A Japanese maple tree could be the perfect addition if you’re looking for a gorgeous, smaller tree to add to your landscape.
Japanese maple trees are one of the most popular trees in Japan, and for a good reason. They are known for their vibrantly colored foliage and can be shaped to grow in many beautiful forms. With over a thousand species, Japanese maples can be planted in zones 4-9 and can grow anywhere from 2-30 feet tall.
Although established Japanese maples are low-maintenance, they require specific conditions and care to thrive until they are sufficiently acclimated. This article will discuss how to plant and grow a healthy Japanese maple successfully.
What Is Japanese Maple?
Japanese maples are slow-growing trees native to southeast Korea, central Japan, and South Japan. Despite its natural habitat, the Japanese maple is a sought-after landscape plant in parts of the United States. Most varieties succeed in zones 5-8.
Japanese maple trees can be pricey due to how long they take to grow. To minimize the expense, you can choose a more common variety and look for a young tree.
Planting Japanese Maple Trees
Before you shop for your Japanese maple tree, you’ll need to figure out which varieties thrive in your growing zone. Although most do well in zones 5-8, some species were designed to plant in zones 4 or 9, and others will only tolerate one of the recommended growing zones.
(To check which zone you’re in, visit the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map.)
When you’re ready to purchase your tree, your best bet is to visit your local greenhouse or garden center first. You’ll be more likely to get assistance from a knowledgeable employee who can recommend which type of Japanese maple works best for the growing conditions.
Once you have your tree, here’s how to plant it:
Step One: Find a Spot
Japanese maple trees can be picky when finding the best location on your property. According to the University of New Hampshire’s Extension, the ideal spot is somewhere protected by the harsh winter winds that won’t be too hot or dry in the summer.
Try to find somewhere with dappled shade since their leaves are prone to scorching in direct sunlight. (You can learn about 10 evergreen trees that like shade here).
In terms of soil, Japanese maples strongly prefer well-draining, acidic soil that contains a lot of organic matter. Those planted in poor soil grow significantly more slowly and are prone to stress.
Step Two: Dig a Hole
The hole should be the same height as the root ball and twice the width.
Step Three: Plant the Tree
Carefully remove your Japanese maple from the container it came in. To loosen up the soil, squeeze the sides of the container so the tree slides out easily.
Once out of the pot, look at the roots. If the tree is not root-bound, there’s no reason to disturb the roots. If the roots are tightly circled in the shape of the pot, you can use a sharp, clean knife to cut an “X” across the bottom of the roots and a few vertical slices on the sides. This will free the roots and allow them to grow into the new soil.
Set the plant down in the hole, ensuring that the trunk flare (where the trunk flares out and connects to the root system) is an inch above the soil level. Then, fill the hole using native soil and the tree’s original soil. As you add soil, gently tamp it down without packing it too tightly.
Step Four: Water
Water your tree thoroughly immediately after filling the hole. The soil will naturally settle, so you may need to add more soil afterward. Water the tree again the day after planting it.
Step Five: Mulch
Since Japanese maples have a shallow root system, mulch is integral in retaining moisture. It also helps to keep weeds at bay and provides some insulation for the roots during cold weather.
When mulching any tree, leaving about 4 inches of space around the trunk is crucial to maximize airflow and prevent the bark from rotting. Spread the mulch in a wide circle around the maple’s trunk in a 3-inch thick layer.
Watering Japanese Maple Trees
Japanese maple trees should be watered according to their age and the climate in your area. Your tree will need to be watered the most during its first year while the roots establish themselves. Improper watering is why most Japanese maples don’t make it the first year after planting.
During the first spring, summer, and fall, your tree will most likely need at least 10 gallons of water each week. Kansas State University Extension advises watering your Japanese maple slowly to allow the roots to absorb the moisture.
To do this, you can drill a hole into a large bucket, fill it with water, and set it down on top of the soil where the roots are. Let the water trickle out for a bit, then move the bucket to another spot above the roots and repeat.
