By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
There are more than 30 species of Cornus, the genus to which dogwoods belong. Many of these are native to North America and are cold hardy from United States Department of Agriculture zones 4 to 9. Each species is different and not all are hardy flowering dogwood trees or bushes. Zone 4 dogwood trees are some of the hardiest and can bear temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-28 to -34 C.). It is important to choose the right species of dogwood trees for zone 4 to ensure their survival and continued beauty in your landscape.
About Cold Hardy Dogwood Trees
Dogwoods are known for their classic foliage and colorful flower-like bracts. The true flowers are insignificant, but many species also produce ornamental and edible fruits. Planting dogwood trees in cold climates requires some knowledge of the plant’s hardiness range and a few tricks to help protect the plant and help it survive some seriously cold weather without damage. Zone 4 is one of the coldest USDA ranges and dogwood trees need to be adaptable to extended winters and freezing temperatures.
Cold hardy dogwood trees can withstand winters in zones as low as 2 in some cases, and with suitable protection. There are some species, such as Cornus florida, that can only survive in zones 5 to 9, but many others can thrive in truly cold climes. Some trees that are planted in cold regions will fail to produce the colorful bracts but still produce lovely trees with their smooth, elegantly curved leaves.
There are many hardy dogwood trees for zone 4 but there are also bushy forms, such as Yellow Twig dogwood, which provide attractive foliage and stems. In addition to hardiness, the size of your tree should be a consideration. Dogwood trees span heights from 15 to 70 feet (4.5 to 21 m.) but are more commonly 25 to 30 feet (7.6 to 9 m.) tall.
Types of Zone 4 Dogwood Trees
All species of dogwood prefer zones below USDA 9. The majority are actually perfect for cool to temperate climates and have remarkable cold resilience even when ice and snow are present in winter. The twiggy shrub-like forms are generally hardy down to zone 2 and would perform nicely in USDA zone 4.
Trees in the Cornus family are usually not quite as hardy as the shrub forms and range from USDA zone 4 to 8 or 9. One of the prettiest hardy flowering dogwood trees is native to eastern North America. It is the Pagoda dogwood with variegated foliage and alternating branches that give it an airy, elegant feel. It is hardy in USDA 4 to 9 and remarkably adaptable to a range of conditions. Other choices might include:
- Pink Princess – 20 feet (6 m.) tall, USDA 4 to 9
- Kousa – 20 feet (6 m.) tall, USDA 4 to 9
- Cornelian cherry – 20 feet (6 m.)tall, USDA 4 to 9
- Northern Swamp dogwood – 15 feet (4.5 m.) tall, USDA 4 to 8
- Rough Leaf dogwood – 15 feet (4.5 m.) tall, USDA 4 to 9
- Stiff dogwood – 25 feet (7.6 m.) tall, USDA 4 to 9
Canadian bunchberry, common dogwood, Red Osier dogwood and the Yellow and Red twig varieties are all small to medium sized shrubs that are hardy in zone 4.
Planting Dogwood Trees in Cold Climates
Many dogwood trees tend to send up several branches from the base, giving them a rather unkempt, shrubby appearance. It is easy to train young plants to a central leader for a tidier presentation and easier maintenance.
They prefer full sun to moderate shade. Those grown in full shade can get leggy and fail to form colored bracts and flowers. Trees should be planted in well-draining soil with average fertility.
Dig holes three times as wide as the root ball and water them well after filling in around roots with soil. Water daily for a month and then bi-monthly. Dogwood trees do not grow well in drought situations and produce the prettiest visages when given consistent moisture.
Cold climate dogwoods benefit from mulching around the root zone to keep soil warm and prevent competitive weeds. Expect the first cold snap to kill leaves, but most forms of dogwood have lovely skeletons and occasionally persistent fruit which adds to the winter interest.
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How and Why to Grow Dogwood Trees
Homesteaders do not often focus the planting plan on any trees that do not produce food or firewood. Space if maximized to its best potential on homesteads both large and small.
At first glance, planting a tree that isn’t going to bear edible fruit or good firewood for the wood stove might seem like a waste of space.
