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Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Yard & Garden Planning

Magnolias (page 3 of 3)

by Eliot Tozer

What to Buy and How to Plant

When you shop for a magnolia, look for large, vibrant leaves and vigorous growth on the ends of twigs. A good time to shop is in the spring when you may see blossoms. It's fine to buy plants that are already in bloom. Because magnolias have soft, fleshy roots that damage easily, they're difficult to plant compared to many other trees. (Once established, however, magnolias forgive occasional neglect.) If possible, buy plants in containers.

When selecting a site, keep in mind the ultimate size of the plant. Magnolias don't like to be transplanted. Space trees about 25 feet apart. Because blossoms and leaves are susceptible to wind damage, try to choose a protected site. A north-facing location might delay bloom until after the last frost, saving the blossoms. Like many plants, magnolias prefer well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter and has a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.

Plant balled and burlapped magnolias when they're dormant, or in late spring after growth has started. Trees grown in containers, however, can be planted whenever the soil is moist. As for the planting hole, the old rule applies: a $10 hole for a $5 plant. Make the planting hole twice as wide as the rootball. Pruning roots at planting time stimulates faster growth early on, but the gain is lost after a year or so.

Because magnolias are surface feeders, plant them no more than an inch deeper than they were planted at the nursery. Fertilize lightly with a 5-10-5 formula, and mulch to retain soil moisture and to discourage weeds. Anchor the tree until it becomes established.

Maintaining Magnolias

Pruning and Mulching. It isn't necessary to prune branches to encourage growth after transplanting, although you can prune an ungainly plant to improve its appearance. In cold-winter climates, prune precocious magnolias in summer after they've bloomed. Prune all others when they're dormant.

Keep a circle of mulch around the tree, and continue fertilizing as needed. However, so the plant will stop producing new growth and will harden off, don't fertilize it after midsummer.

Magnolias can take an irritatingly long time to bloom, anywhere from 2 or 3 years to 12 to 15 years (M. campbellii can take 20).

Pests and Diseases. A few pests and diseases afflict magnolias. Among the most troublesome is magnolia scale (Neoleucanium cornuparvum), which settles on foliage and sucks out the plant's juices. Heavy infestations may be controlled with dormant oil spray if applied early in the season. Spray soft-bodied insects such as aphids with dish detergent mixed with water.

Other predators include slugs, borers, and deer. Control slugs by sinking shallow containers filled with beer into the soil; the slugs crawl in and drown. Figlar has lost a couple of treasured trees to borers and confesses he knows no way to stop them. Fortunately, they seem to attack only stressed trees.

Deterring deer is a black art. Dorothy Callaway in her excellent book, The World of Magnolias (Timber Press, 1994; $50) recommends hanging a bar of soap against the trunk of the tree about 4 feet above the ground. The odor may act as a repellent.

Eliot Tozer gardens and writes in Tappan, New York.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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