Jennifer StackhouseHow to prune a Magnolia, and how NOT to prune a Magnolia

I have two lovely magnolias, a sea view and a husband with a chainsaw,” began the question from one of the women in the audience at the club where I was guest speaker. “He wants to prune the magnolias,” she added. “What should I do?”

I didn’t have a good feeling about future for those magnolias but I did my best to save them with advice about how to deal with the tricky situation.

Beautiful spring flowers on Magnolia

Beautiful spring flowers on Magnolia

Evidently the magnolias have grown so well they are now blocking the sea view and her chainsaw-wielding hubby enjoys his sea view. This is a common scenario and trees usually come off second best to the view. Pruning the magnolias however was not going to give a good outcome for the homeowners, the view or the tree.

When a magnolia is pruned it loses its naturally rounded shape. Where the stems are cut the plant sends up vertical growth. This strong new growth would quickly block out the view with dense branches. As well, in winter when the tree is bare, the ugly cut branches would be in clear sight, spoiling the view of the sea beyond.

If any pruning is done during hot weather, there’s also a chance that the exposed branches could suffer sunburn leading to dieback.

Rich pink flowers on Magnolia x soulangeana. Photo Sandra Heggen

Rich pink flowers on Magnolia x soulangeana. Photo Sandra Heggen

The trees in question were Magnolia x soulangeana, which is a deciduous, spring-flowering magnolia. It is a classy and beautiful small tree that grows to around 6m high and wide. In summer it is green and leafy but in autumn the leaves fall. With the leaves gone from these trees, the view of the sea would be seen clearly through autumn and winter viewed through a tracery of branches.

Magnolia x soulangeana in flower against a brilliant blue sky is a sight to behold. Photo Sandra Heggen

Magnolia x soulangeana in flower against a brilliant blue sky is a sight to behold. Photo Sandra Heggen

Come late winter or early spring when the tree blooms on its bare silver branches, the deep pink and white saucer-shaped blooms would look spectacular against the backdrop of the blue sea and sky or even a grey sea and sky.

It is after the flowering as the new leaf growth erupts that the tree will again block out the sea view and the seaside suburb may hear the sound of a revving chainsaw.


Pruning tips

I recommended that the garden owner watched the trees over the coming winter to see which minor branches could be carefully pruned away to reveal more of the view. The aim of this type of pruning wouldn’t be to shorten the overall height of the tree, but to thin out the secondary or tertiary branches to create more transparency.

Rather than using the chainsaw, these thinner branches could be removed delicately with secateurs or shears cutting flush with the main branches.

Judicious pruning, such as on these camellias, can open up views through without damaging the plant's overall shape

Judicious pruning, such as on these sasanqua camellias, can open up views through without damaging the plant’s overall shape

As pruning encourages new growth, the pruned areas would need to be kept under observation. When new shoots appear, they too should be cut away or better still, rubbed off by hand. This technique is useful for any pruning where clusters of new growth form around a pruning cut. Rubbing away the soft new growth as soon as it emerges gradually deters any further growth.

Japanese gardeners, who know how to wield secateurs to create eye-catching bonsai and topiary plants, describe this type of pruning as:

“creating space for a bird to fly through the branches”


Creating more space

Lightening a canopy so it can be looked through is also a handy technique to use to let more light into gardens filled with dense leafy growth. The extra sunlight may mean there’s a chance for flowers, a few vegies or herbs to grow beneath the canopy.

Thinning side growth and clipping the top growth into green ‘clouds’ creates a striking garden feature as well as revealing interesting branches and making space for more plants. Evergreen shrubs such as sasanqua camellia and euonymus are good candidates for this type of pruning.


