you bust up soil clods and remove rocks or other debris. When you plant, make sure the root ball is level with the soil surface and then backfill with the same soil. If you want to use other organic material, it is suggested to use it as a mulch and do not put in the planting hole. We have a lot of clay soil in the area that get hard and compacted so working the soil and making sure the soil in the planting hole is loose can really aid tree establishment.

How you water can be another aid in having successful dogwood establishment. Pennisi states that how you manage the watering of your dogwoods the first two growing seasons can determine if the tree will live or die. You need to water them one or two times per week during dry periods. Do not overwater because too much water can cause root rot and possible tree failure.

If the fall is dry, you can water then, too. Do not forget to mulch. Note that most tree roots will go several feet beyond the spread of the tree canopy. In addition, most tree roots are in the top 12 inches of soil. It is suggested to mulch a wide area under the trees at a depth of no more than three to four inches. Items such as pine straw, pine bark or even fallen leaves will make a good mulch material. Mulch does several things such as protecting roots from extremes in cold and hot times of the year and also help with conserving soil moisture.

Mulching can also help reduce weeds and will add to the soil as the material decomposes. Follow a recommended plan for fertilization also. You do not have to get fancy on fertilizers, but 16-4-8 or 12-4-8 is suggested. When the trees are young, please do not over-fertilize. This can actually harm the trees. Small dogwoods in the 12-24-inch tall range should receive one level tablespoon in March and July. Pennisi states that a newly planted dogwood that is six feet tall needs one-fourth cup of fertilizer in March and again in July. You need to evenly distribute the fertilizer on the soil surface covering a two-foot radius from the tree trunk. When the tree is established, you will need another fertilization plan.

For more information, contact UGA Extension- Gordon County at 706-629-8685 or email