But, planting dogwood trees in shady spots that may otherwise be underutilized can help attract small animals to the property.
Dogwood trees, in addition to being simply beautiful, attract small game in great abundance. Common wildlife such as squirrels, wild turkeys, raccoons, fox, and beaver are all drawn to the colorful and sweet berries that grow on the dogwood tree.
While attracting a nuisance predator like a fox onto your homestead is not ideal, if you live on a rural homestead like I do, odds are they are already lurking in your woods.
Since foxes are known to be drawn to dogwood trees, at least you will know where to hunt them, or set up traps if your chicken coop is suddenly light a few good laying hens.
If your family enjoys bird watching, especially during the early days of spring after a long winter, dogwood trees can be a welcomed addition to the homesteading landscape. The fruit and blossoms on the trees also attract cardinals, blue jays, and robins.
Some homesteaders and farmers intentionally cultivate dogwood trees in an area far away from the garden to help attract birds away from the growing crops.
Unfortunately deer are not attracted to dogwood tree berries, so you will still need a strong and sturdy fence to keep them out of the garden.
Dogwood berries are largely ornamental as far as humans and domestic pets are concerned. While they are not toxic in nature, they often cause digestive system issues leading to sometimes intense vomiting and diarrhea when consumed in large quantities.
The bitter taste of the pretty berries usually deters people, cats, and dogs from even attempting to consume them in large quantities.
Trees that Create Privacy
Are you trying to block your bedroom window from the neighbors view, or hide an ugly view FROM your window? You’ll need to choose a very full tree whose limb height will be sure to match up with the height of your window.
If you are looking for privacy, you may need to search for an evergreen or conifer tree. This type of tree, like a pine tree, will not lose it’s needles in the winter months. I have several articles about narrow evergreen trees and evergreen shrubs if you’d like to learn more about trees used for privacy and screening.
If you have a considerable privacy issue, take a look at my tips for regaining privacy from second story neighbors.
Comments 58 comments
Hi. I have a question more than a comment. I live in MA, looking for boxwood to plant along one side of our house, a small area between the corner and the edge of the deck. I wouldn’t want them taller than 3 feet…love a good rich green color. Never planted these before so looking for suggestions. Thanks!
The exact varieties we have varies, but if you check out our current selection you will see some lower-growing varieties, and hardy ones, that would suit you.
What is the difference in a English dwarf and winter gem? We had what I think is winter gem and one died so my husband went and got another one and it’s english dwarf. But since they’re all very small right now I’m not sure if there much difference
Well, they are different species, with slightly different foliage coloring and different responses to the seasons, so if this is a hedge it will be noticeably different, but not extremely so. If you are not a really picky type of person it probably won’t bother you. You could always leave it for now, and keep an eye out for another ‘Winter Gem’. They transplant easily in spring or fall, so you can swap them over when you find one.
I live in Woodinville wa (Zone 8B) and I m looking for boxwoods that can grow in the under large pine/fur trees, so potentially a lot of shade if not full shade. 3 ft is a decent height for me, taller or shorter is not a deal breaker. I just need one that ll grow well and be hardy in such conditions. I appreciate any help here. Thanks.
Under pines and spruce is a very difficult location for boxwood. I would look for something different, like dwarf cherry laurel perhaps.
Do you have to prune Japanese boxwood? What form will they take if they re not pruned?
You don’t have to prune Japanese, or any other boxwoods. They will usually make rounded, somewhat irregular bushes, and the final form – broad and low, more upright, etc. will depend on the particular variety. Good descriptions should include an indication of the natural (unclipped) form of the variety being described – most if not all on the Tree Center do. Quite a lot of gardeners find the natural forms more satisfying and interesting than the tight geometry of clipped plants, and it does allow them to be used in a wider range of garden styles.
I have an existing boxwood hedge (about 42” tall, 18” wide, with leaves about .5”-.75” in length) growing against a small picket fence. We recently added a 7’ fence around our yard and the hedge is now about 6”-8” from the fence, facing east. It gets the morning sun but will be shaded now by the fence.
