Transplanting a Japanese Maple

Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio 44081 Copyright 2011

When and how do you go about transplanting a Japanese maple tree?

Let’s first make the distinction between planting and transplanting.  I’m sure you already know this, but just in case.

If you have a plant that is in a container, or sitting on top of the ground balled in burlap, you can install that plant into your garden anytime the ground is not frozen.  It is my very firm belief that any plant is much better off in the ground rather than sitting on top of the ground, and I should point out that I’ve been involved in this industry for forty years.  I learned the ropes working in nurseries as a kid, spent many years in the landscape contracting business and many years as a nurseryman or nursery stock producer, which I still do today.

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So, if you have a Japanese maple that is in a container or in burlap and are wondering when you should plant it, today is the day!  Yesterday would have been better, but today is the next best day to get it planted.  Don’t wait for fall, spring, or cooler weather.  Mother Nature intended for that plant to be in the ground, and that’s where it will be the happiest.

For detailed instructions on planting a Japanese maple visit this page.

When and How to Transplant a Japanese Maple

Transplanting means that you are going to dig a plant out of the ground and re-plant it into a different location.  It’s important to understand that the most critical part of this process is the first step of the process, the digging the plant out of the ground.  So the true question is; “When can I safely dig a Japanese maple tree?”

Japanese maples are deciduous plants, which means that they are not evergreens.  Come winter, they drop their leaves and go into a resting period until spring.  This resting, or dormant, period is a chance for them to re-charge their batteries, if you will. The date and time of dormancy is not set in stone, it’s more of a rolling schedule depending on what the weather does.

Dormancy is triggered by the first hard freeze of the winter season.  Not a frost, but a true hard freeze where the temperature drops down below 32 degrees F. for a period of several hours.  That really and truly is the start of the dormancy period.  Deciduous trees and shrubs start losing their leaves in the fall as the temperatures start to cool down and the daylight hours become shortened.  Some plants may lose all of their leaves fairly early into the fall season.  But that doesn’t mean the plants are dormant and they should not be dug until after they’ve experienced that first hard freeze.

Here in zone 5, northern, Ohio, dormancy usually starts around Thanksgiving.  Sometimes a little earlier, sometimes not until mid to early December.  Once dormant, the plants will remain dormant until spring.  Again, here in northern Ohio, most deciduous plants typically remain dormant until about the third week of April.  They actually start pushing out buds earlier than that, so technically they are probably no longer dormant, but until they actually produce their first leaves they can still be safely dug and or transplanted.  Once they have leaves it is game over until fall.  And I really mean, it’s game over.  Digging a plant that is in leaf is a traumatic experience for the plant and severe damage if not death of the plant will occur.

Are there exceptions?

Maybe, but not many.

When you dig a plant you are severing roots.  Think about it along the lines of the human body.  When a human being is seriously injured, with a broken bone or severe laceration, the body can and will go into shock.  If not treated immediately, this shock can be life ending.  However, if a human being needs major surgery the surgeon places the patient into a deep sleep that somewhat mimics dormancy in plants. The surgeon can safely perform the operation while another doctor sits at the head of the patient, constantly monitoring the patient’s vital signs and regulating the deep sleep.

With plants, the severing of the roots is what causes the shock when the plant is not dormant.  So if you have a plant that has not been planted for very long and you can dig it out of the ground without actually severing roots, then you probably can get away with digging the plant if it is not dormant.  But in most cases that is not the case, and the only way to dig the plant is by severing some roots.

If you do that while the plant is dormant there is no shock to the plant at all.  If you do it when the plant is not dormant, the plant will suffer some shock.  What degree of shock is really difficult to say.  But I will tell you this, as a professional in this industry for over forty years, I simply do not dig deciduous plants like Japanese maples, or any plant for that matter, during the growing season.  I just won’t do it.  I’ve seen what happens.

So now that we’ve determined when you can safely transplant a Japanese maple, I’ll let you watch this video about how to go about digging plants out of the ground.

Once you have the plant dug and ready to be re-planted you should visit this page for tips on re-planting your tree.

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6 thoughts on “Transplanting a Japanese Maple

  1. Chuck on said:

    Great tips. Do you have any suggestions for transplant shock for a sun-exposed orangeola?

    • Mike on said:

      Chuck,

      Shade is like magic for small Japanese maples.

  2. Robert on said:

    We are in the process of buyig a house. We may be moving in the middle of winter. My question is, can I dig up my japanese maple once it is dormant, and store it until spring? I obviously will not be able to dig it up in the middle of winter, so can I dig it up (following your guiide for doing so) and somehow store it till early spring when I can get it back into the ground at the new house?

    • Robert on said:

      I also have 2 small sruce and a magnolia I am wondering about.

  3. Elaine on said:

    Mike,

    I relocated a Japanese maple last Fall. It is now the middle of May and it has come back beautifully. Unfortunately, it’s not in the location we desire. Would it be a mistake to relocate it to the desired location now? Could it be dug out without severing roots? I’m thinking that the roots may not be established just yet? Your expertise is appreciated. Thank you!

    Elaine

  4. Kim on said:

    Thanks for this. Any advice for what I assume is transplant shock? We re-potted a bloodgood JM in the middle of summer, which I later learned is a no-no. We did this about two weeks ago and it quickly started look unhappy. About half of the leaves are dead. The tree is about 7 feet tall and is in full sun (which I also learned isn’t great). We live in NYC. Any hope?

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