How to Select, water, prune, fertilize and grow a Japanese Maple Tree in Utah

How to Select a Japanese Maple Tree

Selecting the proper Japanese maple Tree for your garden or landscape depends on 5 factors: hardiness, location sun or shade, mature size, type lace leaf or palmatum and preferred leaf color.

Tip 1 Choose a variety that is rated to be cold hardy in your zone. If you are planting it in a pot or container above ground choose a variety that is at least two cold zones hardier than your zone. to learn more about Japanese maple cold hardiness click here

Tip 2 Determine how large you can allow your tree to grow. With a little pruning once or twice a year Japanese Maples are very easy to maintain a specific size. But if you prefer to not prune, you will want to choose a variety that will naturally only grow to the size that will work in the allotted space both height and width.

Tip 3 Where are going to plant it, sun or shade? Most Japanese Maples prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. Planting on the east side of a fence or building provides the best environment for Japanese Maples. Avoid all day full sun locations especially in southern states. Japanese Maples can live in that environment, but usually leaf scorch will occur when temperatures rise above 90 degrees and the sun is shining directly on them.

Tip 4 Japanese Maples generally come in 2 types:
Dissectum (aka weeping or lace leaf) or Palmatum (aka upright or standard).
Most common to the trade are the lace leaf types, most have red or purple leaves with a few green leafed varieties. I’m not aware of any variegated lace leaf varieties.

Palmatum types are about 60% red or purple leafed, 30% green leafed and 10% other (variegated, gold, multi-colored) . Most lace leaf types are weeping varieties, although a few upright lace leafs do exist. Inaba Shidare is a good upright red lace leaf and Seiryu is a good green upright variety.

One of the most important factors when considering which type to grow is sun exposure. The lace leaf types typically cannot torerate as much direct sun and wind as palmatum types. The leaves are much more delicate do to the thickness of the leaf and the width of the leaf lobes. Planting a lace leaf Japanese Maple in full sun is not adviced and another selection should be considered.

The upright red type varieties that are well known for their ability to tolerate sunnier locations are Bloodgood and Emperor 1.
Osakazuki and Omure yama are good green uprights with great fall color. Red Select and Ever Red are said to be the more tolerant to direct sun and Virdis and Waterfall are good green varieties for sunnier locations. Please keep in mind the mentioned varieties are more tolerant of sunnier locations, but still may show burning on the leaf edges.

Tip 5 What leaf color do you prefer? red, green or variegated. Green leafed varieties can tolerate sunnier and hotter exposure than red leafed or variegated varieties. Green leafed varieties grow faster and larger. Variegated varieties prefer shady locations.

–Fertilizing Japanese Maples–
Proper fertilization to healthy trees
Proper fertilization is one of the keys to successfully growing Japanese maples. Although Japanese Maples don’t require high amount of fertilizing, maintaining a low level of fertility throughout the season is necessary to keep your trees healthy and happy.

Fertilizing Japanese Maples at the proper time is also important. Fertilizing at the wrong time can cause damage to your tree. Avoid this common mistake at all costs.
See TIP 3
Should you use controlled release or liquid type fertilizer?
See my answers below to these common questions about fertilizing Japanese Maple Trees.

Tip 1 Maintaining a constant low level of fertility will keep your trees healthy throughout the year. Applying high levels of nitrogen is not recommended. Avoid using high N lawn fertilizer on Japanese Maples. Japanese maples look best and develop thicker stems when allowed to grow at a slower speed. Applying high amounts of nitrogen will cause excessively fast growth which will weaken the plant. Weak branches can lead to damage if you are located where icing during winter is a problem.

Tip 2 Fertilizing your Japanese maple with the proper type of fertilizer should be done either late winter while the ground is still cold, or after the last freeze in the spring. I recommend using a slow or controlled release type fertilizer. Commercially known as Polyon or Osmocote these are the most common and both work very well on Japanese maples. We use both successfully in our Japanese Maple production.
When using a slow release type fertilizer pellet type it is best to bore a hole about 6 inches deep into the soil about half way between the main trunk and the drip line of the branches. IMPORTANT: Scattering slow release on the top of the soil does not allow the fertilizer to maintain a constant moisture level inside the pellet, resulting in sporadic and possibly untimely releases. Bore several holes around the tree and divide the proper amount of fertilizer recommend by the manufacturer by the number of holes. Drop the fertilizer into the hole and fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Water around the tree and now the tree is fed for an entire year. As the tree grows the amount of fertilizer will need to be increased. Tree fertilizer spikes also work well and are easy to use. Follow recommended rates based on the tree size.