Question 1: will the hedge do okay with the new fence blocking its afternoon sun?
Question 2: any ideas on the type of boxwood we have? We are planning to extend the boxwood hedge along the entire fence.
Boxwoods are very hard to identify, even by experts looking right at the plant, but at that height is could be American boxwood. The shading will probably reduce the density of the hedge, but if it is still getting morning sun it will continue to be reasonably healthy, I would think.
I live in Texas. I want to use boxwoods on my front walkway. It’s East to the house. The boxwoods will never be in shade entirely. Is there a box that can take consecutive hots days and sun? Or am I better off with a Clarissa holly. Or compact holly? Not wanting too much height?
Sorry I missed your post. I think you would be better with compact holly, although with good soil conditions and water boxwood will thrive, but summer drought could be an issue for you. The best compact hollies are very similar, and a lot tougher.
Live just south of New Orleans and looking for a boxwood or holly for a low clipped hedge ( roughly 1 foot H) around a circular driveway. Have had some difficulty adjusting to the hotter, more humid weather here vs. the upper south.
I would definitely avoid boxwood, and choose a dwarf holly instead – much more reliable in hot and humid conditions. Some are almost indistinguishable from boxwood. Ilex crenata is the species you want – look for varieties like ‘Soft Touch’ or ‘Convexa’, which are especially small leaved and easily kept to a foot tall and wide.
I live in Indiana and local garden centers tend to have both the winter gem and green gem boxwoods. Would you recommend one over the other? Are there any important differences? Thank you!
‘Winter Gem is less hardy for a start, best in zone 5. it is a variety of Korean Boxwood, while ‘Green Gem’ is a hybrid between Korean and English Boxwood, created in Canada. ‘Green Gem’ is usually hardy in zone 4, with minimal winter damage. I think the color is better too, being a brighter green, but you might see it differently. ‘Winter Gem’ will usually get larger, up ot 4 or even 5 feet, and it is not so naturally rounded and compact as ‘Green Gem’. So for larger specimens and taller hedges, if you are in zone 5, I would use ‘Winter Gem’, and for smaller hedges and round balls, and in zone 4, I would use ‘Green Gem’. Hope that helps – good luck with your planting.
I leave in South Carolina. I would like to plant an evergreen topiary that will not grow more than 8′ in 20 years. I plan to plant it in front of my garage windows. The condition of the space are:
Heat : straight afternoon heat for 8 hours.
Space/land available: 20′ length x 12′ wide
I will plant the tree right in the middle, so I can plant small shrubs around it later. I prefer the trunk can spread wide not skinny tall so I can shape it more like bonsai looking tree , but not bonsai size. Could you suggest me the best evergreen tree that hardy and disease tolerant? Thank you.
That’s an interesting project! If you are going to do a ‘giant bonsai’, then the size is in your hands, yes? I don’t think boxwood is a good choice. What about Wax Myrtle – Myrica cerifera? It has small evergreen leaves and clips very well. Another idea could be an olive tree, which also trims well and develops a good trunk. It is used a lot for giant ‘bonsai’ in Spain and Italy. You can use stakes to arrange the trunk of trees like this exactly as you want it.
Question….. I am unsure whether or not to buy 1 gallon or 3 gallon shrubs. Does this refer to the height or width? Thanks!
It’s the size of the pot – it indicates how mature the plant is (bigger pot = larger, more mature plant). This is explained on each plant page.
I live in Maryland and want to plant boxwood in front of my house. The area gets 2-3 hours of afternoon sun but is otherwise shaded. I hope to keep them in a round shape but hope to get them to about four feet tall.
I have two questions: (1) is boxwood my best choice? and (2) what is the darkest green variety? It’s hard to tell actual colors on the computer screen.
Thanks so much for your help!
I live in North Carolina, Zone 8. I am hoping to plant boxwoods on the front of my house under windows. I’d like something 4-5ft high. From my research it seems like I should go with either “Winter Gem” or “Wintergreen.”
