Hey, Nature Play Peeps! Here’s something seriously amazing you can build (with your kids) on a Saturday afternoon.
Have you ever scrolled through the Pinterest feed and drooled over living willow sculptures? You know, those domes, tunnels, and animal forms woven from living willow branches? You want one for your yard? You bet! You don’t have a green thumb? So what! I’m going to walk you through a super easy process for building a simple den out of living red twig dogwood. And, the best parts are: it’s essentially free, and it will take you less time than bathing your cat.
We’re going to use red twig dogwood rather than willow. I started building these garden features with willow whips but willows tend to grow, well, into trees. Red twig dogwood is a large shrub (mature size is 8’ tall and wide) and its branches don’t grow into trunks making it much more manageable than its willow counterparts.
For you parents that excel at raising children but can’t keep a houseplant alive, this dogwood is for you. It’s really a no-fuss, easy to grow plant. Red twig dogwood is truly a four season beauty because of its gorgeous red bark. Whatever you build out of this dogwood will make a statement, especially in the winter when colors are grey and dreary.
Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) grows wild and can be found in ornamental landscape in USDA hardiness zones 3-8. This dogwood is quite adaptable. It likes wet/moist conditions, can handle drier (though not drought) conditions, and thrives in sun or partial shade. In the spring, it has creamy white flowers that turn into berries in the fall. Neither the blooms, therefore the berries, are prolific so they won’t cover the ground in berry mess like some fruiting shrubs and trees do. Dogwood berries are also non-toxic so your little ones, two-leggers or four-leggers, are safe.
Where can you get your hands on these plants? Ask friends and family if they have any in their yards or properties. If so, would they let you harvest 10-14 thick twigs? If you’re harvesting from a natural area you may need a permit to do so…check with your local agencies. When you harvest, you will need a set of large pruning shears and hand pruners. Be sure to clean the pruners’ blades with alcohol before and after use, as diseases and bacteria can transfer to the dogwoods and to your other plants.
So, go forth and find your dogwoods! When you do you’ll want to cut yourself 10 – 14 twigs to build your den. Cut twigs that are an inch thick or so at the base and are at least 6’ long. Make sure the twigs are nice and healthy from bottom to top. Don’t cut twigs that have any black on them. That’s a sign of disease. Bring those bad boys home and put the cut ends in a bucket of fresh, clean water. Some folks say it’s best to leave the twigs in water (with root stimulant added) for a couple days before building your den. I had mine in water for only a few hours.
The Den-Building Process
Garden gloves on!
Your den can be whatever size you’d like. My instructions are for the size I built in our sensory garden: 5’ diameter (+/-) and about 5’ tall. If you need to dig out grass for your den, you can do that before or after you cut your twigs. Once the grass is removed make sure you dig out enough soil that the den area is about 3” below the adjacent surfaces (we’ll fill it in later per Step 9).
Grab a measuring tape and measure out a 5′ diameter circle. You can draw it out in the dirt (or use a garden hose or spray paint out). Next, figure out where your want the entrance into the den to be (or 2 entrances, as I did because I have our sensory path going around it). The openings for the entrance should be about 30” wide. Mark those locations on your circle as they will be where the twigs are planted for the entry arch.
Next we’re going to locate where the rest of the twig are going to be planted. Make marks equidistantly around your circle approximately 18” apart. You might go less than 18” if you want your den to be more densely vegetated, or if you have two entrances. Or, you may go a little further apart to make things work. Science, this ain’t.
In the locations just marked, you can either dig holes or use a spud bar or pound a stake in the ground to loosen up the soil and get yourself a hole that’s about 8” – 12” deep. I pounded in some branches segments that were close at hand.
Plant the cut end of the twig (1 twig per hole, please). Backfill the holes with soil and tamp firmly around each twig to maximize soil-to-twig contact. Congratulations! You got your twigs planted! It’s starting to feel like a cozy space already, isn’t it?
