How To Trim A Japanese Maple

May 1, 2024
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Pruning Japanese Maples for Beginners

Japanese maples are exquisite trees that can add a touch of elegance to your garden throughout the seasons. They can be used as a centerpiece for Atlanta area landscapes due to their rich color in the fall.

Their delicate leaves, vibrant fall colors, and unique branch patterns make them a favorite among many garden enthusiasts. This guide will help beginners learn how to trim and maintain Japanese maples to enhance their natural beauty.

Understanding Japanese Maple Varieties

Japanese maples come in various forms, but the two most common types are:

  1. Upright, Understory Tree (Acer palmatum and cvs.): These are taller, upright trees often found in garden landscapes.

  2. Japanese Laceleaf Maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum and cvs.): These are smaller, weeping trees typically used as focal points in gardens.

The Importance of Proper Pruning

Japanese maples under 15 years old often produce thin, unattractive growth known as “buggy whips.” Impatient pruning to create an open look can worsen the issue. It’s best to leave the tree unpruned for as long as possible. Over time, the whips will thicken, develop lateral branches, and transform into appealing scaffold limbs.

Timing is crucial when it comes to pruning your Japanese maple. Proper timing ensures the health of the tree and promotes its overall beauty. Here’s an expanded explanation of when and why you should prune your Japanese maple:

When is the best time to prune a Japanese Maple?

Best Time for Pruning: Winter is often considered the best time to prune Japanese maples. This is typically done during the last frost of the year, usually in late winter or early spring. Pruning during this period offers several advantages:

  • Clear Visibility: With the leaves gone, the tree’s branch structure becomes clearly visible. This makes it easier to assess the tree’s overall shape and identify branches that need pruning.

  • Dormant Tree: During the winter months, Japanese maples are dormant. Pruning during dormancy minimizes the risk of stressing the tree or stimulating excessive new growth.

  • Less Disease Risk: Since the tree is not actively growing, there’s a reduced risk of diseases entering freshly cut wounds.

Avoiding High Temperatures:

Temperature Consideration: It’s crucial to avoid pruning your Japanese maple in hot weather, especially when temperatures exceed 80°F (27°C). This is particularly important if your tree is located in full sun. Here’s why:

  • Sun Scald Prevention: Removing too many leaves and branches during hot weather can expose the tree’s thin, previously shaded bark to direct sunlight. This can lead to a condition known as sunscald, where the bark becomes damaged due to intense heat and sun exposure.

  • Reduced Stress: Pruning during hot weather can stress the tree, as it may struggle to cope with both the loss of foliage and the challenges of high temperatures.

What to Use to Trim a Japanese Maple

To trim a Japanese maple, we recommend using pruning shears and loppers for the task. Unlike household scissors, these tools make precise and clean cuts that promote faster healing.
You can find a wide selection of pruning tools at most garden centers or plant nurseries. We also offer pruning saws and long-reach pruners to ensure a thorough and professional tree care service for thicker or hard-to-reach branches.

an upright japanese maple

Trimming Upright Japanese Maples

  1. Runing Strategy for Upright Japanese Maples:
    To ensure the optimal growth and appearance of your upright Japanese maples, follow these expert pruning tips:

  2. Start from the Bottom and Work Inside Out:
    When pruning, working systematically is crucial. Begin at the tree’s base near the center and gradually move towards the outer branches. This step-by-step approach ensures a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing result.

  3. Remove Dead or Problematic Branches:
    Inspect your tree for any deadwood or branches that disrupt its shape. Using the right tools, such as pruning shears for smaller branches and loppers for larger ones, carefully cut away these unwanted branches. Deadwood branches are typically grey, brittle, and leafless during warm seasons.

  4. Thinning for Optimal Growth:
    To encourage healthy branch growth, thin the tree by removing overlapping branches. Adequate spacing allows branches to thrive without competing for resources. Be sure to maintain a balanced look while thinning your tree. Overlapping branches can lead to bark damage and susceptibility to diseases or pests.

  5. Guiding New Growth Towards Desired Directions:
    Keep an eye on emerging tree buds, as they often develop into dominant branches. Gently guide these buds by pressing them in the desired direction with your fingers. Alternatively, you can use your fingernails to remove buds that may cause overgrowth or interfere with the tree’s shape. Japanese maple leaf buds are typically small, red, and protrude from the tree branches.

a laceleaf japanese maple being pruned

Pruning Laceleaf Japanese Maples

Pruning laceleaf Japanese maples requires a specific approach to maintain their unique beauty. While some steps overlap with pruning upright maples, there are essential differences to consider. Here’s a step-by-step guide to properly prune laceleaf Japanese maples:

1. Start with Basic Pruning:
Begin your laceleaf Japanese maple pruning process by addressing common pruning principles similar to those used for upright maples:

  • Remove Deadwood and Overlapping Branches: Inspect the tree and eliminate any dead or unhealthy branches and those that overlap or disrupt the tree’s natural shape. Employ the appropriate pruning tools for the task.

  • Guide Emerging Buds: Watch for emerging buds on your laceleaf maple. Gently guide these buds in the desired direction by applying light pressure with your fingers. Remove any buds that may lead to undesirable overgrowth or interfere with the tree’s overall appearance.

2. Separate the Branch Layers:
Laceleaf Japanese maples have intricate, twisting branches that contribute to their unique charm. To enhance their appearance and maintain their structure:

  • Identify and Trim Misaligned Branches: Carefully inspect the tree’s branches to identify any that have grown above or below their main branches and have twisted into other main branches. Trim these misaligned branches to maintain the integrity of each layer.

  • Remove Branches with Awkward Angles: If you notice branches that curve at awkward angles, consider pruning them to improve the tree’s aesthetic appeal and overall structure.

3. Create a Veiled Top:
One of the distinctive features of laceleaf Japanese maples is the protective top layer that resembles a shell. To achieve this characteristic look:

  • Focus on the Center and Sides: Avoid cutting the top of the maple tree. Instead, concentrate your pruning efforts on the center and sides to preserve the tree’s natural shape. This approach maintains the laceleaf maple’s signature appearance.

4. Transplant If Necessary:
If your laceleaf Japanese maple outgrows its current location, it’s essential to address the issue appropriately:

  • Consult a Professional Landscaper: If your laceleaf maple becomes too large for its space, do not resort to excessive pruning or cutting down the top, as this can harm the tree’s health and aesthetics. Instead, hire a professional landscaper experienced in tree transplantation to relocate the tree to a more suitable area where it can thrive.

  • Caution with Large Trees: For larger laceleaf Japanese maples with a trunk diameter exceeding 2 inches (5.1 cm), it is strongly recommended to seek the expertise of a professional arborist for the transplanting process. This ensures the tree’s successful relocation and minimizes potential damage.