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In Praise of Japanese Maples


By Paul James

For years, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What’s your favorite plant”? It’s a difficult question to answer, because there are so many incredible candidates. But the other day, while pruning my Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ bonsai, I came to the realization that my favorite plant – or more specifically plant group – would have to be Japanese maples.

I’ve always been captivated by their amazing diversity in terms of leaf color and shape, range of sizes, and by their many and varied forms, whether upright or weeping. And I’ve always been impressed by how incredibly tough they are, despite their seemingly delicate appearance.

Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that they’re easy to grow, provided you plant them in the right spot to begin with. That means an area where the soil contains a decent amount of organic matter and drains well, and ideally gets just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day, or dappled light throughout the day.

Beyond that, Japanese maples don’t require that much attention. The weeping varieties do need light pruning to remove deadwood in their interior, and the upright forms may need a touch up every other year or so, but it’s best to keep pruning to a minimum. The same is true of fertilizer: Japanese maples simply don’t need much of a nutrient boost beyond a topdressing of compost twice a year, or a light application of a slow-release, low-nitrogen organic fertilizer in spring and fall.

However, because they have shallow root systems, plan on applying a thick – as in 3-inch – layer of bark mulch around the base of each tree to maintain fairly even moisture, something all Japanese maples require.

I could provide you with a long list of species and varieties of Japanese maples I adore, but I won’t. Instead, I would encourage you to discover for yourself the ones you like best, knowing that at the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.

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8 responses to “In Praise of Japanese Maples”

  1. Denise says:

    Just bought two Japanese maples for my pots! Thank you for your knowledge and your help!

  2. Dan Stahl says:

    My wife and I would love to have a Japanese maple, but have mainly full sun in our yard. The Southwood staff always seems to recommend “just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day”. So we have avoided purchasing a beautiful Japanese maple. However, when you drive around the Tulsa area there are Japanese maple trees everywhere planted in full sun all day long. Many are planted in the wide open spaces of commercial property where I know they don’t receive the best of care. So is your nursery advise of limited sun too conservative for our area?

    • Paul James says:

      We do tend to be conservative in recommending a shady site for Japanese maples, because that’s the ideal place to plant them. They’re also expensive, and we don’t want customers to be disappointed if a tree fries in the sun. However, I too have seen them growing in full sun, although by late July their leaves are often scorched. Your call.

  3. HI Paul,
    Could you recommend a specific Japanese Maple that could be grown in a large container (22")? And, could it be left outside or would it need to be brought in during the winters? I live in Tulsa.

    Thank you for your advice!

    • Paul James says:

      Honestly, just about any Japanese maple would work, so it really just depends on what you like. Consider one called coral bark. It’s beautiful, and the bark is reddish, and looks great in winter even when the tree is bare. Leave the tree out all year. It’ll be fine.

  4. Laura says:

    Hi Paul
    I’m so glad I found you on this site. I’ve missed you on HGTV, which, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot of “G” anymore. Anyway, just want to take this opportunity to thank you for teaching me so much about gardening. All of my friends and family are in awe of how much I know about gardening and I always tell them it was from watching your show. Hope you’re doing well and I look forward to more of your posts. Laura, Knoxville, TN





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