Magnolia trees actually need little pruning whether you have one of the compact varieties that’s among the best trees for small gardens or a larger specimen. But both deciduous and evergreen magnolias may need pruning in specific circumstances. In this guide, we’ve detailed when as well as how to prune a magnolia tree to help you keep one of the best trees for front yards in great shape.

How to prune a magnolia tree

Magnolias can be deciduous or evergreen. The former, which lose their leaves in winter, seldom require pruning. Evergreen magnolias need little pruning, too. However, for both there are reasons to do so, and we’ve detailed both when and how to prune a magnolia tree of both types. Always bear in mind that you should use clean and sharp tools to prune a magnolia tree. ‘A good pair of pruning shears is probably one of the most important tools,’ advises the University of Minnesota Extension (opens in new tab). ‘Cuts up to ¾in in diameter may be made with them. Lopping shears are similar to pruning shears, but their long handles provide greater leverage needed to cut branches up to 1½in in diameter.’

How to prune deciduous magnolia trees

One of the reasons why you should prune deciduous magnolia trees is to shape them when they are young. In this case, remove any weak growth or branches that are spoiling the overall shape of the plant.  After this, prune them as necessary to remove wood that is dead, diseased or damaged. A mature tree might produce what are known as watershoots. These vertical shoots should be removed. If a deciduous magnolia needs to be reduced in size, or it’s become misshapen, pruning is also in order. Thin out stems to the trunk or a fork to keep the crown open and the tree shapely. Be mindful that it is vital to reduce size or otherwise renovate a deciduous magnolia tree over two or three years to avoid stress to the tree.

When to prune a deciduous magnolia tree

Deciduous magnolia trees should be pruned between mid summer and early fall. 

How to prune evergreen magnolia trees

Evergreen magnolia trees should be pruned in just a few circumstances.  When they’re young, the lower branches can be pruned to create a bare trunk, if you want. Long branches can also be shortened when the tree is young. When an evergreen magnolia tree is established, dead, diseased or damaged growth should be removed. Otherwise, an overgrown or badly shaped tree can be pruned hard, but only undertake this over the course of a few years.

When to prune an evergreen magnolia tree

Prune an evergreen magnolia tree in spring if this work is required. Note, however, that wall-trained evergreen magnolias (see below) should instead be pruned in summer after they’ve flowered.

How to prune wall-trained magnolia trees

If you’ve chosen to grow an evergreen magnolia against a sunny wall, pruning is a summer task because the flower buds are less likely to be removed in error. If stems are growing towards the wall, remove them. For stems growing away from the wall, shorten to one or two leaves.

When should a magnolia tree be pruned?

When a magnolia tree should be pruned depends on whether it is deciduous, evergreen, or trained against a wall. For deciduous varieties, prune (if necessary) between mid summer and early fall. Evergreen magnolias should be pruned (again, if required) in spring, but prune wall-trained varieties in summer after flowering. 

Can you keep a magnolia tree small?

If you want to keep a magnolia tree small, it is much better to select a compact variety as some magnolia trees can become very large. The southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, for example ‘is large in every respect, towering from 60 to 80 feet in height, with leaves that can be as much as a foot in length’, according to Dr William C Welch, professor and landscape horticulturist, Texas A&M University at The Southern Garden (opens in new tab). It’s preferable not to prune established magnolias but if a tree has become too large, it can be reduced in size.  Bear in mind, though, that to avoid stressing a magnolia tree this should be done over several years, whether it is an evergreen or deciduous magnolia.