Trimming Dogwood Trees: Tips On How To Prune A Flowering Dogwood Tree

A harbinger of spring in parts of the country that enjoy mild winters, flowering dogwood trees boast an abundance of pink, white or red flowers long before the first leaves appear in spring. Since they grow only 15 to 30 feet tall, there is room for a dogwood tree in almost any landscape. They seldom need pruning, but when the need does arise, correct dogwood tree pruning leads to a healthier, more attractive tree.

When to Trim a Dogwood Tree

Part of proper dogwood pruning involves knowing when to trim a dogwood tree. In areas where boring insects are a problem, never prune a dogwood tree in spring. The wounds created by pruning cuts provide an entry point for these devastating insects.

In addition, if pruned while the tree is actively growing in spring and summer, the wounds bleed copious amounts of messy sap. Therefore, the best time to prune a dogwood tree is in late fall and winter while the tree is dormant.

Dogwood Tree Pruning Info

Dogwood trees have a naturally attractive shape and don’t require routine pruning, but there are some circumstances where pruning and trimming dogwood trees becomes necessary. Pruning a dogwood tree when these situations arise helps prevent insects and disease from infesting the tree and allows for better growth and shape.

Before pruning a dogwood tree, you should be aware that removing large branches can damage the trunk if the heavy branch breaks away and tears down the trunk as you begin to cut. Therefore, you should remove branches larger than two inches in diameter by making three cuts to prevent tearing.

Make the first cut on the underside of the branch, 6 to 12 inches out from the trunk of the tree. Cut only one-third of the way through the branch. Make the second cut about an inch beyond the first one, cutting completely through the branch. Make the third cut at the collar of the branch to remove the stub. The collar is the swollen area of the branch near the trunk.

How to Prune a Flowering Dogwood Tree

When you’re ready for trimming dogwood trees in your yard, it also helps to know a little bit about when and how to prune a flowering dogwood tree.

  • Remove damaged, diseased or dead branches at the collar. These branches are unsightly and provide an entry point for insects and disease.
  • Remove undersized twigs and branches that detract from the shape of the tree to open up the canopy for better air circulation and to let in sunlight.
  • Suckers that grow at the base of a dogwood tree use energy that the tree needs for proper growth. Remove them as close to the roots as possible.
  • The lower limbs on a dogwood tree sometimes hang so low that you can’t mow under the tree or enjoy the shade it provides. Remove low-hanging branches at the collar.
  • When two branches cross and rub together, they create wounds that allow insects and diseases to gain a foothold. Remove the least desirable of the two crossing branches.

Now that you know the basics of dogwood tree pruning, you can enjoy your trees without the worry of them becoming unsightly or sick.

When to prune dogwood trees for optimal health

As flowering trees go, the dogwood tree is one of the most popular. Most common being the white flowering dogwood, but you will also find pink flowering dogwoods.

When should you prune a dogwood tree? From late fall to late winter while the dogwood tree is completely dormant. Once the buds start swelling it’s too late. This is optimal, but you will be removing flower buds for the spring season.

There are a few reasons why you need to prune during this timeframe and it doesn’t really matter which variety dogwood you have. But the grafted dogwoods have one of the biggest issues.

Can You Prune A Dogwood Tree?

The straight answer to this is yes, you can. Some care needs to be taken on when you prune a dogwood tree and how much you prune off at one time.

Most dogwood trees don’t need much attention in the pruning department. They keep their shape fairly well by nature. Most issues arise when they are planted in less than optimal spaces.

Best Time to Prune a Dogwood Tree

People ask if they can trim a dogwood in the summer or cut back a dogwood in the fall, but the best time to prune a dogwood tree is in late fall until late winter. This is when the dogwood is completely dormant.

There are 2 main reasons to only prune during the dormant period. Insects and oozing sap.

Dogwood Borer Insect

The first reason is probably the most important one. There is a dogwood borer that is attracted to freshly cut areas on dogwoods.

They are most active from April through June, so it is definitely advisable not to do any pruning during that time frame.

The larva actually do the most damage by working on the roots of the dogwood.

Grafted dogwoods are especially susceptible to the dogwood borer. While a grafted dogwood is more of the exception instead of the rule you might want to figure out if your dogwood happens to be grafted, so that you can pay close attention to the signs.

