Japanese maple trees are one of the most sought-after ornamental trees for many gardeners. These beautiful trees come in a variety of sizes suitable for any garden and the assortment of leaf textures and colors are sure to please even the most particular gardener. The best part is, despite their delicate appearance, growing Japanese maples is quite easy.
As the name implies, Japanese maples are native to Japan where they grow in abundance in the forests of this island country. Wild Japanese maples are medium-sized trees that put on a colorful autumn display of bright crimson and yellow leaves. In the United States, gardeners can enjoy growing Japanese maples in their own gardens mainly in growing zones 5-9.
Ornamental Japanese maples range in size from large trees up to thirty feet tall, down to dwarf trees that never grow more than three feet tall. The smaller trees are ideal for displaying as the center of attention in a patio garden and they can even be grown in pots.
Any Japanese maple can be grown in a pot, but growing Japanese maples of the smaller varieties in pots is easiest for those new to caring for trees in containers.
The smaller varieties have naturally smaller root systems and will reside more happily in a container. Larger varieties, such as Bloodgood, will quickly outgrow a pot and would need to be transplanted often to larger and larger containers.
If you want to begin growing Japanese maples in pots, look for dwarf varieties such as Butterfly, Hoshi kuzu, Red Dragon, Pixie or Waterfall. There are many more dwarf varieties available also.
Next, choose an appropriate pot for growing your Japanese maple. It should be large enough for the rootball to fit comfortably inside and the pot should also provide good drainage. Plastic pots work well as they are lightweight and will not crack in freezing winter conditions. Avoid ceramic or terra cotta pots as these will crack when frozen.
Use a well draining potting soil for growing Japanese maples in pots. Japanese maples will grow well in slightly acidic soils that are rich in organic matter, and the soil absolutely must drain well. Whether you are growing Japanese maples in pots or in the ground, these plants do not like to have wet feet. They would rather be a bit on the dry side instead of too wet.
Here’s a good recipe for potting soil: http://freeplants.com/ingredients-for-potting-soil.htm. Plant your Japanese maple at the same depth it was at in the nursery pot. Avoid the temptation to plant it too deeply, and avoid piling mulch up closely around the trunk. Doing so will keep too much moisture around the trunk which can lead to significant damage to the tree.
When growing Japanese maples in containers, they may be fertilized weekly throughout the spring and into mid-summer with a half-strength liquid fertilizer. After the end of July, stop fertilizing the plant. At this time it will begin preparing itself for winter, and you don’t want to encourage new growth at this time. Tender new growth is too easily damaged by cold winter weather.
When growing Japanese maples in the ground, the rules for fertilizing will change. An in-ground Japanese maple should be fertilized only in the spring, using a fertilizer that is fairly low in nitrogen.
As mentioned earlier, Japanese maples don’t like to grow in soggy soil. Nothing short of an errant lawnmower will kill a Japanese maple more quickly than overwatering. Do your best to not baby the tree and kill it with kindness!
If you are growing Japanese maples in your landscape, they should not be watered on a daily basis. In general, rainfall is enough for the tree, but if rainfall is scant or nonexistent in the summer, go ahead and give the tree a drink weekly.
Always water the tree at the roots, avoiding sprinkling water on the leaves. If water droplets are on the leaves and the sun shines on those droplets, the sunlight will be magnified by the droplets. This will result in unsightly scorched marks on the leaves.
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If the tree is in a container, allow the soil to dry out between watering, and before watering, always test the level of soil moisture in the pot by sticking a finger down into the soil at least two inches deep. If the soil feels wet, put away the watering can. If the soil feels dry or just slightly moist and cool, go ahead and give the plant some water.
No matter in what part of the country you are growing Japanese maples, location is one of the keys to keeping them happy. Avoid planting a Japanese maple too close to a building or a sidewalk, so you won’t have to end up moving it a few years down the road when it will have outgrown that space.
Also avoid planting a Japanese maple in full sun, especially in warmer climates. Hot sun tends to cause the leaves to scorch and a tree grown in full sun will look shabby by late summer.
Ideally, try growing Japanese maples where they will receive morning sun and afternoon shade, or grow them where they will receive dappled sunlight all day. Another option is to situate the tree where it will receive direct sunlight in the late afternoon, so long as it is shaded from the hot midday sun. Japanese maples that have red leaves will tend to show more color when they receive more sunlight.
Whether you are growing Japanese maples in Illinois or Alabama, keep in mind that these are deciduous trees, meaning that they need to go dormant in the winter. Winter dormancy allows the plant to get some rest, just like sleeping allows us to rest and rejuvenate.
If the plant is not allowed to go dormant, it will eventually weaken and die. A Japanese maple should not be overwintered inside a warm house. Keep the plant outdoors, but it can be given some winter protection.
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If you are growing Japanese maples in pots, keep in mind that potted plants lose one zone of hardiness because of the cold air circulating around the pot and the plant’s roots.
Keep the potted Japanese maple outdoors, but in cold climates you can bury larger pots in the ground over winter if possible, or keep them in an area that is protected from cold, drying winds and cover the pot with leaves to provide more protection. Snow cover is especially helpful in preventing the rootball from becoming too cold.
A tree that is in a pot that holds less than five gallons of soil may also be kept inside an unheated garage or shed, away from windows. A smaller pot will not provide enough protection from the cold to survive outdoors, but it must still be kept cold enough that the plant will go dormant and stay dormant until Spring.
Japanese maples that are in the ground should always be given a blanket of mulch over their roots. The mulch will help maintain moisture levels in the soil and help prevent the roots from becoming too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
Make sure the mulch isn’t piled up around the trunk where it would keep the bark too moist and encourage disease and insect problems. Keep the mulch a few inches deep over the root zone, but no closer than four inches from the trunk.
Because Japanese maples need to go dormant, they will have a hard time surviving in climates where the weather doesn’t get cold enough for dormancy. They will also have difficulty growing in areas where the temperature drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for a length of time. However, some folks have had luck growing Japanese maples outside of the suggested growing zones of 5-9.
If you live in a zone 4 climate but you have an area in your yard that tends to stay a bit warmer than the rest of your property, you might have luck growing Japanese maples in that spot. If the plants in that corner of your yard tend to survive early frosts longer than plants elsewhere in your yard, it’s possible that a Japanese maple could survive there too.
Alternately, if you have an unheated garage or shed, you could try growing Japanese maples in pots and bringing them indoors to the unheated building once they go dormant. Do not allow the plant to dry out completely over winter. Give it some water, but not too much, about once a month to keep it from dessicating.
One problem to be aware of if you are growing Japanese maples is spring weather that arrives too early, followed by an extended cold snap. If the weather turns warm too soon, causing the trees to leaf out early, there is the danger of the tree being damaged or even killed if freezing weather returns again.
Warm spring weather causes the sap to flow up from the roots into the tree, and if this sap becomes frozen it can cause the trees’ bark to split, resulting in the demise of the tree.
We can’t do much to change the weather forecast, but if your tree has leafed out early and an extended spell of freezing weather is expected, you might try constructing a shelter around small Japanese maples to protect them from the cold, drying wind.
As added protection, keep an incandescent light bulb burning inside the shelter to maintain a higher temperature for the tree. This attempt to prevent damage to the tree would be worth the extra effort.
Whether you are growing just one Japanese maple as a specimen plant in your garden, or if you have a Japanese maple collection, these delightful trees will surely become sort of pets and will bring many years of satisfaction to their proud owners.