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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

33 thoughts on “How to prune a Magnolia, and how NOT to prune a Magnolia

  1. Hi Jennifer. Very interesting post – thanks. I love the idea of ‘creating space for a bird to fly through the branches’. I’m thinking that I might be able to use this technique with a big old avocado that we have that provides wonderful summer shade but a bit too much winter shade. I have been advised against cutting it back but it seems to me that this idea to thin out some of the smaller branches might work. Any thoughts on this? Re cloud pruning, I regularly drive past a small tree that is pruned like this and it looks fantastic.

    • Amanda – thank you! I think your avocado plan would work. As with the magnolia, cut flush with the stem where healing can occur and rub off any future shoots from that point. Just remove a few branches to start with. Jennifer

  2. Hi Jennifer, I’m sending this article straight to my husband to prove my point about our lovely old jacaranda which totally covers the backyard and is now blocking out light to the citrus and roses which are consequently suffering.

    • Angela – how lovely to hear from you! I am living in Tassie now with a beautiful garden. You’ll need to prune that jacaranda with a great deal of care and follow up to remove the suckers that follow pruning. Could be better option to move the rose and citrus this winter to a sunny spot well away from the jacaranda and just enjoy a shade garden – bromeliads for instance! As well as the shade the plants are also contending with root competition! All the best Jennifer

  3. Any tips on how to encourage growth? I have a tall spindly magnolia (i.e. three branches growing from the stem) and would like to encourage more branches up the length of the stem…

  4. I have recently moved into a house with a number of very leggy magnolia trees I have no idea how to prune them to make them more bushy. They have long spindly branches with leaves only on the ends and they are very tall. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Kirsten these magnolias are probably evergreen varieties – that is they have large, leathery green leaves often brown on their underside that stay on the tree all year. These magnolias can be pruned all over to encourage denser growth. Prune in early spring and keep the plants well watered. The trees may be growing in too much shade, which is why they are leggy. Jennifer

  5. Hello Kristen,
    I need your guidance. I have a small front yard with a very well established Japanese Magnolia. It’s roughly 9″ tall and 6″ in diameter. It’s a lovely plant but is dwarfing my yard. Is there any recovery or an I doomed to remove it and replace with an appropriate plant?

  6. Hello Jennifer,
    I’m from Montreal, Canada and loved reading your article. I’m a newcomer to gardening. This summer, a landscaper planted a Magnolia x Soulangiana in my front yard facing north along with a Yucca Filamentosa and an Endless Summer Hydrangea (I noticed my blue Hydrangeas turned dark pink after a few weeks) all about a foot apart. My lawn is clay soil based and has an irrigation system installed. Firstly, do I need to protect the Magnolia for the winter? (cold and snowy). Secondly, will the Magnolia suffer in any way from having a Yucca or the hydrangea planted near its base? Any advice for the positioning or the care of my plants would be welcome. (I have so many other questions for the rest of my new garden too.) Thank you.

  7. I have a 20 year old magnolia solangiana and every year the Rosellas take EVERY bud. I rarely see one flower. The tree is too high for me to net ! Irene

  8. I have a brand new magnolia that was planted last year. It has come back strong this year. (I am in central WV in the USA). My worry is that it will be a bush instead of a tree because there are many starts coming up from the dirt below it. I wanted a tree – what type of pruning can I do to have it become a tree instead of a shrub?

  9. The suckering doesn’t sound good. There are however shrubby magnolias – the star magnolia Magnolia stellata is one that’s a shrub. If it is one of the tree species then remove the lower growth but watch for regrowth and rub it off when it appears. Jennifer

  10. HI Jennifer Stackhouse,
    The trees in question were Magnolia x soulangeana, which is a deciduous, spring-flowering magnolia. It is a classy and beautiful small tree that grows to around 6m high and wide. In summer it is green and leafy but in autumn the leaves fall. With the leaves gone from these trees, the view of the sea would be seen clearly through autumn and winter viewed through a tracery of branches.

  11. Hello-we have a 20 foot magnolia tree that has 2 rhododendrons the same size beside it. The magnolia tree has overgrown and the branches are taking over the rhododendron. I am concerned about stressing out the magnolia.

