Why Star Magnolia Deserves A Spot In Your Garden

When it comes to stunning, early-blooming trees, it’s hard to beat the star magnolia. Every March, it showers the landscape in a flush of bright white. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stature. I love how the blossoms hang like fallen stars from its smooth, bare branches.

THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA

Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! What’s more, star magnolia is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, it makes an excellent specimen tree while also providing a great backdrop to any mixed shrub border. 

Yet for all that, the tree’s most valuable asset, in most people’s view, is its early spring blossoms. Typically flowering in early March, the star magnolia is lush with blooms when most other ornamentals are scarcely starting to bud. Moreover, the flowers are fragrant. Each is composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals. And some varieties boast as many as 30.

And while star magnolias are typically associated with white flowers, there are also a number of pink varieties. All are magnets for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.

FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS

But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, then bronze, providing an interesting complement to other fall colors.

And star magnolia’s twiggy, many-branched shape provides great winter interest. Colored a shiny, chestnut brown, the branches contrast handsomely with the tree’s smooth gray trunk, which slowly turns silver with age. As an added plus, the buds, appearing in late winter, are fat and fuzzy, just like pussy willows. 

TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY

Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular cultivars that offer reliable, low-maintenance early spring color. Deciduous magnolias are best planted when dormant, typically in late fall.

‘Centennial’ produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’

‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.

Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’

‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’

HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT

Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil. 

Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’  Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.

Want to see more photos of my gardens, including plant lists? Check out my instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring to fall.

Identify Plants In A Snap With These 6 Top Apps

 What's That Flower app

Now that we’re all spending more time at home, it doesn’t hurt to know what’s blooming. And finding the answer is easier than ever with one of the dozens of plant identification apps available. But which ones work best and provide the fastest, most reliable material? I decided to do a comparison. Continue reading

In Praise of Redbud

redbud tree and green bench

I always smile when the redbuds begin blossoming in my area. Flowering with reckless abandon, the magenta-colored trees instantly distinguish themselves from other plants in the landscape. One of my friends shouts out REDBUD! when her own dazzling specimen bursts into bloom. That seems to me the perfect way to describe the electric flowering of this upbeat, ornamental tree. Continue reading

5 Top Christmas Tree Types: A Guide To Finding Your Perfect Match

Every year is different when it comes to Christmas. But in my home, there is one thing that remains constant. When I shop for a tree, I always head straight for the Fraser firs. These are the trees I grew up with, and their fragrance reminds me of my childhood. And as we all know, memory is a key component in any holiday décor. Continue reading

Five Reasons Why Trees Fail: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

why your trees are failing

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, NC. Recently, he spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners on the reasons why trees fail.

Fite’s lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil.

“We are all guilty of fouling up the soil,” he said. “But, it’s far easier to preserve soils than to remediate after they’re damaged.”

Before reaching for the fertilizer, Fite advises digging a little deeper into the source of the problem. Following are five common reasons why trees fail and what to do about them.

COMPACTED SOIL LEAVES NO ROOM TO BREATH

When it comes to tree health, nothing hurts a tree more than compacted soil. Often caused by construction, soil compaction strikes trees at their roots, depriving them of essential water, oxygen and other nutrients. It also makes it harder for a tree to anchor itself.

compacted soil leads to tree failure

Compacted soil makes tree anchorage difficult 

Compaction occurs when soil particles are compressed by external factors such as mechanical or human traffic, resulting in reduced pore volume. Since there is less space for air and water, these types of soils have reduced rates of water infiltration and drainage and are often hydrophobic (meaning the water runs off).

In the case of a tree, this leads to poor growth, higher water needs and increased susceptibility to pests and diseases. It is also one of the primary reasons why trees fail.

fertile, aerated soil

Fertile, aerated soil

compacted clay soil

Compacted clay soil

Think of soil as a sponge, with large and small particles.

“What happens when we squeeze a sponge?” Fite asked. “We are increasing the amount of solid matter.”

Tree roots are extensive, and with the exception of the taproot, located for the most part just 8 to 10 inches below the soil. They need space to grow. With compaction, however, many trees will never develop a taproot, instead establishing a network of weakened lateral roots that are unable to keep the tree vertical.

Meanwhile at the soil surface, the tree’s fine feeder roots (which under ideal conditions can extend 4 to 7 times the drip line of the tree) are compromised, too. This reduces its ability to absorb water, oxygen and nutrients.

SOLUTION: Build away from a tree’s drip line and keep mowers and other machinery off of the soil. For existing trees under stress, add a mulch circle. (More on that below.)

DEPRIVING TREES OF FALLEN LEAVES

This is a tough one. I’m not sure I’m ready to shred my leaves and scatter them all over the lawn. But think about it.  We spend time and money to rake up and dispose of one of our plants’ most important source of nutrients. Then we go to the store and buy it back again as mulch or soil additives.

“It’s not a great business model,” said Fite.

According to Fite, we are removing one pound of nitrogen per 1000 feet just by removing the leaves from our properties. This is a big loss for trees as well as other plants. And this doesn’t even take in to account the fossil fuels burned to operate leaf vacuums.

