General gardening topics

Growing magnolias in pots – the beginner’s guide

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I’ve been a professional gardener and worked at my family’s nursery for over 20 years. If I had to pick just one shrub or small tree that makes the most impact, it would have to be the Magnolia. One of the questions I often got asked, especially in spring when most Magnolias are in full flower is: 

Can magnolias be grown in pots? 

The short answer is yes!

I personally have a handful of stunning Magnolia in my own garden, including two planted in the borders called Yellow River, which is more of a tree and Seioboldi, a smaller type of Magnolia. 

Magnolia soulangeana growing in a pot for many years, a quick feed as it comes into bud and it really comes into its own
Magnolia soulangeana has been growing in a pot for many years, a quick feed as it comes into bud and it really comes into its own

However, I’ve also had 3-4 smaller, more compact Magnolias, including my favourite ‘Magnolia Stellata Rosea’ which has white star-shaped flowers with a pink tinge to the petals and ‘Soulangeana’ growing in pots and have found that they do exceptionally well in large containers. I prefer to use heavy pots, which helps keep them upright in windy weather. In this guide on growing magnolias, I want to focus on how I grow magnolias in large pots. I have found it to be an excellent way to grow them as long as you choose the right varieties. 

Planting magnolias in pots and containers
Magnolia Stellata Rosea is an excellent variety for growing in pots as they are shallow-rooted

Because magnolias are fairly shallow-rooted, some varieties are perfect candidates for growing in pots, and it also gives you the option to grow magnolias in quality potting compost if your garden soil is not suitable for magnolias. Ideally, they thrive in neutral to acidic soil, so I usually use ericaceous compost, which is acidic. 

Magnolias growing in pots and thriving
Magnolias growing in pots and thriving

I also recommend them for on small patios, but just keep in mind that they need fertile, moist, but well-drained soil, so when growing them in pots, I use a John Innes potting compost and position them in a sunny position, but they also do well in partial shade. One last thing to keep in mind before I get into the more detailed guide is that Magnolias flower early, usually around April – May and their flowers can be damaged by frost, mainly if grown in containers. Because of this, I always place them in a sheltered position, giving the flowers a little protection from hard, late frosts.

Newly planted Magnolia in a pot

Pick a large heavy wide pot

When growing Magnolias, you want to pick the right container right from the start. Stone or terracotta pots are the best for multiple reasons. First and foremost, a Magnolia is quite large and, therefore, quite heavy. The weight of a stone or terracotta pot is significantly higher compared to plastic, which will help support the weight of the Magnolia and prevent it from being blown over in the wind.

Large heavy pot with ericaceous compost
Large, heavy pot with ericaceous compost

It is best to pick containers with a base just as wide as tall. This will give it more stability and help it to maintain an upright position. You don’t want round pots where the top is narrower compared to the middle of the base because if you have to re-pot your Magnolia for any reason further down the line, you might not be able to get it out without breaking your container, plus they tend to be less stable.

Wooden containers are very attractive and can be, of course, decorated how you see fit, but the problem is that Magnolias will be around for quite some time, not just one season and to that end, you will likely have to apply some treatment to the wood to help prevent decay as your Magnolia gets older.

Propagating magnolias. Propagate by taking cutting or layering

Ensure you have adequate drainage holes to avoid waterlogging

Whatever the material you select, make sure that it has adequate drainage holes. If it doesn’t, you can always drill more before you plant your Magnolia.

Choosing the right pot size

The size you select should be appropriate for the size of the Magnolia you have and its current pot size. Look at the container size in relationship to the pot size as a good starting point. For example, if you have a Magnolia in a 5-litre pot, you might want to consider a 10-15 litre pot so that it has plenty of space to grow over the next couple of years. It is best to pot them up gradually rather than plant them straight into a very large pot; this actually goes for most plants and not just Magnolias.


Planting a Magnolia in a Container

If you are going to grow in containers, it is recommended that you pick one of the Magnolia stellata varieties; they are easily identifiable from the star-shaped flowers in white or sometimes tinted pink. These are comparably smaller and will do just fine with the restriction of a container.

Planting a magnolia stellata in a container

When to plant Magnolias in pots

When you purchase your Magnolia in a pot, it might need to be replanted immediately into a new container. If this is the case, you should replant it at the beginning of spring, but they will do well if planted in summer. You can get root balled Magnolias which are usually more affordable and often large established shrubs, these can be planted between November and March when they are dormant, they have no foliage but often already have flower buds on them. Once you plant your Magnolia, you should not have to replant it for several years, not until it outgrows the existing container.

