Dogwoods are universally popular, and it’s no wonder. At this time of year, they put on a spectacular show, their brilliant white flowers lighting up the springtime landscape, but they can be tricky to grow successfully. The thing is, truly beautiful and healthy dogwood trees in home landscapes are actually quite rare. Dogwood trees do not naturally thrive in full sun in the middle of front lawns.
Dogwood seeds grow in partial shade and in rich loamy soil at the edges of woods, sheltered from other plants. As the forest canopy develops, young dogwood trees typically seek the sun, becoming one-sided. If you look closely at a mature dogwood tree in its natural environment, you will see that it is quite rough, twisted and unbalanced. The perfect specimens you see in suburban landscapes have been transplanted there, and only one in ten transplanted dogwood trees survives transplanting.
The most common cause of dogwood death in landscapes is drowning due to planting too deep in heavy soil and then overwatering. Dogwood trees really need to dry out between waterings. Bark borers and many types of fungi attack dogwoods. A serious disease called dogwood anthracnose has been killing dogwood trees in this area for several years now and is spreading rapidly. Dogwood trees 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 scars restrict the flow of water and food into the trunk.
There are flowering trees that are much more likely to survive. If you’re looking for a showy flowering tree that isn’t too tall but grows quickly, consider magnolia. There are some wonderful magnolia hybrids that work well in clay soils, making magnolias a better choice for most landscapes than dogwoods, which prefer well-drained soils. We love the family of compact hybrids with female names like Jane, Susan, Betty and Anne (we call them “the girls”). They make ideal lawn trees, tall enough to walk under when they grow. Many of them rebloom slightly during the summer and fall.
Another great spring-flowering tree is the Winter King Hawthorn, a shapely lawn tree that grows faster than the dogwood, has white flowers in the spring, and brilliant red berries all winter. Hawthorn is a “xeriscape” tree, meaning it can get by with very little water. It can also survive in poor soil.
Like dogwood, serviceberry is native to the forests of southern Ohio. Known for its sweet fruits that attract robins and cedar waxwings in late spring, serviceberry also has showy fall foliage. Redbuds are another clump-shaped tree native to this region and very pretty in early spring.
Modern crabapple varieties have been hybridized to minimize messy fruit drop, and many spectacular colors and sizes have been developed to make spectacular lawn trees. We especially love ‘Tina’, a dwarf variety of crabapple that’s only eight feet tall and wide, covered in streams of pale pink blossoms in spring. “Purple Prince” crabapple trees have dark bronze foliage all season and bloom dark pink. ‘Snowdrift’ has pure white flowers and a large, tidy oval shape. ‘Red Jewel’ is covered in brilliant red berries all winter. ‘Indian Magic’ with its striking crimson flowers is another favorite.
Over the years we have had to replace so many dogwoods within our one year warranty that we rarely use them in our landscaping. A strong suggestion is to be realistic about the growing conditions you have and consider different flowering trees that are better suited. There are many small to medium sized ornamental trees to choose from. We like hawthorn, serviceberry, white fringe, crabapple, tree lilac, ornamental cherry and ornamental pear. All of these trees are easier to grow than dogwood.
Steve Boehme is a landscaper/installer specializing in landscape “metamorphoses”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives can be found on the “Garden Advice” page on www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information, go to www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.