(1) which of these two types gets taller? And (2) how quickly can I expect them to reach mature height?
‘Winter Gem’ is a little broader and slightly lower than ‘Wintergreen’, but htey are very similar. You can expect 4 to 6 inches of growth a year on both of them, perhaps a little more in your zone. Establish a good fertilizer regime and regular very light clipping to maximize the speed and keep them dense.
I have velvet boxwood and bought mountain boxwood. If they are planted close together will it look different?
Yes. Always best to plant the same variety for hedges and groups.
Thank you Dave G, this was a super helpful site and write up. I love boxwoods, and now I know what will work best in various areas of my zone 5 garden in Iowa City. We just bought 10 Winter gems for a manicured hedge, they are very small at this point. We plan to keep them fairly manicured so that they are dense plants, how long will it take for them to be at their full height?
Theoretically you could trim them permanently to a few inches tall, but you can allow a few inches of growth a year and still keep them dense and neat.
Hi Dave, really enjoyed the article. I’d appreciate your advice. I live in Massachusetts, looking for a boxwood to put in a large planter in an area with partial sun. I would prefer the trimmed height to be about 4′ and width about 3′. What are my options? Which would you recommend?
Hi I live in zone 5. I just bought a bunch of green velvet boxwood plants. I’d like to line each side of my sidewalk with them either shaped in balls or as a low border.
Also I bought 5 to circle around a tree at the corner of my house (ending of my landscape)
Also how close can they be planted?
Is green velvet the right choice for this.
Hi! I live in zone 8 near Dallas, Tx. I am wanting to plant some shrubs in front of my house. The area would be full sun. Not a drop of shade. I really love the way boxwoods look. Would Japanese boxwood grow and not die from the heat and sun? Or should I do a holly bush instead?
Probably a bit hot to do well with most boxwoods – but check for some more heat resistant varieties,like ‘Rotundifolia’, but not if your garden is dry. The heat resistant dwarf hollies would be better choices.
Hi – I am trying to decide between a Green Gem and Green Velvet for a low free form hedge at the edge of my patio. Do you prefer one over the other? Thanks!
Green Gem is perhaps a bit more cold resistant, so it depends where you are if that is important.
Thanks. I’m in Indiana. I’ve had Green Velvet for 15 years but they need replacing and the landscaper suggested either of those. They look similar to me in photos.
I want to plant a boxwood hedge that will be about 145′ in length starting from driveway entrance up to the front door. I live northwest N. some of the planned hedge will be more sunny then other parts but i think mid moring to early afternoon sun. Would like to stand about 3′ tall but also want to grow higher if I want to down the road. What would be a good choice. And its to be a squared off shaped hedge if that makes since. Thanks
That’s an ambitious project! Boxwood grows well in the northwest, with your cooler, damp summers and mild winters, so it should do well. I would think you have enough good light and sun to keep it vigorous and dense. You can find all our boxwoods here, and there are several you could choose. If you are in a hurry you might consider Sprinter, a very fast growing variety that will soon reach your 3 feet, although it doesn’t grow a lot taller. For something with potential to be taller, you might consider ‘Green Mountain’, a reliable variety, or we do have the American Boxwood, which has the potential to grow well over 6 feet tall. Probably I would go with ‘Green Mountain’, spaced evenly at a distance of 12 inches apart, although you could stretch that to 18 inches if you had to.
Hi! I live in Richmond, VA. and I’m looking for a very low growing boxwood to line my asphalt driveway. I’m drawn to Franklin’s Gem but I’m concerned about the heat coming off the driveway….and they will be in full sun. Do you think Franklin’s Gem is a good choice for my area and the plans I have for them?
Hi! I live in Richmond, VA and I’ve been looking for a hearty boxwood to line my asphalt driveway in full sun. I don’t want.them to grow over 3′ and I’m drawn to Franklin’s Gem, I just don’t want the heat to fry them. I am having irrigation installed soon, so they should get plenty of water. Do you think they’d be a good fit?
