How to transplant a magnolia tree or bush in 9 easy steps

Learn how to transplant a magnolia tree or bush and make sure that your prized tree will thrive in its new location

close up of a magnolia tree in bloom
(Image credit: Ashley Cooper/Getty Images)

If you're wondering how to transplant a magnolia tree, chances are you've realized that you have planted your magnolia in the wrong place and you need to replant it in a more suitable part of your yard. Or perhaps you’re moving home and would like to take your magnolia with you. Well, if your magnolia is not too large you can dig it up and replant it somewhere else.

One thing to keep in mind is that small, newly planted magnolia trees transplant much more successfully than larger, well established plants. In fact if your magnolia is taller then you are it may be wiser not to try. The smaller your magnolia plant, the more likely it is to grow away well after being moved. And the larger the plant the heavier it is and a heavy plant can be very difficult to manage.

Expert tips on how to transplant a magnolia tree 

Magnolias are one of the best backyard trees, so it pays to find the right spot for it so you can get maximum enjoyment from its blooms. Whether you have a pink magnolia or a more muted white or cream variety, any magnolia that has only been planted for a year or two can usually be transplanted successfully to another spot. 

  1. The first part of how to transplant a magnolia tree is to make sure you water it well with a liquid rhododendron feed.
  2. Scrape some soil away from around the plant to see where the original root ball is.
  3. Use a garden spade to cut vertically to the spade’s depth in a ring about 12in (30cm) farther away from the trunk.
  4. Use the spade to lever your magnolia and loosen its roots underneath.
  5. Now you can see the size of the rootball that you will be digging up, prepare the planting hole in your magnolia’s new location.
  6. Try to retain as much soil on the magnolia roots as possible when you move it, the best approach is to slide burlap or heavy duty polythene under the tree to keep the soil in place on the roots.
  7. Use a wheelbarrow or carry the plant – with help if necessary – to its new site and place it in the prepared hole.
  8. Slide the polythene or burlap out from under the rootball then refill the hole with good soil.
  9. One of the key things to remember with how to plant a magnolia tree is to make sure you now water it again with liquid feed.

pink magnolia tree in bloom

(Image credit: Caroline Arber/Future)

Transplanting a mature magnolia tree

Before you consider how to transplant a magnolia tree that is larger and more mature, remember that the bigger the magnolia that needs to be transplanted, the more difficult it will be and the less likely to succeed in its new location. 

Follow the same basic procedure as for a smaller magnolia (see above), but scale everything up to deal with the larger top growth and larger rootball. Take precautions, and get help, to deal with the extra weight.

Magnolia roots are soft and brittle and the aim should be to protect them from damage and to retain as much soil on them as possible. 

If, in spite of precautions, a lot of soil is lost from around the roots, it can help to reduce the length of some of the magnolia’s branches. The reduced root system will take up less moisture, this can be balanced by removing some of the top growth. Just as you would when learning how to prune a magnolia tree to keep it looking its best, try to retain the overall shape of your magnolia, just on a slightly smaller scale.  

It's also important to remember that support is important until new root growth stabilizes the tree. To do this, use two short stakes, one on either side of the rootball, with one tree-tie securing the tree to each stake. The ties should be low down, 18-24in (45-60cm) above the ground.

Magnolia x soulangiana Forest Pink and M. stellata in a garden

(Image credit: Anne Hyde/Future)

What should you do if a newly transplanted magnolia blows over?

The first thing to do is to heave your magnolia into an upright position and use some rope or twine to temporarily secure it in its place. Next, check to see if the rootball is moist or dry. If the rootball is dry, water it thoroughly.

Next assess the rootball. Is it now higher than the surrounding ground, or is it more or less back to its the proper level just below the surrounding ground, before mulching? If it’s at its proper level, firm well then add extra soil if necessary to fill any gaps. Finally, secure the plant using two stout stakes on opposite sides and with strong tree ties tightened fully to keep the magnolia upright.

If most of the soil has been lost from the roots and there are bare roots showing where the soil has dropped off, you may need to remove the magnolia from the soil and start the process again.

using a stake and tree ties to support a tree in an upright position

Using stakes and tree ties can help to keep a newly transplanted magnolia in an upright position

(Image credit: Future)

I’ve recently moved and there is a magnolia planted close to the house. Should I transplant it somewhere else?

Magnolias do not normally damage foundations. In fact research has shown that poplar and willow trees are the most likely to cause problems along with oaks, Norway maples, black locusts and tulip trees.

If the magnolia growing near to your house is a tree, not a shrub, then its roots will stretch far from its trunk in search of moisture. In drought conditions, it can pay to water mature trees near to the house to discourage the roots from questing more widely in search of water. Desperate to find moisture, they may infiltrate cracks on old or poorly constructed foundations. The foundations of modern houses are much less susceptible.

Get advice from an arborist before removing a tree close to the house.

Graham Rice is a garden writer who has won awards for his work online, and in books and magazines, on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been the Gardening Correspondent of two national newspapers in Britain, published more than 20 books, and has written for Organic Gardening magazine, The American Gardener, Fine Gardening and Amateur Gardening. He is the recipient of the 2021 Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. For many years he was a judge at the Chelsea Flower Show and is a member of a number of Royal Horticultural Society committees. He gardened in Pennsylvania for 20 years, but has recently returned to his native England.