Pruning Your Japanese Maple

One of the loveliest trees, Japanese Maples adds beauty to almost any landscape. The Japanese maple is my logo in my design business, and as a graphic, I could prune it however I wanted.

My maple is a cut leaf maple, but there are many varieties of the gorgeous trees, about over three hundred varieties. Some can be maintained without pruning, but others, like the cut leaf, should be pruned to enhance the appearance and keep the tree in the best of health.

The video for which I provided the link will give you an idea how to maintain your tree. It shows the proper way to prune and train the plant, very similar to what I describe in my tips. This graphic also illustrates the procedure and gives valuable tips.

Image found here.

Recommended Steps Pruning

All maple before and after images are from the website of Steve Pirus, Certified Arborist and WSU fellow Master Gardener. His business is in Vancouver,Washington, and if he is responsible for these maples trim jobs, he is quite good. I did not ask my friend the grower to go through the steps of pruning, because he was the one a few weeks back I was visiting in the hospital, so I searched out an arborist I felt did a comparable job. The numbered tips that I provided are what I do when pruning a Laceleaf Japanese maple myself.

Tip 1

Examine the tree’s form. Visualize what you hope to accomplish. You are aiming for balance. Not symmetry, but balance. Equal weighting all around.  This may be achieved by an unequal number of branching, but the overall appearance will give a sense of balance. If major pruning is to be done, think of it as a three-year plan.  This way the tree is not overly stressed. I know my logo is only a drawing, but it gives an idea what I am talking about. If you draw a line down the center between the trunks, you have an even weighting, roughly. Many more branches are on one side but the heavier branch on the right seems to balance it out. I did not plan this while drawing it in Illustrator, it kinda just happens by my design training. I do not consciously think about the rules.

Tip 2

You next step is to get down on all fours and crawl under the  tree. Sorry about this, but you have to do it. You start down below to remove the older, ground touching branches. They must be removed to start exposing the trunk. Use a hacksaw or handsaw for the larger branches. Use a good set of pruners for the smaller branches. Make sure both are clean and sterilized in a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water).  Cut away any dead or wayward branches. By wayward, I mean straight, parallel, vertical, crossing or rubbing. After a few lower branches are removed, get up , step back and observe. Re-visualize. Time to get your tree in balance.

Tip 3

Go back under the tree again. Start removing on the other side from where you started. When balanced, start moving up the truck to expose more visually and open up the composition. Think of this as art, because a properly trimmed tree really is an art. Take your time and think before cutting. Once a branch is cut, this tree will take a long time to fill in an improperly cut void. If you are not sure, stand up again, step back and imagine what it would look like with your next branch missing.

Tip 4

What you are doing here is Crown Raising. That is a technique for when you expose more of the trunk by removing the lowest branches. Once you feel enough of the trunk is visible, you can start the next step of crown thinning.
Crown thinning involves removing branches and leaves to allow in more light and air. You want to expose the form and structure of the tree, but in such a manner that it is done with a light touch. See the above After Image. A very light hand was used.

Tip 5

These instructions are for trimming after the maple has fully leafed out in spring, but it is best to trim when the tree is dormant to avoid sap loss and excessive stress to the tree. But, it is often easier to trim for a beginner if the tree is in leaf.
Sealing the wounds. There is different thought on this. Japanese Maple are thin barked trees, but I usually do not seal wounds. The tree accomplishes this naturally for the most part. But in the case of insect, carpenter ant or woodpecker damage, where rot has set in, the nurseryman will seal these wounds. Other than that, he usually lets the tree to its own devices. And he cuts and trims a lot of trees!

Tip 6

Do not plant them so close to the house like in the two images above. It does nothing for the aesthetics of the tree. Look how natural and beautiful the first after photograph is out in a park like setting. This tree is near the house most likely judging from the image, but it was brought out and away. Much nicer.

The Video

The five-minute video can be found very small on the site above, but it opens full screen from the original source with this link in the same viewing window. If you want to return to my post hit the back button in your browser, and back you will come.

Please go to My Weeds Are Very Sorry. They’ve promised not to do it again. Laurrie has trimmed her Japanese Maple up in Connecticut. And what a great job she has done. Take it from her, it was not as hard as you think. Many thanks go to her, for her acknowledgement and thanks.

Update to Carol’s Comment.

How I see these maples in the landscape. Remember Cousin It from the Addam’s Family?