Always clean old pots before using them again

If you are using a container you have used previously, make sure you clean it out and allow it to soak in a mixture of bleach and water to ensure it is sterilised before you plant your Magnolia. The last thing you want is for the residue of a fungus or an unexpected pest problem to infiltrate your Magnolia immediately.

Choosing the right compost

Magnolias prefer slightly acidic soil,  so you should choose a compost that is good for ericaceous plants like Rhododendrons or Azaleas. You can also pick an loam-based ericaceous mixture with extra acidity, which means going for a John Innes ericaceous compost. They will also grow in normal compost if needed, but soil-based compost is always better to help retain moisture, and the added weight helps prevent them from getting blown over.

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Don’t forget to add stone or crockery to the bottom of the pot

You can help guarantee better drainage by adding stone/gravel or broken pieces of crockery from broken pots to the base of your Magnolia container. This will help prevent the holes from getting blocked up.


Planting your Magnolia into its new pot

Planting Magnolia plants into pots

When you are ready, remove your Magnolia from an old container, being careful not to damage the root ball. Be careful when you do this; the roots can break easily, and any unnecessary pressure will break them.

Place your new compost mixture into the container and transfer your Magnolia, backfilling once the Magnolia is buried to the same depth that was originally. When you are adding the compost, you want to make sure the main stem is at the same level it was, and you can guarantee this by adding a few centimetres at a time and then lightly packing it down, never firmly packing it down, those roots need to be able to expand into the new compost as it grows.

When you are done, water it well to allow the Magnolia an opportunity to settle in place.


General Magnolia care in pots

Watering

Watering potted Magnolia

When you grow Magnolias in containers, they require minimal care. The first thing you need to do is give them a regular supply of water but never overwater them. If you have two or three days of sunny weather and you forget to water them, it can cause some damage, so always be on the lookout for dry soil. If you are going on a holiday, make sure to ask someone to come by and water your Magnolias. If that’s not possible, move them into the shade, in a cooler area while you are gone, and think about adding a water timer to an outside tap if possible.

Check out some of our recommended water timers in this review here

Protecting container grown Magnolias over winter

Winter care for container-grown Magnolias consists of two key principles. The first is to prevent your soil from becoming waterlogged by reducing the amount of rain it is exposed to. The second is to protect the soil from freezing conditions over a long period of time because the root system can be damaged by regular exposure to frost.

Place Magnolias in a greenhouse over winter if possible

If the winter in your area is particularly harsh and you suffer from heavy frost and cold weather with high winds, it is recommended that you move your Magnolias into a greenhouse or in your garage from the middle of December until the start of spring, putting them outdoors during mild weather. You can help the recuperation in spring by adding a general-purpose fertiliser (at the beginning of spring) every two weeks in preparation for moving them back outside.

Wrap pots in bubble wrap and protect with fleece in freezing weather

If you don’t have a garage or greenhouse to store the Magnolia, do not bring it inside. Other plants you can bring indoors for the winter but not Magnolias. The air inside your home will be too dry and too warm. The best solution here, if you have no other option, is to find the most protected area against the walls of your home and add some additional protection by wrapping the pot in bubble wrap and the plant in fleece.

The physical walls of your home will be relatively warmer in the winter compared to it being left exposed outside, so if you have no other options, this will protect them against the worst of winter with the help of bubble wrap and fleece. 

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If possible, find a position in your garden that protects the Magnolias from wind and from heavy rainfall. Too much rain on the soil in your container can cause root rot.

Pruning Magnolias in pots

If you see any wispy shoots detracting from your Magnolia plant’s overall structure, you can prune them. However, regular pruning will reduce the flowering for the next few years. As a general rule, you should not prune Magnolias if you can avoid it. You should only prune if they are outgrowing the existing space.

If you must prune your Magnolias hard, spread this process out over two or three years. Remove diseased branches first and then branches that cross one another. The idea is to keep the middle of your Magnolia tree open by pruning the branches back to the main stem. Do it in the middle of summer after flowering. If you do it any other time of the year, it will cause the cuts to bleed, and this can make your plants susceptible to infection.


Pests and Diseases

Slugs and snails

Slugs love young Magnolias so keep an eye out for them
Slugs love young Magnolias so keep an eye out for them

If you have a younger Magnolia, slugs will try to eat the new fresh leaves. You can add slug pellets to prevent them from munching away on your plants or you can pick them off by hand. Once you have a Magnolia that is more than 5 years old this should no longer be a problem.