    • Kelly if the two are growing so close together you’ll need to prune either the magnolia or the rhododendron or both. Rhododendrons can be pruned and shaped so may be that is the best option.
      I am not sure where you are, but don’t prune the magnolia in the hot weather – probably autumn is a good time or better wait until winter when the magnolia is bare and you can better see the branch structure. Of course pruning at this time will remove flowering. Cut of the branches that are growing into rhododendron removing them flush to maintain a nice shape. Return to the pruning site on the trunk or stems to remove regrowth. Jennifer

  12. We have a very tall, large 65 year old magnolia tree. Living on the southern shore of Lake Erie, we often have very strong winds which threaten to blow it over in a storm. We have thought about cut off high clusters on top to reduce wind resistance. Is it better to trim or just hope for the best? Beneath its branches is our summer living room shared by neighbors and friends. It would be a great loss to everyone.

    • Betsy
      That’s a very tricky question. Certainly if the tree has been there for 65 years it is probably quite used to the wind. Pruning often just encourages bushy regrowth that’s more likely to be damaged by the wind in the future and as I’ve said in the blog, pruning often spoils the shape of a magnola. I would probably leave it but, if you want to prune the tree, definitely use a qualified aborist (not a tree lopper) and find someone whose work you can look at before you employ them. Best wishes Jennifer

  13. Hi Jennifer.
    I have planted a Lilly Magnolia about 20?years ago. It has never been pruned but have now become a tall leggy magnolia. The show of flowers are only at the top branches now which is about 5 or 6 meters up. They have long spindly branches with leaves only on the ends and they are very tall. I have no idea how to prune the tree to make it more bushy and showy to us earthlings. I live in Johannesburg South Africa. Any help would be appreciated. Regards. Gerdie

    • Hi Gerdie: I can understand your frustration but magnolias don’t respond well to hard pruning and that’s what would be needed to make the bush smaller. It could die or dieback. It probably isn’t just the size that’s the problem. It may be growing in too much shade (that reduces flowering), something may be attacking the buds reducing flowering (such as birds) or it may be moisture stressed. Try spreading a mulch of compost and well-rotted manure under the plant, giving it more water now as we move into the flowering period in the Southern Hemisphere and continue extra water through spring and summer. After flowering, feed with an azalea and camellia food. Watch for new growth especially lower down. The only pruning I would do is to lightly tip prune. Do this immediately after flowering. Jennifer

  14. Hi, Jennifer. We have a large, mature, Magnolia. Two large branches are growing from near the base of the tree, at approximately 45-degree angles and are encroaching on trees in our neighbor’s yard. I’m concerned about stressing the Magnolia by having those branches removed by a tree service. Also an issue is growth that touches the roof of our home when the wind blows. Days are around 95 degrees right now. Any guidance would be welcome.

  15. I have a small purplish pink Magnolia tree ( Ann?) which is about 15 years old.Late last summer,I asked the gardeners not to ever cut it, one day I went out to stop them,only to find when I turned my back for a second,they whacked off several branches which hung over the fence..Now it’s nearly spring here in the San Francisco Bay area and the tree is starting to bloom..The flowers are totally different from what I’ve ever seen before as they are now very small and a dark purple color.Pretty color,but why are they so small?The tree has forked out more and the middle trunk is growing wider..What have they done to my beautiful tree and will it ever be the same again?

    • Jan – I am sure it will recover, especially if it is kept well watered in spring and summer. Occasionally the earliest flowers to bloom can be slightly different from later ones so probably by spring the flowers will appear normal. Jennifer

      • Hi Jennifer, I was cleaning up a very overgrown yard when a miscommunication occurred with the house owner, and I trimmed back.a magnolia and a casurina to stump level (about 80 cm tall)

        The small area was overgrown with trees, and their foliage was aged and somewhat motley, so the (miscommunicated) directions from the owner seemed appropriate.

