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Blog / Japanese Maples – Easy and Beautiful

By Brenda Swagerty
Saturday, March 09, 2019

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Japanese Maples – Easy and Beautiful

Contrary to what people think, Japanese maples are quite easy to grow and care for. Knowing a few simple things about Japanese maples, in general, will help keep them looking fantastic and running at full speed. They grow slowly and can be expensive, but all in all, they are pretty easy guests to have around the house.

Did you know:  Most but not all Japanese maples are grafted?

This simply means the beautiful tree you are enjoying in your yard is actually growing on the roots of an extremely hardy Japanese maple species of a more generic type. Knowing this will help you identify and control any “suckers” that may grow from the rootstock. Suckers, growing below the graft area, need to be removed as soon as you see them because they are different from the plant you bought. If you allow them to thrive they will take over your beautiful plant and completely ruin its appearance.

Finger pruning is the best way to remove suckers and low branches that you don’t want on your Japanese maple. This is a simple technique takes seconds to complete and will create well-branched, ornamental, one of a kind masterpiece in your landscape. No tools required. 

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In the below photo you will see a new bud on a Japanese maple tree. This bud is going to open up with leaves, then in a short few weeks, it will grow into a small branch. Over time it will grow into a large branch. “But, I don’t want a branch there. Not there!” or “It’s too low on the tree or too many branches are already on this side making the tree seem uneven.” So, with a flick of my finger, I can quickly and easily brush that little bud off the tree. That one little touch will make a world of difference to the appearance of this tree over time. That little bud had every intention of becoming a full grown branch.  The photos show how soft and delicate the bud tissue is. Finger pruning will make a lifetime improvement to ANY ornamental tree. It will also save you from using hand tools to cut off developed branches that will leave scars on the trees. Brushing off small buds leaves no scar, adding more wonderment to your nearly perfect tree.

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Fertilizing a Japanese maple may not be necessary. Typical garden fertilizers can and will damage a Japanese maple very quickly. Gardening fertilizers are made to release its nutrients immediately. So, as soon as you apply it, it releases all of its nutrients at once, causing many problems from root to tip.

A bag of 20-20-20 garden fertilizer contains 20% nitrogen, 20% phosphorus and 20% potassium. As soon as the fertilizer gets wet it releases all 20% of nitrogen, and the others, at once. So, 20% of nitrogen is released to the roots immediately. Nitrogen drives greening and top growth, or new growth and leaves, of which most ornamental plants cannot grow fast enough to utilize that much nitrogen and the overload of nitrogen will kill the new growth, stems and quite possibly the entire plant.

What a Japanese maple really needs is rich, organic soil. Composted leaves and other vegetation falling to earth over years and years is just that, good rich topsoil. Understandably, not all of us have good soil in our yards, so adding compost and mulches yearly can help.

Fertilize with more organic products like fish emulsion, millorganite or other organic fertilizers that create nature-rich environments for healthy beautiful trees. And, when planting, mix composted manures and composts to your backfill, feeding the roots system slowly as they break down.

Lastly, try not to drown or bury your ornamental tree alive. Water is a good thing. But too much can be detrimental. Japanese maples do not like to stand in water. They like a well-drained, slightly elevated footing where oxygen can freely enter soil and roots. The soil should be damp and cool to the touch. Mulch is a must, hardwood or pine is recommended, at a depth of 3-4 inches, covering the entire root ball plus an additional 12 inches. Pull all mulch away from trunk circumference by at least 4 inches. Mulch piling up against the trunk will cause disease.

Japanese maples should be loved and admired. Don’t over care for them. Just give them what they need and admire them. Admire their beauty, intricacy and architectural structure. This beautiful plant did not accidentally fall into your hands. Enjoy it.

Brenda Swagerty