By only pruning your dogwoods during the dormant periods (winter) the insect will not be present, so you can keep your dogwood tree strong and healthy.

Dogwood Sap Oozing

When dogwoods are actively growing during the spring and summer months they produce an amazing amount of sap.

If you cut off a branch during this time period the dogwood will ooze or bleed a large amount of sap which should be feeding the tree itself.

Your dogwood needs this energy to stay healthy and to grow, so it’s best to avoid trimming dogwoods during the spring and summer time.

Another Great Reason To Wait Until The Dogwood Is Dormant

Once all the leaves have falling out the dogwood in the late fall since it is a deciduous tree, you can clearly see all the branches of the canopy.

This enables you to easily see if there are crossed branches that need to be removed. You can also easily notice branches that are not growing in the same direction as the majority.

Dogwoods have a tendency to grow sprouts that go straight up instead of outward away from the trunk, if they are in a more sunny area. Once the leaves fall off it is much easier to see these sprouts.

Prune These Anytime

Damage Branches

If a branch is damaged by a storm or other reason, you should prune it immediately to enable the dogwood to start healing the wound. By making a clean cut the tree will be able to heal over the area efficiently.

This will minimize the risk for having an insect problem. With damaged limbs there can be many places that attract the destructive insects.

Dead Branches

From time to time you will get some dead branches in dogwood trees. Normally it will be the lower ones that don’t get enough sunlight, but it can happen to any branch.

Once you notice a branch that is dead or dying, go ahead and cut it out no matter what time of year it is. Leaving a dead branch only leaves the tree susceptible to disease and insects.

Remove it back to a fork on the branch that is alive or just simply remove the whole branch back to the trunk by cutting the limb off right at the limb collar.

Diseased Branches

This goes without saying, if you determine that a branch has a disease, go ahead and remove it back to a good healthy section.

Sometimes you will notice the leaves turning a different color from the rest of the tree which could mean there is a disease. One method to determine if its a disease is to Google the symptoms.

Do the leaves have spots? Are they yellowing? Is there a gray power look to them?

Before you remove the branch Google the symptoms to make sure it isn’t something that can easily be cured. You can also check with your local Agricultural Extension Service for their advice.

Trunk Suckers or Water Sprouts

From time to time you might see some suckers going out of the trunk or at the base of the trunk. They usually grow straight up almost parallel to the trunk whereas an actually limb will grow perpendicular to the trunk.

They start off as just a couple of little leaves. Then you will see a short stem. If you notice them early you can simply just pinch them off with your figures.

If they have become fairly woody then you will need to cut them off with a pruner or lopper.

It is best to remove them as soon as you notice them, no matter what time of year it is.

When Should I Prune Kousa Dogwoods

Doesn’t matter which variety of dogwood from pink, white, or red flowering dogwoods to Cornus Kousa which is sometimes referred to as the Chinese dogwood, Korean dogwood, or Japanese dogwood, it is best to prune during the winter dormant period.

Cutting Off Bloom Buds

One drawback to pruning your dogwood in winter during the dormant time is that you will be cutting off the bloom buds for the spring. This can’t be helped since the dogwood tree sets its buds during the growing season the year before.

Just keep this in mind when you are pruning and try not to cut off too many flowering buds. Consider doing heavy pruning in stages from year to year so you still have a nice flower show the following spring.

Or you can just bite the bullet and trim what you need to, knowing that it might be a couple of years before you have that great flower show again.

Optimal Time To Prune For Flowering Buds

If you don’t have a dogwood borer issue in your region, you might consider doing some light pruning right after the dogwood finishes flowering.

This gives the dogwood plenty of time to develop bloom buds on the branches that are left.

If you choose to prune at this time, keep in mind that there will be plenty of sap oozing. This won’t kill the tree but it might weaken it a bit which can invite issues and stress that the tree has to overcome instead of spending its energy growing.

Related Questions

When should I prune back dogwood shrubs? You will want to prune or cut back the dogwood shrubs while it is dormant, similar to the dogwood tree. But you can prune in the early spring up until you see grow.

Can you espalier a dogwood tree? Yes, it just means that you are training the trunk and branches to follow a structure. A flowering dogwood makes a great espalier tree in a courtyard or small landscape area. Or on a wall where you want to block sunlight during the summer but have the sunlight to heat the wall in the winter.