Our soils are low in organic matter because we don’t allow leaves to decompose like they do in the forest. When left alone, leaves return nitrogen and other organic matter to the soil. They also protect the soil surface, adding to its water holding capacity. And as they break down, they provide porosity and aeration, allowing more water to infiltrate the earth.

Shredded leaf mulch

SOLUTION: Shred your leaves with a mower and make leaf compost or leaf mold mulch (not the same thing.) For some great info on how to do both, click here for the spruce.com’s excellent article Rake Leaves and Make Compost Mulch. 

HIGH pH SOILS ARE BAD FOR TREES

In a perfect world, soils have a slightly acidic to neutral pH (a pH of 5.5 to 6.5). Urban and suburban soils, however, often contain debris left behind from construction. This generally results in a higher soil pH due to leeching from masonry walls and foundations. Moreover, irrigation water frequently has a higher pH, too. 

Leeching from masonry leads to soils with higher pH

All of this can lead to a dramatic difference between the nutrient ability of your native soil and that affected by construction and other materials. Since developed soils tend to have a higher pH and modified temperature, they put more heat stress on plants. As a result, trees grown in these locations may show signs of nutrient deficiency (like yellowing of leaves) and take longer to establish. They may even fail.

SOLUTION:  Do a soil test to determine the pH and get the turf out from under your trees. Lawns may thrive on alkaline soil (that’s why we add lime), but trees prefer a lower pH.

A soil test report from University of Delaware (my go-to destination for soil reports)

TREE ROOTS NEED PROTECTION

Mulch improves soil structure while providing protection to a tree’s roots. It also supplies organic matter to the soil that reduces compaction. And it moderates soil temperatures, conserves moisture and eliminates competition from grass. Yet, many landscape trees are planted out in the lawn with no protection. This is another reason why trees fail.

Fite recommends mulching out to the drip line of a tree if you can. It will help prevent ‘mower blight’ (or your mower banging into the trees) and also protect against stripping from string trimmers. Mowers, by the way, also contribute to soil compaction, especially when they’re operated in wet conditions.

Mowers contribute to soil compaction and can damage a tree

SOLUTION: Create a mulch circle around your trees. It will help protect them from mower damage. And as the mulch decomposes, it will aerate the soil and provide nutrients.

FERTILIZING FOR NO REASON 

According to Fite, fertilizer doesn’t fix everything. Pull a soil sample from around your tree first to determine whether or not to fertilize. Most soil labs will run diagnostics on your sample and send you back a prescription for what to add to your soil to improve its composition.

Before fertilizing, take a look around the landscape. If construction has occurred and interrupted a tree’s root zone, no amount of fertilizer is going to fix the problem.

And remember, although native soil usually contains lots of organic matter, during construction this layer is often buried under layers of sand or debris. Or sometimes, it’s stripped off entirely. No amount of fertilizer is going to bring life back to this kind of soil.

SOLUTION: Do a soil test to find out what your soil is made of before reaching for the fertilizer. Fix the soil first, then use fertilizer to adjust accordingly.

OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP YOUR TREES

Fite offered a couple additional suggestions for how to get your trees back in shape (assuming you haven’t destroyed most of the root system by building too close):

INVIGORATE THE ROOTS

Many times the best thing you can do for your trees is to invigorate their roots. Bartlett Tree uses an air spade, a tool that generates a high velocity jet of air to dislodge the soil. The rush of air breaks up and ‘tills’ the soil without removing it to a depth of about 8’ (the depth of the feeder roots). This method of improving the soil leaves root systems intact.

Air spade in use at Western Illinois University

The air spade was originally developed by the military to clear land mines. Nowadays, it is used by landscapers and arborists to invigorate roots. After the soil is excavated, add soil, compost and mulch to settle the soil back down. Then water the tree.

EXPLORE BIOCHAR

Mulch breaks down because the microbes eat it for carbon, resulting in it having to be replaced every year. Charcoal, on the other hand, is stable, meaning it lasts for centuries. Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that is added to soil to help it retain water and nutrients. It acts like a dry sponge, but on its own contains no nutrients. Bartlett Tree recommends blending it with compost for best results.

Biochar acts as a dry sponge, but contains no nutrients

“Put the two together and magic happens,” said Fite.

Buyer beware, though, biochar is not regulated, so buy from a reputable source and read the label carefully.

Kelby Fite, Ph.D. is a VP and Director at Bartlett Tree Research Lab.

Tree ID: How To Be Your Own Best Detective

Giant tulip poplar in Orange, Virginia

I remember the first time I recognized the value of knowing a tree’s name. I was hiking with a friend along the C & O canal in Maryland when she began identifying the species around us. As she paused to study the different trees, she remarked on their patterns of growth and unique characteristics. Suddenly, the forest took on a whole new meaning for me. Continue reading

Trending In Health: Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing. Continue reading

Cherry Blossoms Peak on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall

Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms.

After decades spent living in the Washington, D.C. area, I have come to associate spring with the annual peaking of the cherry blossoms on the National Mall. And because of this long-standing tradition, I am perhaps more aware of the weather at this time of year than others who don’t live in the area. Some years, I’ve donned a heavy jacket to see the flowers, many years I’ve worn shorts. Still other years, fickle spring winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate pink blossoms. Continue reading