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Beginner's Guide to Japanese Maples

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Do you own a coveted Japanese Maple tree or are you thinking of getting one for your garden or yard as a beautiful focal point? When my father retired, our cousin, Cindy Morgan offered him Japanese Maple trees for his retirement gardening project. She specializes in raising and breeding Japanese Maples and invited us to her beautiful home, where she had several trees left over from her nursery. Through our informative conversation during our visit, she offered an impromptu Beginner’s Guide to demystifying the Japanese Maples.

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Maples

In 1986, while in college taking horticulture classes, Cindy took a field trip to the nursery of Shorty Allen. He was a master graftsman and well-known for his work. He demonstrated how to graft Japanese Maples and she was hooked. He taught Cindy a lot about grafting and gardening in general. Today, Cindy has 50 types of Japanese Maples planted throughout her huge garden. There are over 200 varieties of Japanese maples. Some are weeping and some grow upright. Palmate leaves are typical for trees; or they can have variegated, or thread-like leaves.

Crimson Queen Japanese Maple

Angela: How should I care for a Japanese Maple?

Cindy: Japanese Maple varieties can be weeping or upright in growth habit. The leaves can be palmate – much like the native Big Leaf maple in shape but smaller in scale, or the leaves can be dissected and thread-like. Some varieties are green, some mottled in green, white and pink, and others are shades of red or orange.

  • Plant Japanese Maples in a well-drained area. Slow draining and puddling around the tree can promote root rot. Take the tree out of the pot and place into the planting hole. Don’t disturb the root ball. Cover with soil and water well to get all the air bubbles out of the planting hole.
  • Water the new planting with B1 or fish fertilizer (which has B1 in it) to promote root growth and ease transplant shock. Water the rootball only. If you have an irrigation system, water the tree in the early morning about 3 a.m. so it has time to dry the leaves off before the sun hits them. Watering the leaves mid-afternoon, during a hot summer day, will defoliate and kill the plant. Water deeply, at least once a week, during the summer for the first growing season.
  • Japanese Maples grow in zones 5 through 8 in sun to partial shade. They like a ph of 4 to 6.5 (acid to garden loam). Japanese Maples also do well in containers on a deck or patio.

Seiryu Japanese Maple

Angela: Wow! That’s a lot to take in. Do you graft Japanese Maples too?

Cindy: Yes. I started a wholesale nursery in 1988 and grafted Japanese Maples until I closed the business in 2011. My son also grafts. Together we would graft between 8,000 and 10,000 trees a year. We sold them as tree ‘liners’ locally and across the country. Liners are trees grown from seed to about pencil thick in small 4” or 2.5 x 2.5 x 4.5” pots.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple

Angela: Why did you graft them and not just raise the trees from seed?

Cindy: Grafting is a form of asexual propagation. I can’t be sure what the parents are – of a seedling tree. It might end up being a nice tree, but when I graft a ‘scion’ of an existing tree to an ‘understock’ tree, I am going to get an exact clone of the tree I took the scion wood from. When I graft, I’m connecting the cambium of one tree to another. Think of the center wood (called the pith) as the bones of the tree. Surrounding that is a little super highway of cells (cambium) that carry food and water from the leaves and from the roots, up and down the tree for growth. The cambium layer is just under the bark of the tree.

Viridis Japanese Maple

Mikawa yatsubusa Japanese Maple

Shishigashira Japanese Maple

Koto no ito Japanese Maple

My yard of Japanese Maples

I hope I’ve encouraged you to try a Japanese Maples in your garden and/or yard, and thanks for taking a tour of my gardens.

Cindy’s Personal Accent

2 Archived Comments

Cathy Garrard July 22, 2013

hi, I have a Japanese Maple that I just planted this spring. I purchased from a vender on Ebay. It leafed out really nicely and was really doing well, untill it got hot weather. Now it is shedding it’s leaves and they are withering away. I am so afraid I will loose it. What can I do???

  • Angela July 22, 2013

    First – That little Japanese maple has a limited reach for its roots. It will need extra water during the summer months. It will benefit the tree to give it a weak solution of fish fertilizer several times this summer also. Do not water a maple tree from the top, soaking the leaves. When water droplets lay on the leaves during the hot sunny summer days, the suns rays magnify thru the water and burn the leaves. If you have a sprinkler system, watering should be done in the wee hours of the morning to allow the leaves to dry before the sun comes out. So, you can burn the leaves by lack of water and by watering too late in the day. If you just planted the tree, possibly in full sun and it spent it’s days at the nursery in the shade and then in the dark as it was shipped to you, the tree needs to acclimate to its new home. Create some make-shift shade for the tree. It is in shock because it is defoliating and shade couldn’t hurt. Morning sun is ok. Mid-day and afternoon sun you’ll want to block. Park a wheelbarrow near the tree for shade. Create some shade with a box or a baby gate. Come up with a full shade or slatted shade solution for a few weeks. Look at how you planted the tree. Did you mound the soil up around the base or create a bowl around the base of the tree. Water will shed off the mound, and the bowl method will put the water right where you want it. I’m guessing here, but I think you might have a watering problem. Cindy

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