Ah, the middle of spring. Like most gardeners, I’ve been daydreaming about this time of the year since last fall, planning new beds and considering new plants to try. So once the rain tapers off and the dirt dries out a bit, I know it’s go time in the garden. I’ve got soil to turn under, trees to mulch, and plants to buy.
Over the past few months, I’ve been receiving all kinds of plant and flower catalogs, and their prices leave me gobsmacked: $25 for a gallon pot of some-such plant is a bit out of my budget. Or, the alternative is to spend less, but basically buy a two-foot dormant stick with a few spindly bare roots for a couple of bucks. Will it grow? Sometimes. On a few occasions, I have purchased the cheapo rooted sticks of plants that are known to be a workhorse in the garden, those that are notorious for growing quickly and easily. Shrubs like forsythia, privet, and hybrid willows or poplars are generally easy to work with, and you will probably have a good outcome if you plant them properly and have patience.
For finicky, slow-growing plants, like evergreens, you may want to shell out a few extra dollars and get a more established potted plant. I’d love to recommend buying 10-inch pine or spruce seedlings for a dollar or two a piece, but for me, I’d rather buy something like that a little larger so I can live to see it mature into a nice focal point in my landscape. Plus, my husband tends to be a little reckless on the mower, and most of the time, these seedlings end up with an unwanted haircut. Might as well shred a couple bucks and toss them in the yard.
And then there are the times when I’m driving around the county, and I see something growing in someone’s ditch or culvert, and a mental light bulb goes off. I was coming home yesterday afternoon, and I just happened to look over in my neighbor’s culvert and saw a small colony of red twig dogwood that I had never noticed before. I think I must have had cartoon heart eyes because I couldn’t stop thinking about its red branches, and how I wanted to get a hold of a start for my garden.
So, I messaged my neighbor, Ryan (a fantastic custom Funko artist), and asked him to see if his mom would mind if I jumped down into the culvert to dig up a couple red twig dogwoods to plant over at my place. Thankfully, she said I could.
It’s always a blessing when I can obtain free plants like this because I checked online and my catalogs, and found that I could buy a gallon pot for $24.99, and two-foot starts were priced 4/$4.99. So, if jumping down in my neighbor’s culvert, and possibly fighting off any creepy crawlers living down there saves me a few dollars, I’m gonna do it!
A native of North America, red twig dogwood is an easy-to-grow shrub that thrives in a sunny spot with moist soil. It can reach eight feet in height and width, making it a statement piece, especially in a smaller garden. What’s special about this shrub is the bright red branches, adding the most beautiful contrast to its green foliage in the summer months and pops of color in the dull gray days of winter. In spring, red twig dogwoods are covered in white flowers, followed by white berries, which are usually enjoyed by many birds.
Now, my old-timer friends are probably laughing as they read this, thinking that red twig dogwoods are an invasive weedy shrub. It grows with wild abandon here in Morrow County, dotting ditches along country roads. Some may not understand why I’d want a shrub like this in my yard. They may not understand why I want to encourage native plants to grow in my garden, with an attempt to undo the biodiversity loss that past generations have caused. To me, there’s a slight difference between growing a red twig dogwood and, say, other nuisance plants (cough, cough ... multiflora rose … cough, cough). Every plant has its purpose, and I want that pop of color in the winter that this dogwood provides.
If you want to add red twig dogwoods to your backyard, they can be propagated by hardwood cuttings. Or, because this shrub is known to produce rooted suckers, much like a lilac, you can dig and divide them up and relocate to your desired spot. If you want to control suckers, however, plant your dogwood with base mowing in mind. It’s the easiest way to keep a shrub like this tidy.
Pruning is ideal, especially the old wood, which tends to lose its bright red color. You can choose to do selective pruning, removing old growth only, or try coppicing every couple of years. To coppice is the fancy-pantsy term that means to cut the entire shrub to about a two-foot height, and is an aggressive way to prune, but red twig dogwoods are hardy and are likely to handle it. In fact, county guys, like my buddy, Mr. Howell, are doing these dogwoods kind of a favor by mowing ditches in which these plants thrive. They mow off the old wood, thus promoting the young, bright red branches to grow, which is probably the only reason I noticed my neighbors’ dogwood colony in the first place.
As far as disease, red twig dogwood is relatively healthy when planted in the proper location. It may suffer from leaf blight, canker (in hot zones, 7 or higher), and a few pests, like bagworms or scale.
So, if you’re looking for a shrub that adds a unique pop of color to your landscape, give red twig dogwood a consideration. And if you’re out and about in Morrow County and see a middle-aged lady knee-deep in a culvert, possibly wrestling a raccoon and digging up plants, it’s probably me.
Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.
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