Columns, In the Garden

 Propagating Dogwoods and Willows

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photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue
In order to root properly, red twig dogwood cuttings should be placed with the buds pointing up in a clean container with about 2 to 3 inches of water in a spot that gets natural light and not direct sun.

by Bonnie Kirn Donahue, Extension Master Gardener, University of Vermont 

Looking for versatile, native shrubs? Look no further than willows (Salix spp.) and dogwood (Cornus spp.).

Both species are exceptional landscape plants. They have strong roots that can help secure steep banks and prevent erosion. They grow in tough conditions, and after being cut down, they grow right back.

Willows are some of the first plants to flower in the spring, offering much needed early pollen and nectar to spring pollinators. They have a lovely wispy look in the summer, and some varieties have colorful stems in the winter.

Dogwoods, especially red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), have white, pollinator-friendly flowers in the spring, and fabulous bright red stems in the winter.

Another quality they both share is that they can be easily propagated in water. This can be a fun, simple and low-cost project before the growing season starts.

In late winter/early spring, before the shrubs have come out of dormancy, look for stems in their first-year of growth that are about the width of a pencil with big, healthy buds. Make a clean cut at the base of the stem, and remove any extra branches. 

If you take cuttings after the buds have already started to leaf out, remove new growth from the bottom part of the stem that will be submerged in water.

Cut the cleaned stems to 8 to 10 inches long, being careful to make cuts just beneath leaf nodes. The nodes are places with hormones that will stimulate growth. Depending on the length of your stem, you may get 4 to 6 cuttings out of one branch.

Place stems in a clean container with about 2 to 3 inches of water. Make sure that the buds are pointing up in order to root properly. Place the container in an area that receives natural light, but out of direct sun. Refill and refresh water as needed.

Roots should start to grow within a week or two. Once roots have developed further, the cuttings can be placed in containers with potting soil. Plant the stems about halfway into the soil (about 4 inches deep).

Keeping the cuttings moist at this stage is critical to their survival. Willows in the wild are often found in wet areas, so they naturally need more water. Dogwoods are found in riparian areas and need less water when mature, but keeping the soil moist is necessary while the cuttings are getting established.

Place containers in an area outside of direct sunlight to avoid drying the cuttings out. You will know the propagation worked when leaves start to grow from the stem. Keep the plants well watered until planting. Planting in the ground should be done ideally in the spring or fall.

Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape architect from central Vermont.

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