While weekly waterings tend to work for most people, you shouldn’t rely on this schedule. Remember that Japanese maples want their soil to be moist but not soaked. Each week, stick a finger into the dirt by the tree trunk. If the soil feels wet, wait a couple of days and check again.
When winter arrives during your tree’s first year, you can water it monthly as long as the ground is not frozen.
A young tree can take a few years to be fully established. Until then, you’ll need to water it regularly in the absence of rain. During the second and third growing seasons after its planted, plan on checking your Japanese maple every 10-14 days to see if it needs water.
Fertilizing Japanese Maple Trees
It’s unnecessary to fertilize a Japanese maple tree that has just been planted since the root system likely won’t be able to absorb nutrients during its first year. Most people don’t fertilize their Japanese maples at all – only when needed.
If it has been at least one year since you planted your tree and you notice symptoms such as very slow growth or a deficiency in the soil. To check the health of your soil, you can purchase a test kit at your local plant supply store.
Pruning Japanese Maple Trees
The hardest part about owning a Japanese maple tree will be keeping it healthy until it’s established. Once the tree is fully acclimated to your landscape, it requires minimal upkeep.
Aside from removing dead branches as needed, you can trim your Japanese maple tree to achieve the form you’d like it to have. Minor pruning can be done any time, but heavy pruning should be done just before the growing season starts, while the tree is dormant.
A good rule for pruning Japanese maples is to keep the branches in separate layers that aren’t rubbing against each other. You may also want to remove any branches that are growing out of form, such as ones that are sticking up vertically.
Do Japanese Maple Trees Need To Be Pruned Every Year?
Pruning your Japanese maple tree is not required at all, but many experts believe that light, regular trimming is good for the health of a young tree. For the most part, however, regular pruning is done for aesthetic purposes.
Many gardeners prefer their trees to have a particular shape, which will be easier to maintain if you start while it’s young and prune yearly.
Japanese Maple Tree Propagation
Several methods exist to propagate Japanese maples:
- Seed propagation
- Stem cuttings
- Softwood cuttings
- Hardwood cuttings
Most of the available propagation methods require specialized techniques, knowledge, and experience and might be difficult for casual home gardeners. Thus, the most popular way with a high success rate is propagating by seed.
You can collect Japanese maple seeds in the fall when the seed pods turn brown and start falling off the tree. The seeds are connected to “wings,” which you can remove before you plant or store the seeds. If you don’t plan on using them right away, keep the seeds in a cool, dark place.
About 100 days before you want to plant your tree, soak the seeds in hot water for 24 hours to soften the hard outer coating. Next, drain the water and place the seeds in a plastic bag containing a mix of sand and peat. Water it so that it is moist but not soggy. Then, place it in the refrigerator for 100 days. You can remove the seeds from storage and plant them outside during the growing season.
Japanese Maple Tree Diseases & Pests (Plus Remedies)
Most Japanese maple trees aren’t susceptible to many pests or diseases. In the unlikely event that your tree is preyed upon, some of the likely offenders include:
- Scale: These armored scale insects are commonly found on the trunk and branches of trees, where they feed on parenchyma cells underneath the bark. Severe infestations can lead to branches dying off, a thinning tree canopy, and an overall health decline. To manage, prune and dispose of infested twigs and branches. You can try systemic insecticides in the soil, which may or may not help. Scale is difficult to eradicate in trees.
- Aphids: Aphids are small green or brown insects that dine on new growth and leave a sticky sap-like substance behind. Light infestations can be removed by showering the affected area with a forceful spray of water. For heavier infestations, horticultural oil is recommended.
- Anthracnose: This fungal disease is common in shade trees and presents as leaf spots, curling leaves, and leaf drop. Fortunately, the condition should not affect the tree’s health and most likely won’t need treatment.
Japanese maple trees may seem like more trouble than they’re worth to some people. But if you have the proper growing conditions and are diligent with watering in the first year, you’ll have an easy, gorgeous tree in the yard to enjoy for as long as you live there.
Japanese maple might make a good addition to a Japanese garden (which you can read more about here).
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About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.