They should do fine – you are only in zone 7, so with irrigation I don’t think full sun will be an issue at all – just stimulate lots of growth. Franklin’s Gem is notable for cold resistance, but you don’t have that issue, so you could use others. Wintergreen, for example, will give you a taller hedge quicker, but it may need more regular trimming, if that is an issue for you.
Would you please tell us the names of the various box woods in the “knot” photo? Also, where is it located/zone? They all seem to be quite deer resistant (for me, in MI, Z 5). Have you had any problems with deer? Do the boxwood bounce back? Thank you so much!
Sorry, it’s a file picture, so we don’t know the location or the varieties being used. By looking at our extensive range of boxwood you will be able to find varieties that are good for hedges and accents, and recreate something like that – a lot of it is a matter of variety selection, care, patience and good growing. As for deer, all boxwood are fairly resistant, but if a deer is hungry enough it will try anything once, and do a lot of damage in the process. Boxwood does come back from cold or animal damage pretty well, with some care, fertilizer and watering.
I’m undertaking a “curb appeal” project to put my home on the market in two years. I’m thinking of installing a boxwood hedge between the house (contemporary one-story) and walkway – a width of only 3.25-ft. The height constraint is about 2.5-ft. I know absolutely nothing about gardening, but it appears the soil is very poor. What can I do to ensure optimum growing conditions? What variety would you recommend for Grand Rapids, MI? What would be the size and spacing to achieve the best look ASAP (I will be long gone before the hedge matures). I’ve called some local landscapers to get their opinion (Wintergreen, Green Gem, Green Velvet, Sprinter, Green Mountain) but they all answer differently (perhaps based on their own inventory). I really appreciate your thoughtful and prompt responses to so many posts. Thank you.
I am amazed that local landscapers have boxwood in Grand Rapids. Aren’t you zone 3? That is too cold for easy boxwood without loads of winter protection, screening, and even then. . . Also they are relatively expensive and slow growing, so I would look for something entirely different. What about using a row of colored-leaf barberry – gold, perhaps, or dark red. Unless you are selling in the winter they will look great, and with 2 years growth they will fill in pretty well if you get them in soon. Or, if you want evergreen, look for some smaller plants of white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), also called arborvitae. It is very cold hardy, grows quickly when young, and clips well. Again, in 2 years, you could have a reasonable looking 2 to 3 foot hedge. Don’t be encouraged to buy Globe cedars, they won’t fill in for a straight row. Get something basic, like small Emerald Green. Although it has the potential to grow a lot taller, it’s easy to keep to about 3 feet for years and years, with clipping.
As for the soil, just dig it over a spade deep and 18 inches wide, and add lots of rotted manure or something rich, not peat moss, from a garden center. Plus hedge starter food. Make sure you center the row and plants a foot back from the walkway, not right along the edge, so you have room to grow a proper width on the hedge.
Read above comments referencing “knot” photo planting.
I really like the look of the four larger rounded boxwoods. Could you tell me what they are.
I want to do a driveway, 60 – 70’. They would be planted below blooming Abelia, on a slope.
I will be removing 5’ – 6’ high evergreens. Don’t really want anything higher 3’- 4’ in height.
Really like keeping rounded shape without to much pruning.
I’m in North Carolina. I use zone 6 for planting and Some deer are present.
Don’t know the variety, but I do know they have been clipped several times a year, for year, to get that perfect look. There are plenty of naturally rounded boxwoods, and in your zone you can choose just about any variety, but even with those selected to be round, you won’t get perfect balls like that without clipping at least twice a season. That knot garden is the result of hours of work and skilled hand pruning – there is no other way. Of course, there is a lot to be said for the look of mature, unclipped boxwoods too. The famous Michael Dirr was a big fan of letting them grow naturally. Unless you have a formal garden, go for the more casual but still attractive natural look, and save a lot of work.
I live on the Peninsula of Northern Ca. between San Francisco and San Jose. I have an Asphalt driveway that goes up to within about 12″ of a wood fence. The area at the base of the fence is facing south west. It is exposed to a lot of sun mid day and all afternoon, we get about 15 days a year above 90 degrees here. I’m looking for a 2′ max height hedge to plant in the space along the 100 feet of driveway. I’ll run a drip line there but am wondering what options I have that can handle the heat coming off the driveway. And how far apart should I plant whatever you recommend? Thanks for the help, this is a great site.
