Master The Art Of Pruning Your Japanese Maple With These Tips

December 20th, 2013

Of all things in my garden, I think one of the things that make me really nervous is pruning Japanese Maples.

Acer Palmatum Shigitatsu Sawa (Japanese Maple)

Acer Palmatum Shigitatsu Sawa (Japanese Maple)

Any other shrub or perennial I feel confident that if I did it wrong it would bounce back and the worst thing would be to be without a few flowers. But if I prune my Japanese Maple wrong, it would lose its wonderful shape and could I fix it?
The other thing to note is that when I see a Japanese Maple that has been pruned properly and has grown in so well it is obvious that even though they have a natural beauty and form, they really do need some help from us.
If you have a large, mature Japanese Maple then I am going to suggest you call a professional but if you have one that is under 5 years old and in need of a light pruning, here are some tips.
*    Late fall to late winter is the best time to prune. You can easily see the growth pattern, crossing branches or dead branches.
*    Start with sharp and clean pruners. You want them to be sharp enough to be able to make good clean cuts and I recommend sterilizing them with a solution of nine parts water to 1 part bleach.
*    Resist the temptation to start at the top. Work from the bottom up and inside out. 
*    Prune away dead and overlapping branches as shown here in diagram A:
japanese maple pruning dead branches


*    The goal is not to trim or shape the Japanese Maple like you would other shrubs, instead the goal is to use a “selective heading cut” to remove main branches growing between 2 healthy buds or branches as shown here in diagram B: 



japanese maple pruning dead main branches


*    Prune side branches that come off main branches back to a healthy wood. Make sure to leave the branch collar or swelling where the branch joins the trunk. This is why it is important to use sharp pruners to create a clean cut that will heal nicely.  
japanese maple pruning dead side branches

*    Work from the inside out to remove some twigs and create good air circulation and an “open” framework to your Japanese Maple. You should be able to see through a well pruned Japanese Maple to enjoy its form.

*    Once again, do not cut off just the tips of your tree. It will result in rapid, unhealthy and unsightly growth patterns.  See Diagram D:

japanese maple pruning tips of branches

*    As I mentioned above, if you have a mature tree, please consider a professional.  If you just have a large branch that you need to remove, it is especially important to do it properly without damaging the main trunk. Here in diagram E, is an illustration of a pruning tip to prune a large branch from a tree.

japanese maple pruning large branch

*    Make a small incision with a small sharp saw, on the top of the branch about 3 inches or so from the main branch. Then make a slightly larger incision on the bottom of the branch between first incision and the branch collar. This will take the pressure off the branch and branch collar when you remove the branch at the base where the branch  meets the branch collar. This branch collar area is important because this is where the tree generates its new bark, which means it heals the wound. It is also important for this wound to heal on its own. Painting or tarring over it contributes to disease by locking in moisture.

This type of pruning should not be done every year and its purpose is to help your tree grow into a beautiful specimen. It is not meant to make a tree that’s too big fit into a small space. That is a whole other article.

As usual please send me any questions or pictures you may have about your Japanese Maple.

Canadian Gardening, Stephen Westcott-Gratton
and The Oregonian, Peter Lynn from Pomarius Nursery


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4 Responses to Master The Art Of Pruning Your Japanese Maple With These Tips

  1. Cauleen says:

    It is always good to learn more about pruning. However, I find the diagrams very confusing as the first two look exactly the same except that the directions are exactly opposite. Also in diagram D, is this what NOT to do, or yes, to do?

    • blogadmin says:

      Thanks for your questions, the first 2 diagrams demonstrate an either or scenario. And yes D is what not to do. I will edit the post to make it a bit clearer. Thanks again for your feedback.

  2. Bob McGrath says:

    Is there a way to find the very best landscaper in my area to reduce the size and shape of a very large and old Japanese maple?
    I spent several years in and out of Japan..Kyoto etc…I would love to find a Japanese person who has the knowledge that has worked in gardens there…if not, how do I contact a local person…perhaps call the N.Y. Botanical garden for suggestions..

    • blogadmin says:

      Hi Bob,

      I would recommend a good arborist. Tell them over the phone what you required and they will either send their most skilled or they will refer you to one.
      You can do your research now but I am sure they will do the pruning in the winter once the tree is dormant. Any pruning now will not be good for the tree as you don’t want to encourage
      new growth before winter. We actually have an arborist on the radio show Monday evening. at 7 pm est Thanks, Joanne