Tip 3 I only recommend using liquid type fertilizer like Miracle Grow on Japanese maples during the first summer, and only to help establish the tree. Once you see good growth you can stop liquid feeding. IMPORTANT; Do not liquid feed in late fall or early spring. Liquid fertilizers encourage Japanese Maples to grow instantly, this is not recommended as early freezes in fall and late freezes in spring will cause damage or kill your tree.

–How best to water A Japanese Maple Tree–
Watering is crutial to Japanese Maple Trees
Watering a Japanese Maple is not rocket science, but keeping adequate moisture is crucial. In the tree world Japanese maples are considered shallow rooters . Most feeder roots are within twelve to eighteen inches of the surface for well established older trees. Newly planted trees can have all their roots much shallower that that.
Japanese maples like even soil moisture. On most varieties their leaves are very thin and will dry out and burn quickly when soil moisture is not adequate.
Tip 1 If the tree is planted in the spring, newly planted trees should be monitored daily. Check soil moisture a few inches below the surface. Water every 2-3 days for the first month. Then a good watering once a week should be sufficient, but monitor it often as windy days can dry out soil quickly. If the tree is fall planted, water once a week when no rain or snow cover is provided.
Tip 2 Always provide a layer of mulch around Japanese maple Trees. This will add in reducing soil moisture loss due to evaporation. Since the roots are so shallow the sun and wind can damage the shallow roots if not protected.

–Japanese Maple Planting Instructions–
Planting Japanese Maples is really pretty basic and following general good planting practices will provide a nice home your new tree. Here are a few important planting rules to follow;
Selecting a good location based on sun exposure, drainage, soil conditions and space available as well as soil condition are the keys to providing an environment that will keep your tree healthy and happy.
Lets first talk about sun exposure:
The standard rule of thumb is Japanese Maples prefer a mostly shady location. This is true for most varieties. A few things to consider are where you live. I have seen some red laceleaf varieties do very well planted in full sun in northern states. The same varieties suffer and eventually die when planted in full sun in Oklahoma, Texas and even Kansas.

Next is soil drainage.
Japanese maples prefer moist but well draining soil. I recommend first digging the hole and filling it with water. A good location will drain within a couple hours. An ok location will drain in 6 hours. If your location takes longer than six hours to drain I would recommend choosing a different location, possibly a higher location or one with different soil conditions. If you do not have a well draining location, you can always create one by hilling up an area or creating a raised bed or planting area.
Important: Adding gravel or loose media to the bottom of a poor draining hole does not help drainage, it just means you have gravel in the bottom of a poor draining hole.
Proper soil makeup or condition:
Japanese maples do well in most types of soil. I recommend a loose media; consisting 40% fine silt or sand (usually your native soil), 20% peat moss and 40% organic compost. This mix will provide good drainage combined with good water and nutrient holding capacity.
Japanese Maples prefer a slightly acidic soil PH, incorporating 20% peatmoss will lower the PH and add some moisture retention to the soil.
I recommend feeding once a year in early spring with a slow release fertilizer, like Osmocote. I use 19-5-9, or 18-6-12. Anything close to this ratio will work just fine. Avoid liquid fertilizer once Japanese maples are established and any time after mid-summer. You want the trees to properly harden off before winter.
Allowing enough space for your Japanese maple Tree:
Be sure to consider the space available, both height and width of the planting location when choosing a tree. Most standard palmatum type varieties grow 15-20 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide. There are some smaller growing varieties that only reach 6-8 feet and work well next to buildings and under overhangs.
Laceleaf or dissectum type varieties generally grow to about 6-8 feet tall and wide. These are easier to keep smaller and pruning twice a year will help maintain their size. I recommend a light pruning once in late spring and hard pruning in mid to late winter.

