Three factors add up to the conclusion that all Japanese maple owners should learn to prune these beautiful trees.
1) Japanese maples are small trees but bigger than most people expect. So an upright tree that can be 20' tall is placed in a 12' and a "cute little weeper" is planted in a 3'x 3' patio bed although it has the potential to spread 10' or more.
2) Many of these trees also grow 8 to 18" per year, faster than most people expect -- people assume that something expensive is slow growing.
3) Japanese maples are often planted in exposed situations which cause branch dieback. There is almost always dead wood to be removed, and the need to recognize weak wood, then elect and encourage suitable replacement branches.
*Notice the dead stub left remaining from
some past, ill-advised cut? Here are
good reasons to avoid leaving stubs
as you prune!
**For details about protecting an exposed
Japanese maple see What's Coming Up #68,
Pretty protected maple trunk, or Upfront maple.
Our goals were: To keep the tree within a 5' x 5' space so it will not block the walkway. To create a more graceful form since its bare limbs are on stage right outside the front door for four months each year.
This is the tree whose damaged limb is shown close up at the top of this page. Some people are surprised that a tree close to a building has more exposure damage than one out by the road. That's the case here, where two of four Japanese maples on the property are within a few feet of the building, two are more out in the open. Those near the building had the worst damage, probably because those spaces near the building warm up more on a winter day so the harmful drop in temperature at sunset is even more precipitous.
We start out under a weeping tree because we can usually see the branching pattern better, there.
Then we addressed each branch we'd elected as primary -- 4 spokes from the trunk that will be "keepers" because they're graceful, healthy and each one fills a distinct portion of the canopy. We went to the end of each of those limbs and shortened it by two years' growth. Then we worked back toward the trunk, shortening each main limbs' side branches by two years, also.
Compare them to see that we shortened and thinned the drapery. Something we can't show, given the available lighting and background: We changed the canopy as seen from a bird's eye view. What was a rough circle is now an oval that's longest along the axis parallel to the pavement.
By the way: If you dislike the shape we created, that's fine. There is no one right way to prune for aesthetics!