There is no doubt that dogwoods (Cornus) are an essential plant for the winter border, because the leafless stems tend to have such vibrant colouring. The effect of rich red, orange, yellow or bright green multiple stems in winter light is stunning, especially when planted in large groups by water.
Perhaps because this has become a planting trend in recent years, gardeners have become a little over-zealous in carrying out the annual prune to get those desirable stems. As a result, plants are often coppiced too early in their life span, with disappointing results.
Planting Dogwoods combine well in borders with the white winter stems of the ghost bramble (Rubus cockburnianus or R. thibetanus) for contrast, and also look good with emerging early spring bulbs.
Cutting The trick for getting the best out of dogwoods is to let them establish for three to four years before you coppice for the first time. Then cut back hard every other year to get the stem effects.
Cut dogwoods back in early spring, before the plants have started into leaf. Much of the work can be carried out with a pair of good, sharp secateurs, because stems are relatively thin. But for thicker stems, always use a small, sharp pruning saw, as long-handled loppers can squash the ends of the cut and bruise the stems, which ultimately leads to die-back and rotting.
With dogwoods, leave the stool
a little taller than for larger trees – up
to around 7-10cm. This encourages
a better shape for the new growth.
Mulch generously after cutting. For more on coppicing, read our piece on how to coppice hazel
Summer: bushy growth
This established dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, hasn’t been cut back for a couple of seasons and is now about 1.5m tall and wide. Coppicing in winter
will keep the stems compact and colourful.
Late winter: cutback
The ‘stool’ should have a smooth, clean finish to encourage healthy new stem growth. Cut back to between 7cm and 10cm from the ground.
After a summer of growth, the dogwood has worked hard to generate lots of dense new stems in rich red.