–How to Prune Japanese Maples–
Techniques for pruning Japanese Maple Trees
Pruning Japanese Maples correctly is important to the overall health of the tree.
A couple commonly asked questions are: When to prune, and how hard can to prune?
Pruning Japanese maples at the incorrect time can cause major damage or possibly even kill the tree.
I recommend pruning Japanese maple trees up to two times a year. The first pruning should be in mid winter before any warmer weather has even attempted to set in. Early February is best in most states; January in southern states zones 7-10. This is a good time to do major corrective or training pruning. Prune to remove rubbing branches and branches that are growing out of proportion to the rest of the plant. You can also prune to reduce the overall size of the tree during this deep dormancy period. You can remove up to 1/3 of the overall plant size if necessary. Avoid late winter pruning and early spring pruning. Pruning at this time can trigger the plant to start growing quickly as soon as the weather begins to get warmer. Early growth is more likely to experience freeze damage, and possibly even kill the tree.
A light second pruning just after the spring flush of growth has hardened can be done to clean up any unwanted wild growth, and make the tree more presentable.
Last is where to prune:
As with all plants and trees correct pruning eliminates unsightly looking dead stems and trains the plant to look the way you would like to look.
Japanese maples have what is called opposite buds. If you look closely at one of the smaller stems you will see the smallest branches grow out of the larger branch two at a time and directly across from each other. This forms a Y looking branch only with another branch in the center which is the main branch. Think of it as a Y in a road with another road going straight, so you now have 3 roads in front of you.
When pruning Japanese Maples you want to remove the center branch and leave the two branches forming the Y. It is best to prune as close to the center of the Y as possible leaving as little stem as possible. Correct pruning will heal well and become unnoticeable quickly. You can use this method from the smallest branches to large branches. This method also forms a symmetrical growing tree

–Japanese Maple Tree Value–

Putting a value on your Japanese Maple Tree Putting a value on a Japanese Maple Tree is not as easy as one would think. Many different factors must be considered to properly calculate the replacement tree value. Separate from the actual tree value is the environmental value and the human value. When a mature Japanese Maple tree is damaged due to human neglect the replacement is sometimes not simple as finding a new tree at a local garden center. In many cases replacement trees of size and age of the damaged tree is not available. Japanese Maple Trees are highly treasured by their owners, and almost always they are the plant the owner is most emotionally attached too. This emotional attachment has monetary value and should be considered when figuring a replacing cost for a damaged tree. The environmental value should also be considered when calculating replacement cost. Many gardens and landscapes are built or developed around a Japanese Maple Tree. A mature tree develops unique character that becomes the central focal point of interest in a garden or landscape. This unique character also has value. Below is what I feel is an honest way to appraise the value of a tree damaged by neglect or by a natural disaster. As for the replacement value, a trees value is calculated by 2 factors. How important the tree was to the overall landscape, and the cost of a replacement tree of comparable size and age, if available. In most cases a tree of comparable size cannot be found so a smaller tree must be purchased. The growing cost could be determined by dividing the cost of the new tree by the age of that tree, and multiplying that amount by age of the tree being replaced. Example: if a 5 year old tree will cost you $250.00. $250.00 divided by 5 years = $50.00 growing cost per year. $50.00 per year x 18 years( or damaged tree age) = $900.00 tree cost. Then add your landscape value to the cost. Landscape value is very subjective, but Japanese Maples are usually a focal point in a landscape so if the landscape suffers because of the loss of the tree, some monetary value can and should be associated. If your landscape was professionally designed, the landscape value would be easier to justify, than a tree planted without supporting landscaping to help justify the cost of the damaged tree. Same as with a emotional value, if none of your life revolved around the tree, dont include a value for that loss. Unfortunately in most cases you will not get reimbursed for the amount you may think the tree is worth to you, but actual tree replacement cost based on the calculating method above, should be acceptable by insurance companies. You may want to contact several different retail sources for an average tree cost in your area. Just ask for the price of the largest tree available and the age of that tree.
Also be sure to include the planting cost and cost to remove the existing tree if necessary.
I hope that helps.