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Japanese Maple Trees: Planting, Growing, and Pruning Japanese Maples

How to Grow Japanese Maple Trees

Japanese Maple Tree
Photo Credit
Liz Farmer Bedard
Botanical Name
Acer palmatum
Sun Exposure
Hardiness Zone

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Planting, Growing, and Pruning Japanese Maples

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Japanese maple trees are prized for their form, bark, elegant foliage, and, above all, their fantastic fall color. Learn how to plant, grow, and care for beautiful Japanese maples.

Botanically known as Acer palmatum, Japanese maples share a genus with other maples like sugar and red maples. However, this is a smaller tree that creates height and interest without shading out shorter plants.

Japanese maples work well in perennial beds and are popular as landscape features due to their striking form, color, and manageable size. Native to Japan and South Korea, these ornamental trees invoke a peaceful feeling and are known as the trees used in Japanese tea gardens.

Their needs are similar to other maple trees, even if their shape and size differ. Dozens of Japanese maple tree cultivars are available in weeping or upright forms, with various leaf shapes and colors running from gold and lime green through deeper greens and burgundy, even to purple. 

They are slow growers, averaging only 6 to 12 inches per year–partly because they are shockingly expensive at the nursery. They can be grown as single-stemmed trees or multi-trunk displays. Most Japanese maples are hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8.

Planting

When to Plant Japanese maple

While Japanese maples can be planted in either spring or fall, spring planting is preferable. Since these ornamental trees are usually purchased as containerized stock, they can be planted at any time in the growing season except in late fall. They’ll need time to establish root systems and settle in before the freezing weather arrives. 

Where to Plant Japanese maple

Japanese maples like partial shade; the farther south they are, the more afternoon shade is important. While a few hours of sun is vital for other-than-green varieties to keep their foliage color, too much hot sun can lead to leaf scorch.

Good drainage is essential. Avoid locations that remain wet and soggy in winter. If needed, plant these trees in a slight berm to aid drainage. While not picky about soil, they are not tolerant of salt or highly alkaline sites.

Some cultivars of Japanese maple, especially dwarf varieties, do well in containers. They’ve been cultivated for use as bonsai trees and in standard planters. If you live in zone 5 or colder, bring containerized Japanese maples indoors for the winter and keep them in a location where the pot won’t freeze solid. 

Japanese Maple Tree on a platform in a container. Credit: Alonia

How to Plant Japanese Maple

Planting Japanese maples like you would other young trees or shrubs. 

  • Remove any sod from the area or mulch from the area.
  • Dig a hole the same depth as the root ball and at least twice as wide. The hole should look like a saucer, not a coffee can.
  • Loosen the soil at the edges and bottom of the hole. Hard, compacted sides are difficult for roots to penetrate. A compact hardpan at the bottom will inhibit drainage.
  • Carefully remove the tree from its container and prune any circling or girdling roots. If the plant is rootbound in its pot, score the root ball with a knife to stimulate new growth.
  • Test fit the Japanese maple in the hole. Ensure the graft union will be above ground when the soil is returned. 
  • Replace the soil you removed, ensuring the tree is kept vertical while filling. Stop when the hole is filled halfway, tamp the soil around the roots to remove air pockets, and then water thoroughly. 
  • Continue filling the soil around the roots and firming it with your hands.
  • Spread mulch around the tree, about 3-4 inches thick. Spread the mulch evenly in a circle, extending 2-3 feet and keeping an inch or two of separation away from the trunk. The final mulch job should be even and flat, not hilled-up.
     
Growing

How to Grow Japanese Maple

Japanese maples have thin bark easily damaged by impacts from lawn mower decks, string trimmers, or other objects. Mulching around the base will keep the lawnmower away and moderate soil moisture swings. 

Fertilization is not typically needed. However, if desired, apply a slow-release blend designed for trees and shrubs in spring. Avoid fertilizing in the fall, as the new growth may not harden off in time for winter weather. 

How to Prune Japanese maple

Pruning for aesthetic reasons can be done at any time of year. However, late winter is the least intrusive for the plant. Remove crossed or twisted branches, dead or wounded stems, and gangly long branches.

How to Propagate Japanese Maples

Japanese maples can be grown from seed, although germination can be spotty. Collect seeds in autumn. Winter sow or cold stratify 3 to 5 months. If the seeds were dry when gathered, soak them in warm water for 24-48 hours, then winter sow or cold stratify. 

Gather cuttings when this year’s growth has changed from soft and fleshy to firm and dense. You’ll want to cut from new growth. Check about a month after your last frost date when the leaves are fully out. Some cultivars root more reliably than others. 

If possible, take cuttings from young trees–they root much more reliably. If you must use stock from an older tree, stick more cuttings to compensate for the lower success rate. Keep cuttings in water until ready to stick–don’t allow them to dry out once cut.

  • Take cuttings 6-8 inches long and cut just below a node. Ideally, there will be 2-3 nodes on the stem.
  • Strip lower leaves and scrape the bottom 1-2 inches of the cutting with a knife’s edge.
  • Dip the bottom a few inches in 1-2% strength IBA powder or solution.
  • Use a pencil to poke holes in the growing medium, stick the cuttings about two inches deep, and firm the soil around them. A mixture of equal parts coco coir and perlite works well.
  • Japanese maple cuttings will need to be misted. If you don’t have a timed mist system (most of us don’t), you can imitate it with a humidity dome or a plastic bag and frequent misting with a spray bottle. 
  • Don’t let the plastic touch the leaves. Use sticks or pencils to prop up the sides. The goal is for the leaf surface to stay moist and not dry out.
  • Supplemental lighting after rooting (6-8 weeks) can induce a growth flush. 
  • Leave rooted cuttings undisturbed through the following winter dormant period.
     
Gardening Products
Wit and Wisdom
  • Most Japanese maples sold today are grafted, so take care not to plant them too deeply or cover the graft union with mulch.
  • Japanese maples have male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious).
  • In some regions of Japan, the leaves are preserved in salt and then tempura-fried as a sweet snack!
     
Pests/Diseases

Japanese maples do not suffer from many pests and diseases but can succumb to root rot if planted in soils with poor drainage. 
 

About The Author

Andy Wilcox

Andy Wilcox is a flower farmer and master gardener with a passion for soil health, small producers, forestry, and horticulture. Read More from Andy Wilcox

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