Using Japanese maples in home landscapes

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Like them or not, Japanese maples are a very common addition to many home landscapes in and around our area ( in fact I have a couple of them myself). They are among the most versatile of all the woody stemmed perennials that we commonly use in home landscapes.  Japanese maples work great as a specimen plant that easily draws attention with its foliage that ranges from “typical maple” to very frilly and highly ornate lacy foliage on certain cultivars. They also make fantastic accent plants when used in conjunction with other smaller groupings of flowering plants. They can also be used as border plants and in some cases as a group planting; I even have a couple of friends who grow them as bonsai plants along with hollies, junipers, and azaleas.

Actually we have several common maples here in the South. Our native red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), box elder maple (Acer negundo), and of course Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). There are others that we occasionally see as well.

For all their upside; however, I probably get more calls about Japanese maples either not growing well or else outright dying out than just about any other woody plant in the landscape. There are actually a number of reasons for this. Maples (at least here in the South) are fairly picky about the location in which they are growing. Without a doubt, the best and most important thing that you can do to ensure the longevity and beauty of a Japanese maple in your landscape is to plant it in an appropriate site. Most maples are shallow rooted, and they absolutely do not like hot dry areas in your landscape. I almost always see them planted out if full sun in the middle of a yard trying to grow in our hard packed heavy clay soils, and almost always in this type of setting they struggle just to survive. By the same token, you don’t need to plant them near septic field lines or water pipes and hydrants because their shallow and expansively growing root system can invade and clog field lines.

They prefer a moist well-drained area that is high in organic matter content (think about areas in the woods where you usually see maples growing). Sunlight exposure is very important to Japanese maples and is one of the most tricky things to get right. In more Northern climates, they will prefer full sun; however, here in the deep South they certainly need protection from the hot brutal west afternoon sunshine. Here they are partial sun to partial shade plants. Again, this is a difficult thing to manage because too much direct western sun can literally cause the Japanese maple to cook in the summer sun and leads to stress and ultimate decline while too much shade can cause the tree to be much slower growing than usual and can actually cause the frilly red-leafed cultivars to be more green than red in their foliage color. In most cases they will require a little supplemental watering during our hot dry summers, and a good layer of pine straw or other mulch will certainly help them to acclimate a little better.

When planting a Japanese maple into your landscape, the next most important thing to consider (after selecting the appropriate location) is how to plant it. For many of us that means dig a hole, cram the tree in it, pack it down with our foot, and wait for it to grow. It is actually a little more complicated than that. There is an old saying that goes “never put a $50 plant in a $5 hole.” I usually recommend planting smaller caliber plants and letting them adjust and grow as opposed to planting extremely large sized trees that give us “instant gratification” so to speak. No matter what size tree you do plant, however, make the hole two to five times as wide as the rootball, and plant it at the same depth as the rootball (not to deeply since the roots need to be able to take in oxygen as well as nutrients). Always soak the entire containerized rootball in water prior to planting to fully saturate the rootball with water because dried out potting media can actually repel water as opposed to soaking it up. Water the tree again during planting to help eliminate air pockets in the hole, and obviously remove and strapping materials or tags that are attached to the container. As a final step, gently firm the soil around your new tree and apply mulch around it to help conserve moisture and to help protect the shallow root system from damage from the hot summer sunshine. While fall is the best time to plant them, with a little extra “TLC” ( and that don’t mean just the day you plant it) containerized plants can be successfully planted most any time of the year.

They really have relatively few pest problems if we do everything right getting them established. As with all maples, they are prone to get aphids which are small piercing sucking type insects that can be fairly easily controlled with an appropriate insecticide application but usually don’t do significant long-term damage. Scale insect is another occasional insect that gets on them and are best controlled with properly timed application of a light horticultural oil spray. One serious insect problem – and one of the very few that can outright kill them are the borers. These insects enter the lower stem of smaller thin barked trees and disrupt the vascular system within the tree. The best bet for preventing borer damage is to maintain a vigorous healthy tree. They are very difficult to control with insecticides and often by the time we notice that they are present, it is too late to save the tree anyway.

If you get them started off on the right foot, Japanese maples over time seem to be able to adapt to some less than optimal growing conditions. In fact, if they are properly planted and taken care of in their early years there is no reason that Japanese maples can’t make a great addition to your home landscape for many years to come.