After you’ve properly marveled at your garden prowess, grab your jute twine and head on over to the entrance twigs. Cut yourself a couple 6” lengths of jute twine. Grab both entrance twigs and bend them toward each other making an arch. Where your hands are holding the branches together to make the arch that’s approximately where you want to tie them together. With a piece of twine securely tie the bent branches to one another. I try to find a place on each twig where there’s a branch fork. Wrapping the twine around each branch at the forks gives more angles to wrap the twine around. Once you’ve tied both sides of the entrance arch it’s time to move on to making the roof of the dome.
With twine lengths in hand, stand inside the center of your dome area. Pick twigs on each side of the dome, ones directly opposing each other on the diameter line. Pull those branches toward each other and overlap them just as you did for the entrance twigs. Find a couple good places at forked branches where you can tie them together with twine. Do this same process for the remaining twigs. This process can feel a little unwieldy and branches will try to do what they want, not what you want. Do some weaving together of branches. Persevere, my friend, and resist the urge to prune. You want to keep as many branches on until you get everything tied together. You don’t want to prune a branch off only to realize that it was something you needed to tie to or fill in a gap.
Also, you’ll want to take some offshoot branches from the entrance arch twigs and pull them toward the center of the dome. Weave them into the roof and tie them securely. That way, your entrance arch is connected to the roof and the structure will be stronger.
Take a step back and admire your new dome. Nice work!! There will be branches poking up from the top or off the sides. Walk around the dome and weave some of these branches into the walls and roof of the dome to provide additional structure. Then, and I’ll remind you again, evaluate twice, prune once. Go around your dome and, using your hand pruners, remove some of the branches that you weren’t able to weave in, and as you’ll need for the level of supervision you want. There will be branches aren’t long enough to weave in yet but should be. Leave those to grow a little and weave them in when they’re long enough. Prune off any dead branches.
Step 9 (Final Step!):
You deserve a huge high five! IT’S ALIIIIIIIIIIIVE! Now we want to put some bark mulch down to keep the weeds out. For our den and in other planting areas in our garden, I first put down a layer of cardboard. Some of you may want to use weed fabric instead, and you can. I’ve stopped using weed fabric, completely. I find it to be more of a pain in the backside than anything, especially when weeds start rooting on top of the fabric. Makes me insane. So, I use cardboard. It’s free. It’s effective. Just remember to take the packing tape off as best you can before laying it down. Keep the cardboard away from the twigs a few inches so water can reach them.
Once the cardboard’s down, put a layer of bark mulch on top, about 3″ deep or so. Good to go!
Let’s talk about maintenance. The den you just built, in all it’s magical beauty, is a living thing. It needs care and maintenance just like anything else in your yard. Inspect it regularly to make sure it’s healthy and growing. Here are a couple things to remember:
Your dogwood den will need regular watering. Red twig dogwoods are adaptable but it will need regular watering for it’s first three years of life. After three years it’s established and may require less water.
If you have an irrigation system you can add on some drip lines or spray heads to ensure each twig gets the water it needs. My yard doesn’t have an irrigation system so I make sure I put the sprinkler on it every other day for 30 minutes, and in the heat of the summer, I’ll water it every day.
The den will need some seasonal pruning as it grows. If your kiddo needs lots of supervision and you need to see them and what they’re doing, I recommend pruning the twigs from the ground up to 24”-30”. That way you’ll have a reasonably clear view into the den and your kids will still feel a sense of seclusion. If your kids require less supervision, then you can prune your den however you want. You can keep side branches on and prune new branch shoots only as you need.
Eventually the twig bases will sprout more branches. Just trim them off. And, dogwoods will spread. They aren’t as invasive as willows but you will eventually need to dig out little shoots.
You’ve just given your child a very special place to play and connect with nature. When they’re adults I guarantee they will think back on the incredible memories they made in their dogwood den. You will, too.
Well done, you amazing parents, you. I’m so stinkin’ happy you’re a nature play nerd like me.