        Anyway, is there any hope for the magnolia, or have I destroyed it? Is there anything I could do, like some suitable fertiliser for example?

        Thank you so much for considering this.

        • While it may reshoot such drastic pruning will certainly have spoiled its natural shape and removed any chance of flowering for some time. It may be appropriate to buy and plant a new one in the meantime. If it was so overgrown then it would not have been doing well which is why it appeared motley. It is a sad experience all round and I am sorry for you and for the owners of the garden. Hope it works out. Jennifer

  16. Hi Jennifer. I have a Jane Magnolia that is beautiful. However, we had a late frost/snow this spring (Chicago) and although the flowers bloomed, many of the branches have not leafed out, or have one small tiny leaf on it. I’m not sure what to do about this – should I prune it, which will kill the shape, fertilize it (I put manure compost underneath it already), or just leave it be and the leaves will eventually come out?

  17. I have two Sweet Bay Magnolias in Kentucky. The one by the patio deck is lush and doing great.
    Last year, the one in the middle of the yard was gorgeous and twice as tall. Late summer early fall, it lost most of its leaves and looked like branches were dying. The top half of the tree was getting very leggy.
    The tree is about 12 feet tall and 3 1/2 years old. Many branches are dead but there is now a little growth elsewhere in the lower one third to one half of the tree. There is a nearby ash tree that has a limb overshadowing and touching the top of the magnolia.
    Yesterday, late June, I pruned out the dead branches around the tree,
    except for the center top trunk of the tree. The center trunk shoots 5-7 feet above the rest of the tree & appears dead. The living part of the tree is the bottom 4-5 feet.
    I may have been using too much pressure on the nozzle when watering last year, the ash tree is shading too much, cold weather issues have affected this tree, and the pups have dug nearby looking for chipmunks and critters last fall. I put a bag of lawn soil and mulch on top and put up a small fence.
    Should I prune the one center branch down to where it’s got some new growth? If so, it will look like it was just planted and a very small tree and about a third of it’s normal size.
    Is there anything to be done or will it not survive the large loss of limbs?
    Thank you in advance for your reply!

  18. It sounds like a lot of things could have gone wrong for this tree and it probably relates to some type of root damage – the hosing, the dogs digging even adding soil around the base of the plant – could have damaged it. It may also have suffered cold damage last winter. If the top part is dead then you need to prune it out. I am wondering however if the ash tree is overgrowing the magnolia why have a tree trying to grow under its canopy. It may be better to take the magnolia out, put it in a large pot to see if it can recover and plant something smaller in the spot or plant away from the overhanging tree. With its central trunk – the leader – dead it will develop more of a spreading shape. I hope this helps! Best wishes Jennifer

  19. Hi Jennifer, We had a beautiful Magnolia tree. One of the secondary branches became too heavy and split the main trunk, otherwise the tree was healthy. It was only a matter of time until it failed. We had it cut down last year. The stump was left and this year, we have what appears to be a Magnolia shrub! It is getting blooms and buds and I’m not sure what to do. Do I carefully prune it so it comes back to a tree form, will it remain healthy as is or should I have it removed completely?

  20. Hi Jennifer, I hope you can help. We had a Magnolia tree. One of the upper branches became too heavy and split the main trunk. From that point, it was a matter of time and we had it cut down last year. The stump was left and now we have a magnolia shrub. It does have blooms and buds. I’m unsure what to do at this point. Cut it all down, prune it or leave it as is? What is your recommendation? Thank you! I’m posting this a second time as I didn’t see the original post populate. If it duplicates, my apologies.

  21. If it is an evergreen magnolia it will be fine. You can keep them pruned and shaped without too much worry. If it is a deciduous magnolia, perhaps see how it is shaping up and how it flowers. You may need to select several branches that will give the tree shape you want and cleanly remove the others. Follow up by removing the first signs of regrowth on the pruned sites. The idea is to try to remove the very young soft re-growth by rubbing it off with your finger.

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