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Magnolias for small gardens

Love magnolias but worried they will get too big? Fear not, there are plenty of garden-worthy, manageable magnolias

Of all hardy flowering trees and shrubs, magnolias, with their large waxy blooms, are perhaps the most spectacular. But as gardens get ever smaller, many of us struggle to fit these delightful plants into our plots. Drive down any suburban street in the UK and the chances are you’ll see a Magnolia × soulangeana hacked into an unhappy blob, displaying none of its natural grace and form.

Luckily there is a range of selections that can be accommodated into small gardens, with flowering times over the year. Plus, many in this selection are among the least fussy of the magnolias, growing well in gardens from the north to the south.

Spring surprise

Waterlily-like flowers burst from buds from as early as March on leafless trees
Magnolia flowers cannot be ignored, especially in spring when the garden is beginning to stir. The candy-pink blooms of deciduous M. ‘Caerhays Surprise’ AGM start opening at the end of March, before the foliage appears, and last well into May. Each waterlily-shaped flower has 9-12 narrow tepals, with a darker pink tint on the outside. It is small tree that grows slowly to a height of around 4m (13ft) in 10 years.

Star performer

The tidy growth habit of Magnolia stellata makes it a suitable garden specimen
Magnolia stellata is one of the best for really small gardens. As the name suggests, it has star-shaped flowers, formed of strap-shaped petals. Plants are bushy and will grow slowly up to about 3m (10ft) tall. The cultivars ‘Centennial’ (pictured) and ‘Jane Platt’ both have an AGM. The latter is free-flowering with beautiful, soft pink flowers.

Delightfully scented

The pink-blushed flowers of Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' can be appreciated at nose-height
One of the benefits of a smaller magnolia is being able to get up close and inspect the blooms, especially when they are scented. Profuse-flowering and perfumed M. × loebneri  ‘Leonard Messel’ AGM (pictured) has delicate light pink flowers which open before the leaves. M. sieboldii ‘Colossus’ AGM is a slow-growing shrub with highly fragrant, white flowers up to 15cm (6in) across, borne in late spring and early summer. Its ultimate height and spread is rarely more than 3m (10ft).
Top tip! Prune wisely

Wait until your magnolia has flowered before pruning. When pruning, just remove any crossing and unhealthy stems


Grandeur on a small scale

Evergreen magnolias have a timeless charm
If you’re taken with the timeless elegance of Magnolia grandiflora (pictured), M. laevifolia ‘Gail's Favourite’ has been likened to a miniature form. With small, shiny green leaves, its rusty-red, hairy buds open to reveal, small, cup-shaped flowers. As a shrub that only reaches 2m (6½ft) in height it is possible to admire the beautiful crown of carpels and stamens in the centre of each bloom.

Dark beauty

The long blooming period of Magnolia liliiflora 'Nigra' makes it a useful garden plant
It is no surprise that the deciduous, M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ AGM is one of the most commonly grown cultivars. Introduced from Japan in 1861, it bears upright, tulip-shaped flowers primarily in June, then sporadically for the rest of the summer. Blooms are almost maroon in colour with an inside of delicate pink veins. It will grow to 3m (10ft) in height, but will only spread 3m (10ft), making it an ideal focal point.

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