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Japanese Maples Are Stars of the Fall Garden

Japanese Maples Are Stars of the Fall Garden

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

The pandemic changed a lot of my plans for this year, as it did for everyone. One of those had been to go out more in our RV. Instead it spent spring and summer as a lawn ornament, and the time and money we couldn’t spend traveling were spent on the garden. I bought lots of plants, pots, and décor, and worked on a new shade garden. And I fell in love with Japanese maples. 

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The many cultivars of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) are some of the most exquisite trees there are. Foliage is usually deeply lobed, even feathery, and flutters gracefully in a breeze. Most cultivars provide four seasons of interest: spring leaves that often emerge pink, white, red, orange, or variegated, small red flowers and samaras, those winged seed pods that hang off the tree like ornaments. Lush summer foliage follows. Autumn is when the trees come into their own, changing red, orange, yellow, or purple, with amazing vibrance. In winter after the leaves have dropped, a tree’s intricate infrastructure can be seen, most stunning when the twisted or weeping branches are dusted with snow. 

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Cultivars come in all shapes and sizes, upright to weeping. Mature leaves can be green, red, burgundy, variegated or tipped in a contrasting color. Slow growers, some max out at 10 feet high (smaller when grown in a container) to 25 feet. A few, such as ‘Sango kaku’ are grown for the color of their branches. With hundreds of cultivars to choose from, your only problem will be limiting yourself to a few.

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Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’. Its branches are coral-colored. Photograph by David J. Stang, Wikimedia Commons

Japanese maples have a reputation for being hard to grow, but like roses, dahlias, and other “fussy” plants, their needs are specific. Ignore those needs and the tree will become stressed, more susceptible to pests and diseases, and not reach its potential.

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Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’. Photograph by David Ohmer, Wikimedia Commons

The big requirements are light and soil moisture. Japanese maples are native to Japan and Korea, where the climate is cool and moist, and the sunlight not as strong as in many places in the U.S. They are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, but prefer climates with cold winters. 

Most do best with full shade or morning sun. Generally, the hotter the zone, the more shade a tree needs. Too much sun can scorch the leaves. There are cultivars that can handle full sun; if that’s what you have, look for those.

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Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'. Photograph by Alex Lomas, Wikimedia Commons

While Japanese maples can handle both clay and sandy soils, they won’t do well in wet or waterlogged soils or overly dry soils. Consistent moisture is essential, especially the first year as a tree establishes. Mulch around the tree after planting, keeping the mulch away from the trunk.

When siting a Japanese maple, keep it out of areas with strong winds. As for care, the folks at recommend either not fertilizing at all or using a very light hand. Japanese maples don’t like too much nitrogen (under 15 N). They advise against fertilizing after June 1. Pruning is done in late fall or winter, as pruning during the growing season can cause a tree to bleed. 

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Acer palmatum ‘Waterfall’. Photograph by Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons 

Japanese maples are not inexpensive, as I have discovered. Even one-gallon trees start at around $45, and run into the hundreds of dollars. They live a long time and are a long-term commitment, so learning their needs and growing them properly will protect your investment and maximize your enjoyment of what will be a stunning addition to your landscape. These magnificent trees are worth the effort.

For advice on how to choose Japanese maples for your garden, watch a video of our visit with Jim Gibbs of Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground, Georgia.

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