Put a Bolo hat on these guys and watch them scurry across the yard.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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26 Responses to Pruning Your Japanese Maple

  1. Thankyou so much for all this great information. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. I have 2 maples that will need pruning eventually and so many of the maples in the gardens near me look like your before pictures. I want mine to look like your after photos!

    • When they are trimmed well, they look like they belong in a real Japanese garden. The Japanese take gardening to a whole new level in their artistry of form and texture, light and shadow, restraint and purposeful siting.

  2. Excellent post! I have on my list of planned posts one about Japanese Maples. I have 20 maples now (and hope to get more)! I plan to link to your post when I do my maples post. I’m waiting for fall color to show up (which usually happens about December in my Texas garden). Always amazes me when I see pics of Japanese maples in full sun. We could never get away with that in TX — fry city!

    • I would be honored to have you link to my post. When I spec the maples, I always aware of wind. That is most detrimental to them. But, I do try to site them on an east facing location to minimize the harsh south and west sun. North is Ok, but they never color as nicely.

  3. Chris says:

    I’d like to invite you to join the a garden blog game. The rules are:
    1. Inform who invited you
    2. List 10 things you like to do
    3. Invite another 10 bloggers to do the same.
    Hope you enjoy it.

  4. tina says:

    All I do is crown raise here-a big job for my big trees. The J. maples are always a pleasure though because they are so small right now. Great tips. I love a properly pruned tree no matter what kind it is. People usually have no idea how to do it.

    • Thanks for liking the tips. The links are really helpful and I hope people get a chance to see the video. You are right about the Japanese maples, being small makes it so much more manageable. I work with professional tree trimmers from the tree nursery, so I am lucky not to have to trim any of my big trees. The poor departed maple was the only one I was trimming at home.

      The guys make me trim the ones on the job site. This is because I have a good eye for seeing the finished form. Also, I can spot good structure easily, so they hand me the pruners on these little maples. I think they like to see me in the dirt, so they are not the only ones to go home looking filthy at the end of the day. Ha Ha.

  5. Jennifer says:

    My older Japanese Maple did not fair well this summer. I think I let it get a bit too dry. I will definitely have to give it a trim. Great tips!

  6. Those are great before and after pictures. I wish I could have a maple. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can grow them locally. Even if we could, my little strip of soil can only hold a handfull of trees. I will keep your tips for my other trees, though. Thanks.

    • I know what you mean. J. Maples are good for small areas, but they need the right winter conditions. It is too bad not everywhere can have them. They are so beautiful, especially in Fall. The young Bloodgoods get the most amazing color of red.

  7. Thanks so much for the “before and after” pictures — that’s very clear and very helpful. We struggle with Japanese Maples here (usually they are short lived). But the tips are good and I think could be applied to some of our lesser substitutes. I’m partial to weeping yaupon and I think your pruning tips could apply. Thanks again!

    • All weeping trees benefit by careful pruning. They get so top heavy that they need to be pruned for their health. This is what I most wanted people to realize. In our area, winter ice gets many of them if they are overgrown.

  8. One says:

    Donna, The information is very useful. Looks like many others think so too. Thank you for sharing. I do not have a maple tree but would try to implement the techniques on my other trees. I guess I can’t do any worse than the lawn mower man. 🙂

  9. Laurrie says:

    This was a huge help, and I followed the instructions, with grateful credit to you and the video, as you can see here:

    I want to thank you for helping me finally figure out how to do this properly. Great post!

  10. Cat says:

    So glad you did this post. I’ve just added two weeping japanese maples this year and wasn’t sure how to trim them up when the time comes. Also, love the before and after pictures. This is definitely a “keeper.” Thanks!

  11. Laurrie says:

    Thanks, Donna, for putting in my link as an update to your post…. and for your encouragement after seeing what I did with my maple. It helps to know I did it right!

    • I am making sure others see what you have done as well. It gives them the idea of doing it themselves. I am the first one to suggest professionals since I work with so many, but I found trimming Japanese Maples to be an easier tree to work on as long as you are cautious in branch removal selection. Since they are relatively small much more manageable.

  12. Another great post! I have a lovely weeping Japanese Maple… I have often thought of opening it up this way, but just never have the heart to change its natural form… though you may have convinced me! ;>)

    • Well you can always hire a professional, but be wary of those like mowerman. I hope you give it a try.Take off a few lowers branches and see the improvement. I see so many maples that look like Cousin It from the Addam’s family. Just throw a bolo hat on them and they can just scurry across the landscape at will.

  13. I really like your Cousin It comparison. Just put some dark shades and a beret on the maples and you’d have a hard time telling them apart!

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