Magnolia Sapling Strategy Help

I grew up with a Magnolia tree in the yard and want to create a bonsai from recently purchased nursery material. It’s in a green ~2 gallon nursery pot. Thin, long, and lanky. I’ve got lots of questions about how to handle this tree.

I’ve read it needs to be pruned like a typical deciduous - mid summer after new foliar growth has hardened off. Is this correct?
-If I prune really hard - down to essentially stumps ~6-8 inches off the soil, taking most of it’s foliage, can i expect that, without that foliage it built all spring, it will store enough energy to survive the new england winter? winter protections taken
-Is a more conservative pruning strategy better, even though i’ll be essentially delaying setting up the structure for it’s bonsai design, and pruning it over 2 years might not be the healthiest way to go about doing this?
-Repot timing: Should it be left in its nursery pot (provided it’s draining) for the duration of this health development phase? If it bounces back the next year with a lot of new growth, when in the following year is a good time to repot and see a healthy transition into its bonsai container? Would it be more reasonable to expect 3-4 years of health development after a hard prune to set up enough foliar mass to drive healthy root growth in its new bonsai container?

Can the answers to these questions be applied generally to similar pre-bonsai deciduous specimens with a well established root system, but the need for hard pruning to begin that compacted bonsai design?

Thanks so much!

I cut mine back pretty hard this year after it flowered and the growth hardened off. I didn’t go at it too hard. I left taller branches than I wanted, but I didn’t want to remove all of the foliage which is exactly what I would have needed to do in order to get it where I want it. I did this knowing that I’m setting myself back an additional year and therefore it’ll go back into the ground again. I’m keeping it in its nursery pot, but still in the ground. Typically I use a grow bag, but I know that it won’t be in the ground for too long. I’m going to cut slits/holes in the side of the pot to allow beneficial microbes and bacteria in though.

I’m taking the conservative approach because this was a clearance tree. It wasn’t exactly super strong when I got it last year. My plan now is to let it accumulate more strength and I’ll do the rest of the chop next spring before the buds push. If it were a stronger tree I would have pruned it to exactly where I wanted it before buds pushed.

I can’t speak to your repot timing as that’s basically up to you. What are you trying to achieve? Branch development can be done in a bonsai pot. Trunk development is better done in a much less constraining container. In the ground if possible. Winter hardiness comes from the roots. If it can recover from now until winter you may be better off putting it in the ground. If not, then you could keep it in that container or do what I do which is to do both. Put it in the ground in the container lol. I don’t have to worry about winter protection, but if you leave it in the container it’ll make it a lot easier to move into protection later. I’m also assuming you mean a greenhouse.

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Not meant as an encouragement, but I went ahead and cut mine back strongly and repotted at the same time. This was right before the buds started taking off. So far the tree keeps on pushing new growth. It was a somehow smaller plant than yours though.


Oh, and welcome to Mirai!


Thanks for sharing your Magnolia experience.

When you say you put your trees in the ground while in the pot, how far in do you put them? What is your local climate like? We tend to get a lot of rain here in NE and i may not want to put my pots too far in the ground, if at all.

I don’t have a green house, but i heal my trees in with various things (blankets, mulch, straw, whatever i can get) on the ground, and cover them in a temporary make-shift greenhouse plastic for more extreme conditions.

I think you’re saying the health of the tree is what informed the severity of your pruning. And that you did space your pruning out over 2 seasons. I don’t have much experience with the health of magnolias unfortunately, but I’ll try to use my best judgement based on what i see over the course of the season.

For the repot I just want to give the tree a strong start in its bonsai container. I’m guessing I’ll want a good amount of foliage to push that root growth. What time of year do you think is best for this? late spring after foliage develops? summer? I know a lot of deciduous yamadori are collected in summer, but that’s a slightly different situation.

Thanks for your reply :slight_smile:

Typically you want to do repotting/root work in the spring before the buds have pushed. After bud push the tree has already spent a lot of energy making new solar panels. I plant them to the soil level in the container. I was actually looking at my magnolia this morning. It’s recovering well from the initial chop, so I’m going to do a second chop soon. I was super conservative with the first chop and left most of the primary trunk. I’ve got buds all along the base now. When those mature a bit more I’ll be good to chop the rest.

Local climate is pretty humid. Not too much rain. If anything not enough. :weary:

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Thanks again. The consiquence/efficacy of doing a significant reduction of trunk/branching in stages is what I was questioning. Looks like your Magnolia responded well to your first cut.

I may go ahead with an aggressive prune, banking on the energy stored in the large volume of roots. This wasn’t a very expensive or precious piece of material, so I feel more free with risk.

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Would now be a good time to do my chop? 3-4 hardened leaves per growth site

Give it a go. Please update with pics. :slight_smile:

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Cool, my instinct has been telling me this tree is healthy and can do well with a big cut back to establish the structure. I’ll take some before and after shots.

Heart breaking in the short run. I partially defoliated to open it up so new buds can get sunlight. Leaves nearly as big as my hand down to the top of my thumb. In the shade she goes.

I initially wanted to see if I could get a glimpse at the nibari but soon realized it is half way down the container or more and I need these roots to bounce back.

Edit: I used cut paste on the stumps after knob/ concave cutters, razor blade to clean, and my sharpest decandling shears to partially defoliate.

Nice! Yeah, definitely looks nice and healthy. Good job on the cutback. I still look at mine and kick myself for being too timid. :frowning_face:


It totally broke my heart to chop this tree :sob:. But I really went after it that’s for sure. Stay tuned for a repot in 2022.

If it helps, that’s hardly a chop ;). More like a mild pruning. If it’s bigger than your wrist and takes a saw, then you have a drastic chop :smiley:

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Lol, just wait until you see what my chop is gonna look like. You’ll swear that I’m building a shohin.

Why not repot in spring 2021? It should grow out and gain strength this summer and fall.

You guys are definitely pushing me to test the limit! I’ll definitely consider it pending a good rest of the growing season

Yeah, this. You should be able to pot it up in the spring. It’s hard to say if you should chop it harder without a closer look. I would say that if you’re considering chopping it further go ahead and do it now.

Nice, thanks for the encouragement. I’m reluctant to go full hog and chop it down further at this point. I don’t know if die back will occur or how this will progress from my ‘mild pruning’ :laughing:. It’s all part of the learning/experimentation process on a species that’s special to me.

I’m not sure I’d go full hog with that tree. It looks like you’ve got the setup for a nice little clump style. How about a few pics closer in to the base of the trunk?