How and When to Prune Red Twig Dogwood to Enjoy the Most Colorful Stems

Pruning red twig dogwood regularly will give you the most vibrantly-colored stems.

stems of red twig dogwood about to leaf out

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Red twig dogwoods are exceptional shrubs for adding gorgeous color to your yard. Their scarlet-hued bare stems practically glow in the winter landscape. But over time, the coloring of the stems begins to dull. With a little pruning, however, you can once again enjoy brightly colored stems on your red twig dogwood. Keeping your shrubs trimmed is an easy semi-annual task you can easily do without the need for expensive experts or maintenance crews. Use this simple guide to figure out when and how to prune your red twig dogwood shrubs.

Red Twig Dogwood Basics

Also known as red osier dogwood, the red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a native deciduous shrub. It thrives in USDA Zones 3-7, making it an extremely cold tolerant option for thick hedges in northern states. In good growing conditions, these shrubs can easily reach upwards of 10 feet. In addition to colorful stems, red twig dogwoods offer white flower clusters in spring and white berries in late summer. They usually don't require fertilizer or soil amendments, and aside from a few pests, red twigs generally grow without issue.

As with many dogwoods, red twigs prefer evenly moist conditions and can tolerate part shade during the summer months. However, direct sun exposure during the winter months is key to bringing out their bright winter colors. In the landscape, they look especially striking in winter when planted near evergreens. And because of their beautiful stems, red twig dogwoods are often used in winter containers and other outdoor decorations because their cut stems will last for months without fading or turning brown. 

Several red twig dogwood varieties have come onto the market in recent years. Yellow stem, orange stem, and multicolored options are popular choices for bringing some variety to the landscape when very few plants show any winter color. For a splash of white in summer, variegated options bring color even to shady spots, while dwarf varieties of red twig dogwoods work well in smaller yards.

When to Prune Red Twig Dogwoods

The vibrant colors of red twig dogwoods show up best on younger stems. As the stems age, they produce brown bark. To maintain your shrub's red color, some pruning is necessary. Overly large plants also benefit from a hard pruning, allowing even overgrown behemoths to return to a more suitable and controlled size. 

Although red twig dogwoods are tough plants that can handle even heavy pruning with ease, it's best to prune them during the right time of the year. Once you have decided to trim back your dogwood, do so in late winter just before buds have begun to open. This will allow the plant to produce a new set of flower buds for the following season while sacrificing only some of the current season’s flowers.

How to Prune Red Twig Dogwoods

For younger plants only a few years old, it's a good idea to get a head start on pruning before older branches begin to dull. Each year, begin by cutting off the oldest branches to about 8 inches above the soil level. Remove any dead, broken, or twisted branches first and be careful to evenly space cuttings across the base of the plant. This will help avoid creating lopsided plants and bare spots. Always use clean, sharp blades and make even cuts to minimize the chance of plant diseases taking hold.

For dogwoods that have become unruly, woody, and unsightly, you can easily reinvigorate your shrubs through hard pruning. To do so, cut the entire plant back to about 18 inches above the ground. This method is only recommended as a last ditch effort because color, flowers, and any screening that the plant provides will be lost for at least a few years. To cut through thick stems and branches, use a newly sharpened and sterilized pruning saw. Make clean cuts through the wood and try to avoid splintering or tearing the bark on the remaining stump. 

In most cases, healthy red twig dogwoods will slowly spread out from the original plant over the years. However, you can remove suckers with a shovel, similar to how you might divide a perennial plant. Between the sucker and the main plant, use the shovel's blade to cut the underground stem. The sucker can then be pulled from the soil and removed or transplanted to a new location. 

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