I have a bay leaf magnolia that is planted among various shrubs around the front of my house. The tree is rather large and is well above the roof line. Can I prune it back hard this time of year? I would be pruning it back to roughly 1/2 of its current size.
The Gardener’s Answer
Hi, Brian: The best time to prune your sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) would be in the spring. Pruning it this late in the season would increase the chances of winter damage. It sounds like you are dealing with quite a large specimen and unfortunately it may have not been planted in the best space. Mature size is sometimes not taken into consideration at planting time and as a result the tree is not able to grow into its natural growth habit/size. Obviously it is too late to reconsider the planting space for your magnolia but taking it back to half its current height is pretty drastic. Pruning this hard will encourage an unnatural growth habit that will not make the tree look aesthetically pleasing. It is usually recommended that no more than one-third of the plant should be removed at one time. If you wanted to prune more than that it should be done in consecutive years. This is a big job and you might consider hiring a certified arborist, for your safety as well as the health of the tree. Another option is taking it back all the way to the ground and letting it sprout back up or removing the tree altogether and planting something more suitable in its space. You can contact the horticulture agent at the Fayette County Extension office for certified arborist recommendations at (859) 257-5582.