Cornus commonly known as Dogwoods are a group of shrubs that feature a number of Winter coloured species. These shrubs can literally set your garden on fire through the winter as they drop their leaves to reveal firey stems. Red, greens and bright yellows call out from your borders helping to lift the winter blues. They do require some pruning to help keep their vibrant colours going. This guide will show you how to prune them for best effect.

Cornus is a genus of about 30–60 species of woody plants in the family Cornaceae, commonly known as Dogwoods. Cornus are common shrubs here in the UK. In fact, you may have one and not even know as established Cornus lose their firey coloured stems as they turn brown and lignify over the years. Meaning their stems turn woody as the colour fades.

This guide is going to show you how to hard prune a Dogwood to ensure that each winter you have the brightest stems and a vigorous dogwood shrub.

How to know when to prune Cornus?

Before we start whipping out the secateurs I do need to say a bit about when to hard prune (coppice) Cornus shrubs such as Cornus sibirica or Cornus flaviramea. If you have newly planted shrubs that are a year or two old you probably don’t need to coppice them just yet. This is because they are still establishing themselves and their stems will probably be flexibly and pencil-thin. So they already have their bright colours intact.

The perfect Cornus shape
This young Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ doesn’t need pruning – see more in the video guide above

I recommend leaving these alone until they are about 3 years old and becoming more congested and woody. Then its time to hard prune them each spring to enable fresh growth before winter. You can either fully ‘hard’ prune them back to the ground or selectively remove 1/3 of the oldest stems dependant on the size of the shrub.

If your Cornus is a tangled mess of crossing stems then it is definitely time to prune them back into some form of order. A prune at the right time can help renovate and reinvigorate a otherwise lacklustre shrub.

When to prune a cornus shrub explained by Garden Ninja
See how congested the large Cornus sibirica shrub is behind me? This needs pruning.

Some guides advise that you hard prune Cornus each year but I would advise against this. Mainly because it is such a stress on the plant that it can actually become very thin and sickly looking. I coppice or prune mine every other year and give them a good mulch afterwards.

When to prune a Cornus or dogwood

The following Cornus should be pruned late March to early April here in the UK. This is when their new growth is starting to emerge.

The older school of thought was to do this in January but based on experience and the RHS’s revised guidance late March is better. Firstly because you get the vivid stems a bit longer and secondly its a bit less stressful for the plant as it is already in active growth.

A red Winter Dogwood

How to coppice a Cornus

You’ll be pleased to know that pruning Dogwood is relatively straight forward. All you need is a sharp pair of secateurs, a set of loppers for thicker stems or a wood saw if needed. If pruning a well kept Cornus a pair of secateurs is usually sufficient. The version I’m going to show you is Cornus sibirica and is in a really bad way. It’s around 20 years old and has never been properly pruned!

1.Cut back all thick woody growth back to the ground. These are the thicker more established stems. Usually, they will only have growth near the top. So let’s cut them back to 3- 4 inches above soil level.

2. Once you’ve cut all this back you should be left with the thinner fresher growth. The next step is to remove any crossing, damaged, diseased or undesirably stems. You’re aiming for an open form so think of an open palmed hand with fingers pointing outwards as the right shape. Giving your Cornus room to breathe!

3. Now we want to take back all remaining stems to 2 sets of buds. If your Cornus is relatively well kept it should be easy to spot these buds as they will have leaves on them. In older woodier specimens you’re going to need to find the small ridges and ‘nubbins’ as I call them. These are the nodes where leaves and buds will break. In older plants, these don’t break as readily as there’s easier growth further up.

4. Make clean neat cuts just above these buds. If the leaves are opposite which they mainly are then a clean horizontal snip is the best. As long as its clean don’t fret too much about the angle.

If you can’t see leaves then use the raised ridges on the stem to work out where the buds will break.

Should I hard prune my Cornus?

There’s also some debate over whether or not we should hard prune Cornus and keep forcing these bright stems. I have a number of different Cornus shrubs, some I leave to do their own thing. They can grow into really nice thick hedges and will soon bulk up. Their limey yellow ribbed leaves are lovely through the summer.

Old woody Cornus shrub
This definitely needs to hard prune!

Other schools of thought take out 1/3 of the older stems so they keep their height whilst encouraging some fresh bright growth. Others may need to renovate a Dogwood by hard pruning right back to the ground. Especially if it has been left untouched for years.

The choice is entirely up to you depending on your specimen and preference. These shrubs are hardy and will bounce back, especially if mulched after pruning. Remember their original root structure that fueled their growth is still there so the pruning won’t kill or harm them!

Pruning Cornus from time to time to thin our congestion is the best way to ensure a healthy vibrant shrub. If you want that blazing winter colour then a coppice each spring works wonders.

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Other Pruning Guides

If you have questions or comments on pruning Cornus why not let me know below? You can Tweet, Facebook or Instagram me. You can also follow me on Youtube where I’ve got plenty of garden guide vlogs!

Happy Planting!

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2 thoughts on “How to prune Cornus & Dogwood Shrubs

  1. Nadine says:

    Loved that demonstration of how to prune dogwood. Easy, clear and fun to watch. We watched your video about hydrangeas last week. Thanks for all your good advice – Lee.

    Nadine and Neil – Dundee

    1. lee says:

      Hi Nadine, Thanks for your lovely comment. I’m glad my gardening guides are helping you make the most of your garden plants! Happy Gardening. Lee

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