Who does not love the Old South charm inherent in magnolia trees? The lovely, lemony-scented fragrance of their big, showy blooms; the shade they provide when mature; and the fact that they are evergreen all play a big part toward homeowner choices in selecting them.
But these trees do have a tendency to grow all the way to the ground, as they say, with their branching habits. Learning about pruning magnolia trees the right way can give you a handsome tree without sacrificing its health or appearance.
Rather than pruning magnolia trees, many people opt for going ahead and allowing the tree its natural tendency to send out nearly ground-level branches. This does not affect the health of the tree at all; it does, however, take up space you may want to utilize in some other way. Or you may just simply prefer the more traditional tree shape with a longer trunk exposed at the bottom portion of the tree.
Another way of pruning magnolia trees involves training them into espaliered forms. In order for the tree to thrive with this type of growth pattern, however, it will be necessary to not only prune the branches and limbs, but also to prune its roots. Without appropriate root pruning, the tree will not be able to get enough nutrients from its leaves to support a normal-sized root system will eventually succumb.
Espaliering means pruning magnolia trees to grow in and around a trellis-type structure. You can place these types of trellised trees right up next to a house (or any other structure), provided you keep the root system, branches, and limbs of the tree under control with frequent pruning. This method of growing magnolia trees is recommended for those people who enjoy working in their gardens and yards. It is not advisable for those who want more of a maintenance-free landscape environment.
Pruning for Traditional Shape
Pruning magnolia trees so that they develop a more traditional tree shape (that with a longer, more exposed trunk) is much easier than espaliering. Simply take of the limbs up to the level desired with a chainsaw or other cutting tool.
Make sure the cuts are flush with the trunk, that you do not leave an amputated stump sticking out. Painting the freshly cut wounds is no longer considered necessary nor recommended. It is now believed healthier for the tree to utilize the fresh air to callous over the wound and heal. Paint is thought to trap disease-bearing organisms that may cause damage or even death.
More About Root Pruning
Sometimes the roots of magnolias have a tendency to girdle, or encircle themselves, which cuts off essential nutrients. The tree can literally choke itself to death. Root pruning magnolia trees before they are planted, cutting off those that appear to be growing in a circular pattern, is the best solution.
In trees already growing or that are mature, you may need to cut the offending roots with a stump grinder. Try to cut only those roots that have surfaced and that are at least as far away from the trunk as three times its diameter. In other words, if a tree trunk is one foot in diameter, do not cut surfacing girdling roots unless they are at least three feet out from the trunk.
Pruning magnolia trees is, on the whole, a pretty simple matter. But it is a chore that if done, must be done properly. With good overall care and pruning methods, your magnolia tree should live longer than you.