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“Shape Up” Your Garden

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Trees add immense value to the landscape, both aesthetically and economically. Properly pruning young trees improves their health, vigor, and structural strength. A well-maintained tree is less prone to pest and storm problems and lives longer. And of course, structural pruning improves the visual appearance of a tree for years to come. Here are the steps to follow if you are looking to “shape up” the trees in your garden.

Getting Started

After planting, pruning should be limited to broken or damaged limbs for the first year. During the first growing season, newly transplanted trees need as many leaves as possible to produce energy for root growth and establishment. Take advantage of this time to study the tree’s form and identify potential weaknesses, such as crossing branches or narrow branch angles.

Selecting Main Branches

Structural pruning may begin in the second growing season. The goal is to establish a series of strong branches that are evenly spaced along and around the trunk. Typically, the main branches or scaffold branches are spaced in a spiral pattern up the trunk. On large shade trees like oaks and maples, these branches may be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. On small ornamental trees such as Empress of China® Dogwood, scaffold branches may be closer together – about 8 to 12 inches apart. These branches provide the main framework of the tree. It can take several years of selective pruning to establish a series of scaffold branches.

Making the Cut

Determining which branches to keep and which to remove may seem challenging. Start by removing branches with weak angles of attachment to the trunk. Narrow branch angles are more likely to split during storms. Remove branches with V-shaped angles or those less than 45 degrees. Strong branches have a wider angle of attachment – between 45 and 90 degrees. These make the best scaffold branches. Other branches to remove include those growing at odd angles across or through the tree, and rubbing or crossing branches.

It is important to note tree branches do not move up vertically from the ground as the tree grows. They generally stay the same distance from the ground, with new growth adding additional branches higher in the canopy. Consider the branch position and try to picture the tree’s appearance as the scaffold branches grow in diameter. Walk around the tree and step back, comparing both the vertical and radial position of each potential scaffold branch before making a selection.

Raising the Canopy

Gardeners often choose to limb up lower branches to raise the height of the canopy. Approach this process slowly to maintain protection of the trunk during the first several winters. Many young trees have thin bark that is susceptible to sunburn and winter injury. Therefore, it is important to maintain some lower branches to provide shade to the trunk. As the tree matures, these limbs can gradually be removed until the canopy is at the desired height.

Exercise Patience

Structural pruning is a gradual process and will take a series of cuts over a few years to complete. When working, step back each time you remove a few branches and walk around to determine if any more cuts are required. At each pruning, no more than one-fourth of the tree canopy should be removed. As the tree takes shape, you will be rewarded for your patience.

Pruning Ornamental Trees

Unlike pruning hedges or many fruit trees, pruning ornamental trees—such as Dogwood, Flowering Cherry, Magnolia, Snowbell, or Japanese Maple—involves mostly thinning to enhance natural branching patterns, open up views to trunks, and reduce the overall density. Although the growth habits vary between types of trees, the basic principles of thinning and redirecting apply to most. Some trees need very little, if any, pruning. For the rest that do need pruning, here are the basics to get you started.


Redirect growth energy (not slow or stop it). Reveal beauty (not create it). Improve health (allow greater access to air and light—help it “breathe,” reduce wind and snow breakage).


Winter: any time between total leaf fall and the breaking open of the first spring buds. Good for major clean-out and thinning. Fewer bugs to swat or bulbs to trample. Watch for excessive running sap.
Summer: after leaves are full size, through early September. Good to see foliage masses for thinning and layering. Easier to identify dead branches. Generally stimulates growth less than winter pruning.
Flowering trees: ideally soon after flowering, but light thinning will not impact future flowering. Anytime of year: remove dead or problem branches.


Do less than you think you need to. Try not to remove more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the volume of the living crown in any one year (some professionals recommend even less). More may cause oversprouting. Anything dead should be removed, of course.


1. Clean Out: Remove branches which are dead, diseased, broken, crossing (rubbing on each other) or out of character with the rest of the tree.
2. Selectively Thin: Open up light and air circulation. Make the interior more transparent but not stripped clean. Balance the branch density around the tree.
3. Shape and Layer: On more horizontal branching trees: enhance “cloud formations” and spaces between them. On more vertical growers: lightly thin between major branches. Open up views of attractive/unique trunks and branches, such as at major crotches.


