If you wonder what to plant in a new or rejuvenating garden, look around you now and see the answer. The magnolia season is just breaking, in a spring which has been held back to its traditional timing. How could there be better value among the flowering shrubs which will grow in Britain? There is no magnolia disease on the horizon, no problems lurking in their past. The family loves us and we should love them.
They have something for everyone. Some of them make big trees, never bigger than in Cornwall, where I once mistook the huge old magnolias at Caerhays Castle for mature plane trees. The “water lily” magnolia, Magnolia stellata, will grow very well in a large deep wooden tub and will flower profusely at a height of about 4ft. Be sure, though, that you plant it in lime-free compost. I like to see it with its traditional accompaniment, dark blue grape hyacinths, or muscari, under its leafless branches. Magnolia stellata has been prized for centuries in Japan and some of the best varieties are of Japanese origin. It is one for all of us, even if we are short of space.
At the other end of the family there are tall magnolias, which will not flower for decades. They are ideal for owners of big parks or arboretums but not much good for the rest of us. However, if you have an ample site and a lime-free soil, do not be put off by Magnolia campbellii’s reputation for waiting 30 years to flower. It is still worth a place. Last spring, I learnt my lesson in the half-neglected garden at Kilmacurragh in Ireland’s County Wicklow. Its superb old specimen of campbellii was covered with deep pink flowers against the blue sky. Hundreds of petals had fallen already on to the nearby path. “It had 1,000 flowers in 1944,” the presiding gardener told me, with Irish precision. “And this year?” I asked. “It had 3,000.” I rather think he had counted. If you take the long view, it will reward you like nothing else.
If you like moving house more often, Magnolia x loebneri “Merrill” is a better choice. It goes back to a cross with stellata and I find that it flowers freely within a year of being planted as an average nursery specimen. The flowers are white with thin “petals”, known as petals though all magnolias actually have “tepals”, to be botanically precise. Merrill’s bigger cousin is the pink-flowered Leonard Messel, still one of my top choices for freedom of flower, delicacy and a willingness, not widely publicised, to grow perfectly well on lime soil. Eventually it reaches 20ft or more but after 25 years mine is still about 10ft high. It has been delighting me for the past four weeks with the hundreds of furry unopened buds along its bare branches. No, I have not stopped to count them.
I first met Magnolia Leonard Messel in 1981 in the great Hillier Gardens near Ampfield in Hampshire. It has improved there since. These gardens are a great place for magnolia viewing in the next fortnight or so. I try to go each year to see the tremendous avenue of tall magnolias which runs towards the white painted Ampfield House at the further end of the garden. On a warm April morning in full flower it is an unsurpassed sight. I like it even more since I learnt that its planter, Harold Hillier, simply devised it to use up a cluster of unsold magnolias that he had in stock. It is a great example for those of us who plant on the spur of a moment.
In Hillier’s nearby garden centre you can then buy good specimens of the best magnolias you have seen. My last buys there were big, healthy plants of a spectacular magnolia, the one called “Star Wars”. The flowers are more than a foot wide when fully open and are flushed with a deep rich pink. No other variety has such huge flowers and I love them for their impact. I planted two and the one which has grown better has taught me a modern lesson.
When you plant a magnolia, time spent on preparing the soil is never wasted. I dig in plenty of rotted manure and leaf mould to a depth of at least 4ft and I keep at least 3ft square of surrounding soil clear of grass and competitors. I have now learnt to dig friendly fungi into the soil, sold in packets as “mycorrhizals”. They are distributed to garden centres by the wholesalers Scotts and are a new weapon in our gardening armoury. One of the good retail brands is Rootgrow. If a specified dose is mixed into the soil round a magnolia or any other big shrub when it is being planted, it will then activate the plant’s root-growth in the soil. I learnt its value from a visit to one of our biggest suppliers of top-size mature shrubs and trees, Tendercare Nurseries near Denham in Buckinghamshire. They use mycorrhizals on many of the specimens that they want to grow on to a big size. The treatment has done wonders for one of my Star Wars. All summer its big leaves are healthy and unbitten by insects, those infallible noticers of a plant that is struggling. Self-appointed organic experts have tried to tell me that there is nothing in a packet of mycorrhizals that will not be present in a handful of leafmould from a natural forest. I do not believe them. I gave my other Magnolia Star Wars leaf mould only and it looks much less healthy than its mycorrhizal contemporary.
In the 1930s and 1950s British homeowners planted so many young plants of Magnolia soulangeana, the one with white flowers in profusion, flushed with a purple stain. We are now their beneficiaries, in suburban front gardens, down busy roads or in so many of the back gardens that can be seen from a train window. When I see what are now such fine flowering trees I remember the words of their namesake, Monsieur Soulange-Bodin himself. He had served as a cavalry officer with Napoleon but later took to gardening instead. “It is to that,” he wrote, “that I now cheerfully devote the remainder of my life ... The Germans have encamped in my garden, I have encamped in the gardens of the Germans. It was with sword in hand that I visited the botanical collections of Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart ... It had doubtless been better for both parties to have stayed at home.” Magnolia soulangeana is about to reach its yearly flowering peak. When I see it in so many peaceful back gardens, I remember what he wrote.