Late winter is the season when the deciduous magnolias are at their best.
August seems to force these gorgeous flowers to open in a rush. The breathtaking sight of the large, tulip-like blooms perching on bare branches can send passers-by rushing to the nursery to buy something similar.
There are dozens of magnolia varieties, and making a choice can be a formidable task. The names are confusing so it’s usually easiest to forget nomenclature and just go for the flower you like most (remembering, of course, to check the ultimate height on the label). Most grow into small trees but, if space is tight, look for one of the shrub-sized star magnolia.
Because magnolias come from cool climates with rich, moisture-holding soil, keeping them happy through hot New Zealand summers can be a challenge. It’s important to take the opportunity to improve the soil as much as possible before planting. Choose a spot that gets at least half a day’s sun and is protected from strong winds. Start by clearing grass or ground-covering plants from an area about a metre across, then dig plenty of manure or good compost and some long-lasting fertilizer into the soil. Because magnolias hate being dry, it can also be helpful to add some water-storing crystals into the planting area. Create a planting hole that’s about twice the size of the pot and approximately the same depth. Take the plant out of the pot with care (magnolias hate root disturbance) and sit it into the planting hole. Backfill, then water well to settle everything into place. Lastly, spread a layer of organic mulch. This will keep the soil moist and stop competitive grass from growing back over the root area. Once the magnolia is well established you can plant some bulbs around the base to add extra interest in late winter and spring.