Don’t fight your tree’s will to grow to a certain size. Work with it, or replace tree with something smaller.
Safety! Eye protection from branches.
Sharp tools are better for the trees, less stress on your hands.
Work from inside out, bottom to top. Start by removing small inside branches. Work up to larger if necessary. You can shake or trace the branch before cutting to anticipate the effect of its removal.
Leave minimal length of dead end stubs.
Work around the plant at least twice (if possible). You will notice different details each time.

The end of February is a very busy time for pruning, – so no apologies for 2 pruning posts in a row. Today, as well as pruning 27 Roses, i’ve been cutting back Cornus.

This one is Cornus Midwinter Fire, and is a fantastic Winter colour addition to your garden. It’s flame colours start to show as soon as it gets really cold, and the stems have the brightest colours in their first year of growth, which is why you need to prune them back hard each year. By doing it now at the end of February, you may be getting rid of the bright stems in the garden before all the new foliage comes out, but you can enjoy them indoors in a vase.

It is fine to cut it back hard, – this is what you should be aiming for.

The downside of this variety as compared to the red stems of Cornus alba Elegantissiama, or Cornus Sibirica, is the the summer foliage is downright boring. I’ve also found that it takes about 3 years to get established to the point where it’s new shoots each year are long and straight. The first couple of years it tends to have (bright coloured, but) feeble branches.

This is it in the summer (yes those yellow leaves behind the wooden chairs!)

So if you’ve got a space where your eye will wander in winter, but doesn’t need a huge amount of summer interest, then Cornus Midwinter fire is excellent for you.

Pruning dogwoods – Cornus. How – when to prune. 

Gardenseeker Main › Pruning Shrubs A – Z › Pruning Cornus/Dogwoods

Many Cornus – Dogwoods – are grown for their colourful stems throughout the winter months. For this to be successful, it needs a particular kind of pruning – easy!

We take you through the pruning exercise and tell you when and how to prune your Dogwoods.

You need to prune at the right time, which is late Winter or early Spring.

We are NOT talking about the flowering Dogwoods – Cornus – which are NOT grown for their stem colour.

Cornus alba, stolonifera and sanguinea types, should be pruned in the spring of each year for maximum stem colour effect.

Cornus alba, Cornus sanguinea and Cornus stolonifera types are all grown for winter stem colour.

Pruning the dogwoods in early spring, gives the shrub plenty of time to generate masses of long straight cane-like stems through the summer growing season which will develop into stunning colour effect in the following winter months.

Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire

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See the ‘stump’ left to the right of the picture. It will be masses of colourful stems next winter.

How to Prune Dogwoods – Cornus for Stem Bark Colour.

Prune the Cornus down to – or near ground level. Prune every stem down to this level – as can be seen in the image above right. This hard pruning of the Dogwood removes all of the stems that were the attraction through the previous winter, but do not worry, for where you have carried out the pruning, many more stems will grow from the stumps left behind.

If you wish to grow them behind other plants, then they can be pruned back to a framework some 45cm (18in) from the ground, and cut them back (pollard) them each year to this level.

These new young stems will produce brightly coloured stems for the following Winter dormant season. If left un pruned, then the Dogwood would lose vigour, and the stem colour would fade year after year.

Hard pruning is the way forward for this, and make sure that you prune early enough in the spring.

The image shows the growth of new stems, that resulted when just 4 old stems were cut back hard. Throughout the following growing season – summer – the new stems will grow to around 90cm – 1.2m depending upon the variety.

Best Varieties of Dogwoods for stem bark colour.

It would be natural to go for the bright red varieties of Dogwoods – such as Cornus alba Sibirica, Cornus alba Aurea, Cornus a. Spaethii or Cornus alba Elegantissima. It is far better to use these in conjunction with another stem – bark – colour such as Cornus stolonifera Flaviramea (Brightest green) or Cornus sanguinea Winter Beauty (Orange) or my favourite which has to be Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire – gold, orange and scarlet all on the same bush. This particular variety is best not prunes so hard as the other Dogwoods.

Also of interest, would be the near black stem colour of Cornus alba Kesselringii – very unusual with its darkest purple stems.

When to Prune Dogwoods.

The varieties above should all be pruned – cut back hard – not trimmed – in early Spring rather than late winter. They will soon start to re-grow their new vibrant stems.

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