Want to prune your Japanese maple tree, but don’t know where to start? These handy tips will help you create a healthy tree that looks gorgeous.
We’re having an unseasonably warm spring, so I’ve been taking advantage of the nice weather to kick my garden into shape. I’ve been doing a ton of weeding, mulching, and planting in my shade garden. Spring is the perfect time to prune Japanese maple trees, before the buds start to break into leaves. Without the leaves in the way, you’re able to see the shape of the tree itself and guide it to create the look you want.
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The weeping Japanese maple in our backyard needed some serious help. Our house was a rental before we bought it, so no one had taken care of this tree properly for years! This is my first time working with this type of tree, and I was scared to start hacking at it. I decided to take a class on pruning Japanese maples at our local nursery, and wanted to share with you all the helpful tips I learned!
This poor tree is a mess! The canopy is so dense, the branches underneath are all dead from lack of sunlight. The first thing I did was to trim away the dead branches. In the spring, it’s really easy to see which ones are alive because they are starting to bud.
You want to cut at the junction between the dead branch and the closest healthy one, making sure to leave the “collar” intact. Leaving this little stub will allow the tree to heal quicker than if you cut it flush with the branch. Smaller branches will just snap right off, but larger ones should be cut with sharp bypass pruning shears.
After all the dead branches have been cleared away, you will want to look for any branches that are crossing and rubbing against each other. This can create wounds in the bark that can invite insects or disease to infect the tree. Try to visualize how the tree will look with each branch removed, and keep the one that you think would look best.
In this case, it was easy to decide which branch to cut. To keep the form of a weeping Japanese maple tree, you should remove any branches that cross the midline of the tree. From this zoomed out shot, you can see that the top branch crosses the center line.
Since that branch was a little too big for my handheld bypass pruning shears, I went with the bigger bypass loppers for extra leverage. If you need to cut branches bigger than an inch and a half or so in diameter, you will want to get a pruning saw. When using the saw, be sure to make cuts both above and below the branch at the collar. If you try to saw from the top only, it will tear the bark underneath when the heavy limb gives way.
Now that the problem branches have been cut, you can move on to the aesthetics of the tree. Take your time with this, and only make a few cuts at a time. You can always prune more, but you can’t add branches back on! Some things you want to take into consideration when shaping the tree:
- Remove branches that are shooting straight up or growing at a right angle
- Work from the bottom up and from the inside out
- Create layers of branches and remove ones that are interrupting those layers
- Keep enough leaves covering the trunk to protect against sunscald
- Look at the tree from all angles. Removing a branch on one side may make it look worse on another side.
Here’s my tree now with the leaves starting to grow out. It looks so much better! There are a few spots I’m hoping will fill in a little bit more to create an even canopy. Our son loves to use this tree as his “hideout,” and the extra coverage would make him almost invisible! I’m kinda jealous that he has such an awesome place to read and relax.
I hope these tips will help you create a Japanese maple tree worthy of any Japanese garden. I can’t wait to see what this one will look like after a summer growth spurt!
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