Japanese maples are easily one of the most elegant and stunning specimen plants you can add to your garden. There are varieties that can be grown in containers, and few of them ever reach over 25 feet tall, making them adaptable to any space. The fall colors on Japanese maples is stunning, and because of their smaller size, easier to appreciate in a small garden than a larger tree or shrub. Many varieties even look amazing all winter long with attractive bark and branch formation. They leaf out early with fresh green leaves, some of which change to reds or oranges as the season progresses. Japanese maples are available in both red and green varieties, and some varieties have reached collector status. Let’s learn how to grow Japanese maples!
Japanese Maples have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but while they have needs that need to be attended to for best growth and color, they are a tough and adaptable plant. There are more varieties than one could count, from dwarf maples for containers to upright trees worthy of a focal point in your garden. Red, green, gold or a mix of these colors are the most popular. Laceleaf Japanese maples have delicate, lacy leaves that catch the morning light, and usually a cascading form. Palmate leaf maples have larger leaves (like a “palm”) with more color variety, and tolerate wind and heat better. Some varieties can have brightly colored winter bark making them a perfect four season plant for the garden.
Here are the steps on how to grow Japanese Maples, and our top favorite varieties!
How to Grow Japanese Maples
Sun vs. Shade
Japanese Maples are shade lovers, but they do need some sun in order to get to their best color. It’s best to provide morning sun and afternoon shade, or dappled shade at most. The farther south you are, the more afternoon shade should be provided. Below is an example of leaf scorch that some maples are prone to with too much afternoon sun. Green leaf maples tend to be a little more tolerant of the sun than red leaf Japanese maples. However, leaf scorch does tend to be less obvious on a red leaf.
Best Soil for Japanese Maples
They are medium feeders, but lots of compost or organic matter should be worked into the planting hole. Then do not fertilize again until the second season. One note: Japanese maples do not do well with salt in the soil. They can handle a wider variety of soil issues, but that is deadly to them. They also require decent drainage, so don’t plant them in the lowest area of a wet garden space.
How Much to Water
Evenly moist, not soggy and not dry when young. Believe it or not, at maturity Japanese Maples can be somewhat drought resistant. Be careful not to allow them to dry out in the winter months if you live in an area that doesn’t get much rain.
Wind Problems For Japanese Maples
Obviously you can’t protect any outdoor plant from all wind, but if you can choose a more protected spot, your maple will appreciate it. Winds can dry out and brown the leaves if they are constant. If you live in a windy area, plant on the leeward side of the house for more protection. Another option is to plant your Japanese maple in a container, and then you can move it into a sheltered area when necessary.
Japanese Maple Hardiness
Most Japanese Maples are hardy down to zone 5, but they dislike overly hot environments. However, I grow my Coral Bark Maple in an inland northwest desert, in full afternoon sun. I just keep it well watered every day in well drained soil. However, towards the end of summer I do get some brown curling on the leaves. This is a trade off I’m willing to accept for this gorgeous plant! If you live in an area colder than zone 5, you can try planting a Korean maple. They are similar, but more hardy.
Pruning Japanese Maples
One of the best tips on pruning Japanese maples is to do so with restraint. You don’t want to prune too aggressively and ruin the lines of a graceful tree in one afternoon. Try this guide on pruning Japanese maples at ‘Fine Gardening‘.
Special Tips for Growing Japanese Maples
Reduce your watering in the fall for the best color. Japanese Maples grow fairly slowly, so if after a season or two you find the spot you chose isn’t working, you can dig it up and move it, they are pretty tough. Just dig a nice sized root ball and transplant it in the fall. Water it well… even if you see some stress related leaf drop, chances are it will be just fine come spring.
How to Plant Japanese Maples in Containers
Most Japanese maples are perfect for containers, and can even be used for Bonsai. The most important thing is to make sure the roots stay snug in the container, but not packed tight. This requires root pruning every 2-4 years. Simply pull the tree from the container, and prune away the outer inch or two of matted roots. Then prune away any thick, woody roots. Thats it! Now replant into the same container, or one just slightly bigger if you want the tree to grow larger. Make sure to use a potting mix that is well draining, but retains moisture.
Japanese Maple Tree Varieties
Green Japanese Maples
“Coral Bark” Japanese Maple – This variety has lovely red bark that shows well in the winter months. Leaves are green with a sight reddish edge, then turn golden in the fall. To 20 feet. A collectors maple, this variety is showing up in local nurseries more and more. You can also order it online. This is our favorite Japanese maple variety!
“Aoyagi” Japanese Maple – This maple variety has bright green leaves in summer, and yellow foliage in fall. This tree is a great complement to a Coral Bark Japanese Maple with its green winter bark. Photo by ‘Houzz‘.
Golden Japanese Maples
The “Golden Full Moon” Maple has gorgeous gold leaves that turn more red from the tips down in the fall. To 20 feet.
“Orangeola” is a semi dwarf variety that has many different looks. Starting out green in spring, it changes to purple as summer goes on. In the fall, this amazing Japanese maple turns brilliant orange! This one can be grown in the garden, or in a large container. To twelve feet tall.
Japanese Red Maples
“Dissectum Atropurpureum” – This is the common red laceleaf Japanese maple variety that you see with fine foliage and a dwarf, cascading form.
One of the best upright Japanese maple varieties is “Bloodgood”. Easy to find at nurseries, this variety grows to 20 feet with deep burgundy red, palmate leaves. This tree turns brilliant scarlet in the fall, with a deep red winter bark. A slightly smaller version at only 12 feet, is “Fireglow”.
Dwarf Japanese Maples for Containers
Our favorite Japanese maple for containers is “Bihou’, Starting out with green leaves, it turns vivid gold, orange and red in the fall. Photo by ‘Houzz‘.
Best Japanese Maples for Southern or Warmer Climates
“Beni schichihenge” – This variety is a variegated leaf with cream, green and pink, and turns to an orange golden in the fall. To 8 feet, and tolerates hot temperatures better than most. Photo by ‘HGTV‘.
“Osakazuki” Japanese Maple is a green leaf variety that grows to 20 feet. It handles more full sun than most Japanese maples and is resistant to scorch. It turns a vivid scarlet in the fall. One of the most gorgeous of all Japanese red maples.
Image Credits: Terre Verte, Royal Horicultural, BHG, HGTV, Big Plant Nursery