Another way to stop slugs from getting to your Magnolia is by sticking copper tape around the top of the pot. This can be purchased from most garden centres and has proved effective in protecting potted plants from slugs and snails because they get an electric shock when they touch the copper tape.

Rabbits

Rabbits might eat through the bark, something you can prevent by adding a barrier or a low wire fence. Once the rabbits have eaten the bark (and they can actually eat through a significant amount in one sitting) it could have fatal consequences for your Magnolia. Your best option is a preventative one.

Yellowing leaves

If you notice the leaves on your Magnolia are turning yellow it is indicative of too much alkalinity, however, this is usually unlikely for pot grown plants. Too much alkalinity is problematic because it prevents your Magnolia from absorbing the essential nutrients. Younger plants often naturally have yellow leaves when young and you need to be careful it isn’t confused with alkalinity.


Below are some of my favourite magnolias that thrive in containers

Magnolia stellata

Planting a magnolia stellata in a container

Meet the charming Magnolia stellata, a variety perfected and suited to life in a pot! This delightful gem boasts fragrant, star-shaped blooms that dazzle in shades of white or pale pink. Perfectly suited for containers, it will thrive in well-draining soil so I recommend a John Innes potting compost and position in partial shade.

Magnolia Susan

Another variety is the Magnolia Susan which reaches a full mature height and spread of around 3 meters when grown in the ground and much smaller in containers.

Say hello to Magnolia Susan, your new container garden superstar! This compact beauty is known for her vibrant, fuchsia-pink flowers that create a striking contrast against dark green foliage. Susan’s narrow, upright growth habit makes it an excellent choice for growing in pots and containers, fitting even the smallest of spaces. Plant in a soil based compost in partial shade with a little sun, and some love, and watch Susan light up your patio or balcony with her stunning blooms from mid-spring to early summer so a little later than stellata.

Magnolia ‘fairy blush’

Magnolia ‘Fairy Blush’, makes a magical addition to your potted garden family! This enchanting variety enchants with its delicate, blush-pink flowers that emit a sweet fragrance, casting a spell over your senses. Perfectly suited to growing in containers, ‘Fairy Blush’ remains petite and well-behaved while still making a big impact. As with all magnolias grown in pots, provide well-draining soil so ensure you put some pieces of broken crockery in the bottom first and use a heavy soiled based compost such as John innes. Let ‘Fairy Blush’ grace your garden, and be captivated by its spellbinding blooms year after year.

Magnolia ‘Ann’

Magnolia ‘Ann’ is genuinely a container gardener’s dream! With a petite growing habit and vibrant pinkish-purple flowers that adorn its compact form. Plant in well-draining soil and a partially shaded position, and she’ll reward you with a stunning spring spectacle that is hard to beat.

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ is one of my personal favourites for growing in pots as it’s a dwarf magnolia, although it will grow into a small tree. Unlike most deciduous varieties, this dainty delight is prized for its creamy white flowers and glossy, evergreen leaves. Plant ‘Little Gem’ in a pot with well-draining soil and a sunny location to enjoy its year-round elegance.

Magnolia ‘Yellow Bird’

Let Magnolia ‘Yellow Bird’ brighten your potted garden! This cheerful, compact variety showcases canary-yellow flowers that truly make a statement in your garden. Like all magnolias, it needs well-draining soil and a sun-kissed spot to thrive.


Last update on 2024-06-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at john@pyracantha.co.uk

4 Comments

  1. Jennifer

    Can you grow magnolia indoors. Was given one for Mother’s Day and I live in a flat. Was told it was an indoor magnolia. Would appreciate your comments. Thank you.

  2. John Moore

    Hi Jennifier if it’s an indoor one then yes shouldn’t be a problem. Most outdoors varieties would simply grow to big but some such as Dwarf Southern Magnolia, Chinese Magnolia, Magnolia Red Lucky, Ann Magnolias, and Star Magnolia will grow indoors if they get plenty of light.

  3. Modesty Hunter

    A brilliant and informative post – thanks. I want to get a stellata for a container. Would it be ok to plant whilst dormant outside or should I wait until spring? Thanks, Modesty

  4. John Moore

    It should be perfectly fine, if you can find a root balled one then it will also be cheaper than a potted magnolia but they are only available autumn to spring when they are dormant.

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