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Proper Pruning Reveals Specimen Japanese Maple

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Wondering how to prune Japanese maple trees?

How to prune Japanese maples begins by looking at the work as an art project. While it may take some work the first time, a cleaned up Japanese maple is like a big, living sculptured bonsai. Unfortunately, these maples tend to become tangled messes of ratty old leaves and dead branches. And often they suffer from hacked tips caused by inexperienced pruners. But, with some careful TLC, dwarf Japanese maples become spectacular garden specimen trees.

How to prune Japanese Maple trees: After Clean Up

Japanese maple after a winter clean up.

When is the best time to prune your Japanese maple?

Before you embark on pruning your tree, consider the season. That’s because the easiest time of year to renovate a Japanese maple is in winter when the branches are bare. This makes seeing the tree’s form easier. And bare branches reveal dead branches easily.

Pruning Japanese maples in early spring is also a good time. However, be careful not to damage tender newly opening buds. But if your tree has buds opening that might form unwanted branches, this is one of the easiest times to remove them this way.

Keep in mind that your tree might weep a bit when cut, especially in late winter or early spring.

Sometimes pruning in summer or fall might be necessary. We’ll get into that later though.

Japanese maples come in many forms. What’s yours?

You’re not alone if you’re confused about whether your tree is a Japanese maple or not. That’s because these trees come in many shapes and sizes. For instance, some Japanese maples are weeping, dwarf forms. So for these, the trees often look like rounded mop-heads that only grow to under 5′ tall and become quite wide. However, other Japanese maples may become tall, upright trees with more a vase shape.

Regardless of which tree form you’re facing, these steps should help you prune your tree beautifully.

What are the steps to trimming these special trees?

Proceed with pruning your Japanese maple trees using these steps. And do your work in this order:

  1. Be sure to choose the right pruning tools for trees. Hedge shears and saws-alls are not for fine pruning trees.
  2. Remove the dead material carefully. And how to prune Japanese maples trees dead material may be as simple as breaking off old grey good. In fact, you might be able to snap it out with just your hands. But, you might want to wear a pair of gloves to rake out old leaves caught up the in the branches.
  3. Then, repair bad cuts from previous pruning jobs. And follow basic woody plant pruning best practices. But if you don’ know how to do this properly, sign up for our classes!
  4. Next, make careful choices about removing crossing and rubbing branches. That’s because with these trees, some of their charm is the crossing and rubbing growth pattern.
  5. Finally, continue using proper woody pruning cuts to do any shaping. And yes, shaping is the last thing on your list!

Remove no more from your tree than is required.

As you work, step away from the tree, admire its form and consider the consequences of each potential cut. Do this before you make a cut. That’s because if you remove too much, you may damage the tree. And if you cut off the wrong branch, you can’t reattach it.

So, work slowly and with care. Make circles under and through the tree from underneath, upwards.

Pruning Japanese maples is more than making the tree pretty.

After a Japanese maple is properly pruned, it can become a spectacular twisting form. Plus, light and air and birds travel freely through its beautiful branches. But, hens can hide from predators under them. And dogs can cool themselves beneath these trees during the heat of summer.

As well, after you lift the skirts on dwarf weeping form trees especially, passersby no longer grumble about wayward branches. Moreover, the lightened hemline reveals their beautiful legs and twisting trunks.

In spring when buds open and delicate lacy leaves adorn the branches, breezes will flow easily through this bonsai form. Leaves will flutter adding movement and interest in the garden.

Japanese Maple in need of pruning

The same maple before it was pruned.

Later, when autumn arrives and the trees colorful leaves abscise from branches, they will be more inclined to fall to the floor below the tree rather than tangling in masses of accumulated dead branches. Moreover when leaves meet the soil, theyform a protective duff-like layer of organic material. And that helps protect the tree’s roots in winter, adds nutrients to the soil, and deters weeds.

And, when the tree is bare the following winter, it should require minimal pruning to maintain its fantastic new look.

Should you prune your tree in summer or fall?

While these aren’t the best times of year to prune Japanese maple trees, it might be okay. In fact, sometimes getting your gardening work done properly comes down to doing the work when you can.

So for instance, consider this mess of a tree in summer:

Japanese maple in need of pruning

This dwarf Japanese maple looks awful. Limbs are overgrown beyond the bed lines & it looks sparse — probably as a result of growing under layers of landscape fabric & heat-building rocks. Time to do some Japanese maple pruning!

So why can’t the pruning on this maple wait?

This tree is growing in bed filled with overlapping layers of landscape fabric & roll-y poll-y rocks. And those really need to be removed to improve the soil, reduce heat build up on the roots, and let water get to those plant roots.

And in this situation, I’d found someone who wanted those rocks. And they were ready to remove them in summer. But the sprawling maple made it difficult to remove the pebbles. So there was a good chance the tree would get damaged when he was pulling out the rocks. Therefore, pruning it out of the way was the safer bet. And getting rid of those hot rocks sooner rather than later was ideal.

This tree had been neglected for years. And was in desperate need of some tlc. And even though late summer/early fall isn’t the best time to prune deciduous trees, proper pruning wasn’t likely to deal a death blow to this tree.

Pruned Japanese maple tree

After a light pruning, removal of landscape fabric, pebbles over the rocks, and giving the tree a nice layer of arborist chips mulch.

Moreover, getting the landscape fabric and heat-holding rocks out of the way and adding a layer of arborist chips is almost certain to be highly beneficial. Plus, doesn’t it look a whole lot better?

This is just a light summer/fall pruning for all the reasons illustrated. How to prune Japanese maples like this one will return to a winer program in subsequent years!

Need more help learning how to prune?

If you don’t know how to make the right cuts on your trees or you need to choose tools, sign up now to get more information in our online classes!

2 comments on “Proper Pruning Reveals Specimen Japanese Maple

  1. Karen on

    Hey, you inspired me to get out there and at least take 3+ yr.s of deadwood off of one of my dwarf J. maples today! I wish I could swing it to get your expert coaching on “real” pruning, not in the budget at the moment but maybe someday. Sorry to miss you on Saturday but I’m sure the meeting will have the heck blogged out of it by the participants and we’ll hope to catch you next time (maybe not on a Saturday)!

  2. MichelleD on

    I have a lacey leaf Japanese maple tree/bush some 43 years old that needs shaping. Curious where you are located? Would luv to see some of your work. Depending on cost get you out here and get a game plan.

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