Growing Potted Magnolia Trees

Pink Magnolia Blossom
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When looking for the perfect show-stopping tree, a magnolia is a great option. And while standard magnolia varieties can reach 80 feet in height, several smaller cultivars max out at 20 feet tall. This means that a magnolia grown in a container or pot can brighten even a small space, and it can be moved to suit your (and your tree’s) needs.

Choosing a Container

The first consideration when growing a magnolia in a container is the container itself. If you intend to keep your tree in a pot permanently, you’ll want to plant your sapling in a pot that is several times larger than the tree's root ball. Even small magnolias want to grow large, so their roots need space. Just remember that the container may need to be moved and therefore should be manageable in size and weight. If you think you'll be moving the tree frequently, set up your container on a rolling plant caddy or dolly before you add the soil.

Choosing a Tree

Next, consider which cultivar to buy. Magnolias can be evergreen or deciduous, and, of course, your climate will be a very important factor, so be sure to ask your local nursery about which types grow successfully where you live. Varieties with a relatively compact habit are better suited to container growing. A few to consider include:

  • Teddy Bear Southern magnolia
  • Rose Marie magnolia
  • Black Tulip magnolia

These cultivars can range in size from 12 to 20 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. Remember that planting in containers can give you flexibility in terms of temperature needs—in other words, you might be able to overwinter your magnolia indoors if your climate is on the colder side.

Soil and Watering Needs

Despite their elegant and graceful appearance, magnolias are quite hardy, but they do need the right soil, light, and moisture conditions to thrive.

Most importantly, you’ll want to be sure that your container has sufficient drainage. Pot shards, rocks, or foam at the base of the pot will ensure that water filters through and the roots get adequate air. In general, magnolias prefer soil that is slightly acidic to neutral, but this can vary depending on the tree type, so check with your nursery when you buy your tree.

Amend the soil with compost, and, if desired, add a little peat moss or sand to keep the right moisture balance. Lastly, leave 2 to 4 inches at the top of the pot for wood chips or another type of mulch. This organic top layer is important for retaining moisture, so don’t skip this step.

Water several times a week for the first few months—or as much as the soil needs to stay moist but not wet. One way to determine the proper moisture level is to push a thin stake or screwdriver into the soil. It should go in easily; if its hard to push in, your magnolia needs more water. Your tree should require less water when it is new and less after it is established.

How Much Sun?

The ease of fine-tuning your plant’s sun exposure is perhaps the best benefit of container planting. Magnolias do best in full sun to partial shade, so feel free to adjust its exposure according to the light and temperature conditions. If you find your tree is withering in a particularly hot location, move it to a shadier spot, but in general, magnolias flower beautifully in the sun.