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Landscape Ideas: Blazing Color with Red Twig Dogwood, 5 Ways

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Landscape Ideas: Blazing Color with Red Twig Dogwood, 5 Ways

December 25, 2018

In summertime red twig dogwoods can look like space fillers, adding nothing but a bit of structure and not very interesting flowers. It could be that the shrubs are preparing for the next six months: in autumn and winter, they begin their extraordinary payback, with moody foliage followed by flaming stems.

Recently we visited the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in Surrey and found three of our favorite colorful varieties of red twig dogwood, looking their best in winter. Read on for our checklist of must-have cultivars (and see our guide to Red Twig Dogwood: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design for more tips for coaxing many seasons of brilliant color from your shrubs):

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

1. Dogwood ‘Midwinter Fire’

Burning bushes. Cornus sanguinea &#8\2\16;Midwinter Fire&#8\2\17; flaming away at the Royal Horticultural Society&#8\2\17;s headquarters at Wisley.
Above: Burning bushes. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ flaming away at the Royal Horticultural Society’s headquarters at Wisley.

People who plant for winter color are usually keen gardeners, and therefore optimists. It’s easy to appear this accomplished if you choose tried-and-tested performers in the Cornus family. One of the most astonishing reds is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, the Bloodtwig Dogwood which displays a palette of red with orange, on the same plant.

2. Prune with Impunity

A red twig dogwood&#8\2\17;s color loses luster over the years. To forestall fading, you can take one of two approaches:  Cut back the shrub to the ground every two to three years, or remove one quarter of a shrub&#8\2\17;s stems every year (to avoid sacrificing its springtime flowers).
Above: A red twig dogwood’s color loses luster over the years. To forestall fading, you can take one of two approaches:  Cut back the shrub to the ground every two to three years, or remove one quarter of a shrub’s stems every year (to avoid sacrificing its springtime flowers).

If you are renovating an old garden, approach outgrown blobs of shrubby dogwood, willow, or ghost bramble with a pair of loppers—this month. Alternatively, if they are in good heart and good color, enjoy them for a bit longer.

3. Ghost Bramble

 Red twig dogwood and ghost bramble (Rubus cockburnianus is in the foreground) make an amazing combination in a landscape.
Above: Red twig dogwood and ghost bramble (Rubus cockburnianus is in the foreground) make an amazing combination in a landscape.
Ghost bramble is also known as &#8\2\20;decorative bramble&#8\2\2\1; or any manner of things, for people who are unsure about their stark beauty.
Above: Ghost bramble is also known as “decorative bramble” or any manner of things, for people who are unsure about their stark beauty.

Ghost bramble is quite a grown-up plant, generally cultivated by people who know what they are doing. And yet, for all the atmosphere it gives to an otherwise dull garden in winter, it is worth knowing that all that needs to be done is to cut it back to ground level in early spring. A chainsaw will do.

The Royal Horticultural Society shows off, with a whole hedge of ghost bramble.
Above: The Royal Horticultural Society shows off, with a whole hedge of ghost bramble.
Imagine the satisfaction of cutting these Rubus cockburnianus stems to the ground in spring.
Above: Imagine the satisfaction of cutting these Rubus cockburnianus stems to the ground in spring.

4. Dogwood ‘Sibirica Ruby’

 Cornus alba &#8\2\16;Sibirica Ruby&#8\2\17; is another vivid, solid red. With more hauteur than the warmer Cornus sanguinea, it is a dramatic partner for Rubus cockburnianus.
Above: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Ruby’ is another vivid, solid red. With more hauteur than the warmer Cornus sanguinea, it is a dramatic partner for Rubus cockburnianus.

When it comes to pruning for color, you can coppice red stem dogwood in the same way as ghost bramble. Reduce it (almost) to the base, ideally just above the first two buds. If you prune in late March or early April, new growth will be more clearly visible and you will not be faced with cutting back the stems in their prime.

 You can edge a path with colorful mix-and-match cultivars to great effect.
Above: You can edge a path with colorful mix-and-match cultivars to great effect.

5. Dogwood ‘Bud’s Yellow’

Dogwood &#8\2\16;Bud&#8\2\17;s Yellow&#8\2\17;. This kind of outrageous color is rarely seen in winter, and it is a sign that the Cornus sericea shown here has been kept sufficiently moist throughout the year, with plenty of light.
Above: Dogwood ‘Bud’s Yellow’. This kind of outrageous color is rarely seen in winter, and it is a sign that the Cornus sericea shown here has been kept sufficiently moist throughout the year, with plenty of light.

Shrubby dogwoods are so tolerant of wet that they make good bog plants. Growing them around a pond has the advantage of allowing them to be seen easily, with their reflection an added bonus.

Layer after layer of drama, texture and color, in Surrey.
Above: Layer after layer of drama, texture and color, in Surrey.

6. A Horizon of Color

A distant fire. Plant red twig dogwood en masse to draw the eye (past the molehills) toward a horizon of color.
Above: A distant fire. Plant red twig dogwood en masse to draw the eye (past the molehills) toward a horizon of color.

Another option for pruning a dogwood, that is often seen with willow, is pollarding. After young plants have been left alone for their first two or three years, they can be pollarded by cutting back the main branches to two or three feet above the ground. Older specimens, like those growing around the lake at Wisley (as seen below), may have a single trunk that thickens over the years. These are also pollarded. Young stems are cut back to old wood.

Above: Pollarded cornus around the lake at Wisley.

After pollarded shrubs are returned to stubby trunks in March or April, they soon will be disguised by summer perennials and grasses.

N.B.: A colorful winter landscape is every garden’s birthright. For more ideas for adding vivid drama against gray skies, see our Garden Design 101 guides, especially Red Twig Dogwood 101 and Shrubs 101. Read about more of our favorite winter-worthy shrubs:

Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for dogwood tree with our Dogwood Tree: A Field Guide.

Interested in other types of trees? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various trees (specimen, deciduous, evergreen) with our Trees: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.

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