Dogwood trees are universally popular, and it’s no wonder. At this time of year they put on a spectacular show, their brilliant white blooms lighting up the spring landscape, but they can be a challenge to grow successfully. The fact is that really fine, healthy dogwoods in home landscapes are actually somewhat rare. Dogwoods don’t naturally thrive in full sun out in the middle of front lawns.
Dogwood seeds sprout in the semi-shade and rich loamy soil at the edge of woods, with protection from other plants. As the forest canopy grows, young dogwoods typically reach for the sun, becoming one-sided. If you look closely at a mature dogwood in its natural setting you’ll see it’s in pretty rough shape, crooked and unbalanced. The perfect specimens you see in suburban landscapes have been planted there, and only one out of ten dogwood transplants survives very long.
The most common cause of dogwood death in landscapes is drowning from being planted too deep in heavy soil and then over-watered. Dogwoods really need to dry out between waterings. Bark borers and many types of fungus prey on dogwoods. A serious disease called Dogwood anthracnose has been killing dogwood trees in this region for several years now, and is spreading fast. Dogwoods are very vulnerable to bark damage from weed-eaters and lawn mowers; flesh wounds in their tender bark are entry points for borers, and bark scarring restricts the flow of water and food up the trunk.
There are flowering trees that are much more likely to survive. If you’re looking for a showy flowering tree that’s not too large but grows fast, consider the Magnolia. There are some gorgeous Magnolia hybrids that work well in clay soil, making Magnolias a better choice for most landscapes than Dogwoods, which prefer well-drained soils. We like the family of compact hybrids with women’s names like Jane, Susan, Betty and Anne (we call them “the girls”). They make ideal lawn trees, big enough to walk under when they grow up. Many of them re-bloom lightly during the summer and fall.
Another great spring-flowering tree is the Winter King Hawthorn, a shapely lawn tree that grows faster than dogwood, has white flowers in spring and shiny red berries all winter. Hawthorn is a “xeriscape” tree, meaning it can get by with very little water. It can also survive in bad soil.
Like dogwood, Serviceberry is a native in southern Ohio woodlands. Known for sweet fruit that attracts robins and cedar waxwings in late spring, serviceberry also has showy fall foliage. Redbuds are another clump-form tree native to this area, and very pretty during early spring.
Modern-day crabapple varieties have been hybridized to minimize messy fruit drop, and many spectacular colors and sizes have been developed that make spectacular lawn trees. We particularly like “Tina”, a dwarf variety of crabapple that grows to only eight feet tall and wide, covered with billows of light pink blooms in spring. “Purple Prince” crabapples have dark bronze foliage all season and bloom deep pink. “Snowdrift” has pure white blooms and a tidy wide oval shape. “Red Jewel” is covered with shiny red berries all winter long. “Indian Magic” with its striking crimson blooms is another favorite.
We’ve had to replace so many dogwoods under our one-year warranty over the years that we rarely use them in our landscape designs. A strong suggestion is to be realistic about the growing conditions you have and consider different flowering trees that are more suitable. There are lots of small-to-medium sized ornamental trees to choose from. We like Hawthorn, serviceberry, white fringetree, crabapple, tree lilac, ornamental cherry and ornamental pear. All these trees are easier to grow than dogwood.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.