The Q&A Archives: Southern Magnolia Little Gem

Question: Please tell me that it's possible to maintain this magnificent tree (that my husband surprised me with about 5 days ago) on our outdoor condo balcony. Right now it's in about a 4 - 5 gallon plastic container that it came in. I live in DC where one can find countless Southern Magnolias all over the city. My Magnolia gets sun on my balcony from about 9:30 am - 1 pm, and I plan to start moving it to our front entrance a few days a week so it can get more sun in the latter part of the day. I've been watering it daily but leaves are already browning and new blossoms are only lasting overnight. If I can just keep it alive for 2 - 3 years on my balcony, I can then plant it in the ground when we move to our next home.

Answer: First, the good news: Little Gem will grow in Washington D.C. And, it will grow in part shade but it will flower best in full sunshine. It's a beautiful little tree and one of its characteristics is that the flowers are long-lasting. So, there's something not quite right with your Little Gem. While they like moist soil, it shouldn't become soggy wet. Daily watering may or may not be excessive - containerized plants tend to dry out faster than the same plants in the ground; if the weather is hot, daily watering might be necessary. At the same time, you'll want to make sure the excess water has a chance to drain out before you water again. I'd put a saucer beneath the pot and apply water until it flows out the drainage holes. As it is running out, check to see if there are air bubbles arising from the water in the saucer or in the water in the top of the container. If so, keep watering until the bubbles stop and then allow the container to sit in the saucer for 15-20 minutes (to help rehydrate all the soil). Then empty the saucer; allow the plant to drain more; empty the saucer again. Containerized plants can sometimes develop air pockets around the root mass so when you think you're watering thoroughly, you really are not. So either immersing the container in a larger container of water, or watering as described above once a week will ensure your plant is getting enough water.

I'd water it thoroughly as above, then wait a few days (stick your finger into the soil - if it's dry at your second knuckle, it's time to water thoroughly again.

Aside from watering issues, there may be some reflected heat (from concrete, walls, etc.) that might be affecting your plant. Reflected and radiated heat can burn the foliage. If this is the case, move your plant to a more open area where reflected sunshine won't be an issue.

The only other caution I'll throw out is that in the winter time you'll want to either bury the pot into the ground or insulate it in some other manner. While the tree will live through your winter weather, the roots might freeze solid if the pot remains above ground without insulating protection.

With all that said, I hope you enjoy your Little Gem and that it thrives for you. Best wishes with your magnolia!

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