Hmm, I don’t think boxwood is what you want – I would think it would be too hot. What about one of the dwarf Ilex? Ilex cornuta and Ilex crenata are much more heat resistant. Check out Compact Japanese Holly for example. I would plant about half the height of the hedge you want, for small hedges, like you are describing, but you should be able to stretch that to 18 inches with Japanese holly.
I like the look of the boxwood hedges. I want to plant a hedge against the front of my mountain home in North Carolina. It is a difficult area because the overhang of the house shades this area and the clay soil stays wet most of the time. There is a French drain that is right against the house but the soil still stays on the wetter side. Any suggestions?
Probably not boxwood, which won’t like the wet clay at all. Maybe some of the small varieties of Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, which are very boxwood like, but much tougher and more damp and shade tolerant.
I have narrowed down the the Winter Gem or the Green Beauty. I really want the one the is the darkest of green and stays that way the longest. Can you let me know your thoughts.
Your growing will be the final decider of how green, and for how long, your plants are. Rich soil, a thorough fertilizer program, proper watering and trimming at the right time will make either of them dark green. Your local climate, and particular weather in a given year, are also factors you can’t control.
I am looking for a specimen boxwood that would grow up to 4 ft tall. There is a gas line adjacent to the plant hole about 2-2.5 ft apart. Do the root system of the boxwood a threat that may damage the gas line? How far it should be planted then? I live in Salt Lake City, Utah and would like to ask what variety should I consider which is fast growing, mound type and about 4-5 ft tall and will look like a specimen planted on both sides of the stairway of the chapel without damaging the nearby gas line.
I would agree that Sprinter seems like your best pick. You should talk to your gas provider about their line, but boxwood don’t have a very aggressive root system, although to me 2 feet does sound a bit close – check with them.
In addition to the above query, will sprinter boxwood be a good choice?
What variety of 4 boxwoods do you have there in your picture which is big, rounded or mounded?
Sorry, it’s a stock photo – no idea what the varieties are. Size is a function of age for any boxwood, and you can tell clearly from our descriptions and pictures which of our varieties are rounded, and which are more upright.
Hi Dave, After ready your article and response I should not be confused but I am overwhelmed. I recently moved to South Bay, just west of LA from Seattle. I have seen box woods grow successfully in this area as well as some varieties of Hydrangeas. I am more formal in my garden design and have always framed in my gardens. I am landscaping our current yard and my goal is to create a low box wood hedge, framing in the front path which has white roses and agapanthus. I will also frame in my back lawn around our patio spaces with the same low growing variety, 150 boxwoods total. In addition to that I would like to create a hedge around the rod iron fence line to create a backdrop for the plants in front. Mostly roses, agapanthus, pitosporum, allium, in addition to some softer perrenials, and annuals. We have beautiful views of Down town LA and would like to keep this hedge around 3 1/2 ft. My hedges in Seattle had a rounder leaf with a lush green color. I do not like the dark green box wood with pointy leaves. I have had mixed advice and the boxwoods in nurseries are just now getting new growth so it is hard to tell what is what.
Hm, complex question. I suggest you browse our boxwood range where you will see in the descriptions which are good for hot areas. You should also consider some of the dwarf holly that are very boxwood like and a lot less trouble.
Planting and Caring For Dogwood Trees
They are easy to grow and needs no special soil preparation. Just dig a hole two or three times the width of the pot, but not much deeper. Break up the soil in the bottom of the hole but leave it in place. Place your plants in the prepared hole and replace most of the soil, which should be firmed down well around the roots. Then water thoroughly and replace the rest of the soil after the water drains away.
For a hedge space the plants 3 feet apart. The Flowering cultivars should be given a little more care, with plenty of organic material being added to the soil and mulch applied over the roots, especially if grown in full sun. For the first year water well once a week and after that only when the soil begins to become dry.