Growing, pruning and caring for magnolia trees

Why we love the magnolia tree: beautiful form, gorgeous foliage and swoon-worthy flowers make the dwarf magnolia a must-have plant.

What you need to know about a magnolia tree

Name: magnolia, evergreen magnolia, Bull Bay magnolia and various cultivar names such as “Little Gem”, “Teddy Bear” and “Alta” (Magnolia grandiflora cvrs.)

Plant type: evergreen flowering tree

Height: see cultivar notes

Foliage: large, 20cm long × 10cm wide, deep glossy green leaves; leaf edges are curved, the underside a rusty brown with a slightly furry feel.

Climate: tropical, sub-tropical, warm temperate and warm spots in cool temperate.

Soil: deep, free-draining, good-quality soil. Slightly acid (see soil notes below).

Position: full sun to part shade.

Flowering: large, white, perfumed from spring through summer.

Feeding: annual application of controlled-release fertiliser for acid-loving plants.

Watering: reliable moisture during hot and/or dry periods.


Appearance and characteristics of a magnolia tree

The dwarf evergreen magnolia is as versatile as it is beautiful. It can be grown singly as a stunning feature plant in the garden or a pot, used en-masse for planting along a path or driveway in a more formal style, planted closely together to form a large dense hedge,and even trained as large espaliers against a wall or fence. Its luxuriant glossy green foliage with its rusty-brown underside is reason enough to plant this tree, but the flowers are the icing on the cake. Large, pure white with a divine, sweet lemony fragrance, they are borne over a long period in the warmer months.

The most popular and widely grown magnolia variety is “Little Gem”. It has a relatively narrow form; when mature it will reach around 4m tall, with a width of around 2.5m. Healthy and happy specimens will be densely covered in foliage and naturally have a neat form. They look stunning in the landscape, as their dark green glossy foliage really makes them pop from the background or creates a brilliant backdrop for other plants. The foliage really accentuates the large white flowers.

Dwarf magnolias are very versatile and tough. Their glossy leaves have a waxy coating, which makes then almost impervious to damage from even heavy air pollution and salt spray. This makes them ideal for inner-city gardens, around swimming pools or in coastal situations.

How to select the right magnolia tree for your garden

When you are selecting an evergreen magnolia, it is very important to make sure the variety you are purchasing is the right one for your garden. The original parent plant, Magnolia grandiflora, is a truly enormous tree, easily reaching heights of 20m+ with a similar width. This species form is sold in nurseries, and when small does not look dramatically different to the cultivars, so make sure you check the label!

The common cultivars have much more polite sizes. The sizes below are at maturity, and growth can be contained through pruning:

  • “Little Gem”: 4m × 2.5m

  • “Teddy Bear”: 4m × 3m

  • “Kay Parris”: 4m × 3m

  • “Alta”: 9m × 4m

  • “Greenback”: 10m × 5m

Uses for a magnolia tree

A magnolia tree can be grown for many uses, including:

  • Solo, as a feature plant in gardens or pots

  • Formal style, in rows

  • Large hedge or screen

  • Perfumed gardens

Preferred conditions

Magnolia prefers the following conditions:

Sunlight: part-shade to full sun

Aspect: tolerates some wind, but flowers may be damaged. Can tolerate cold to –5˚C.

Soil or potting mix: quality free-draining soil with added organic matter. Prefers slightly acid soil of around pH5 to 6 (see soil notes on pH). Will do well in sandy soil, provided there is extra organic matter added and plants are well mulched. In pots, only use a premium potting mix—preferably one for acid-loving plants.

Soil notes on pH

Magnolias, both evergreen and deciduous, are described as “acid-lovers”—that is, they like soil that is classed as more acid. There are a number of other common garden plants, such as camellias, gardenias and azaleas, that prefer such soil too.

Soil acidity or alkalinity is all about the pH level of the soil. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Neutral soil has a pH of around 6.5 to 7. Slightly acid soil has a pH of around 6 to 6.5. Most garden plants like soil leaning towards the acid side at around 6.5, however magnolias tend to like a pH from 5 to 6.
So what does this mean if you have “normal” garden soil? Realistically, not much. You can still plant and grow magnolias with great success in regular garden soil. The main impact of small variations in pH is that it affects the availability of various nutrients. If a soil is not adequately acid, then nutrient deficiencies may occur in acid-loving plants. Most of these can be overcome by using a fertiliser that has been blended for acid-loving plants. Additionally, maintaining biologically active and healthy soil may not amend pH, but the microbial activity can improve nutrient availability.

If, on the other hand, your soil is distinctly alkaline (over pH 7), you will need to look at amending your soil pH or importing soil before planting any acid-loving plants. Be aware that amending soil pH is a tricky, potentially complex and ongoing exercise. There is no one-off fix—you’ll need to reapply amendment additives at least annually.

You can test your soil using a simple pH test kit. Just remember that the pH of each area will be different.

Talk with a plant specialist in your nursery for more advice.

Tips on planting your magnolia tree

For best results, follow these planting tips:

  • If planting in a new garden, use a pH test kit to check soil. If it’s an established garden and other plants are thriving, then a test is not necessary.

  • Improve soil with quality compost or well-composted manure.

  • Make planting holes at least twice the width of the pot.

  • Larger or taller plants may need staking. Use at least two stakes.

  • Mulch plants well.

Caring for a magnolia tree

Your magnolia tree will only require a little care:

  • Mulch annually in spring to help retain moisture in warmer months.

  • Feed with an acid-balanced controlled-release fertiliser in spring.

  • Ensure adequate moisture during hot and/or dry times, especially when plants are young (first three years).

Pruning a magnolia

When to prune a magnolia

Your magnolia will require very little pruning. Flowers can be pruned off as they finish, although this becomes impractical as the tree ages.

How to prune a magnolia

Younger plants can be trimmed to shape as required. If you want a more formal look with the trunk exposed, prune lower branches off to lift the canopy.

Diseases and pests affecting magnolias

These cultivars suffer from very few problems. Various scale may occasionally be a minor issue, but this can be easily treated with a suitable oil-based product.

Magnolia propagation

Growing magnolia from seed

Magnolia can be grown quite easily from fresh seed when it is seen. Sow fresh seed into a seed-raising or potting mix and leave in a shady spot outdoors. Note that the resultant tree is most likely to be a species form, and therefore of very large size.

Growing magnolia from cuttings

Semi-hardwood leaf-tip cuttings of around 15cm in length can be taken in summer through to autumn. Dip in a propagating gel, place cuttings in small individual pots of propagating mix and keep moist but not wet in a cool spot. 

If you like this then try

How to plant a tree: the ultimate guide to tree-planting success.

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