Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio 44081 Copyright 2011
What do I need to know before I plant my beautiful Japanese maple?
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Start out by picking the ideal location in your yard. If you have an upright growing Japanese Maple like Bloodgood, Oshi Beni or Atropurpureum, you should keep in mind that your tree could reach a height and width of twenty feet or more. They can be pruned to keep them smaller, but pruning would have to be done on a regular basis. If you have one of the dissectum weeping varieties like Crimson Queen, Inaba Shidare or Ever Red, then you have a tree that is not likely to grow more than 48″ tall, but can get quite wide. As wide as ten or twelve feet in time.
It’s important to consider what your mature tree is going to look like because you want to make sure it will have enough room to spread it’s wings, so to speak.
Also think about sun requirements. Most Japanese maples, especially those with red or variegated leaves, need ample sunlight to maintain that beautiful foliage But, they also prefer to receive at least some shade as the day goes on. However, with that said, in my landscape and in the nursery I have almost all of my Japanese maples in full sun. I’m sure they’d prefer a little break from the sun in the afternoon, but they do just fine in full sun.
Most important of all is the condition of the soil where you intend to plant your tree. Japanese maples, like most plants, like soil that is really rich in decomposed organic matter. Well composted leaf mold or well rotted cow manure worked into the soil is ideal. If you have really good topsoil in your yard, that’s perfect. What they don’t like is hard compacted clay soil that does not drain well. Japanese maples will not tolerate wet soil and will fail in a matter of months, if not weeks, if you plant them in an area where their roots are wet all the time.
If your yard is made of of heavy clay soil, the ideal thing to do is build a raised planting bed by bringing in good topsoil and building a bed on top of the existing clay. You don’t have to remove any clay, and you don’t even have to disturb the clay at all. Just place good topsoil on top of the clay, building the bed to a height of at least 10″ above the clay. If you have clay soil, building these raised beds is the best thing you can do for all of the plants in your landscape.
When building the raised bed you don’t have to use bricks, stone, rocks or lumber to retain the soil in the bed. It’s just not necessary. Just build up the bed and taper the edges down to the existing soil. I’ve landscaped over 500 homes and I’ve done almost all of them this way. I do not like beds that have hard borders. Eventually you are going to want to change or enlarge the bed as the plants mature, and the borders will be in your way.
Planting a Japanese maple that is in a plastic container
1. Remove the tree from the container. It should slip out of the container easily, but if it doesn’t, then there are probably roots growing out of the weep holes in the bottom of the container, and you might have to cut these roots to release the tree from the container.
2. Once you have the tree out of the container, examine the root ball. Look for roots that have grown out to the edge of the root ball, then when they hit the container started growing around the inside of the container in a circular pattern. If you see these kinds of root patterns on the root ball of your tree, you should interrupt that pattern of root growth by pulling those roots away from the root ball. If they are so heavily matted and intertwined with the rest of roots and you simply cannot get your fingers in there to loosen and pull the roots apart, then you need to take more drastic action and do some cutting of the roots.
With a sharp knife make about three vertical cuts from the top of the root ball to the bottom of the root ball. In the process of making these vertical cuts, you will sever the roots that are circling the outer edge of the root ball. What this does is break that pattern of the roots growing in a circle, as well as stops them from growing back inside of the root ball. Making these cuts actually stimulates the tree to produce new fibrous roots that will quickly establish themselves into the soil after you plant the tree. If you don’t disturb the roots circling the outside of the root ball, the tree will be very slow to establish itself into it’s new home and the circling, girdling pattern will continue and the tree will suffer.
3. Dig a hole only as deep as the root ball. Do not dig the hole deeper than it needs to be. Actually, you should dig the hole about one inch less than the depth of the root ball so that once planted, the top one inch of the root ball is above the grade of the planting bed. You should dig the hole at least eight inches wider than the root ball and when you plant the tree back fill around the roots with good rich soil. However, if you are in heavy clay soil and you have not raised the planting bed, then do not over dig the hole at all. Not even the sides. Because if you do, that will allow water to run into the hole through the loose planting mix. Because of the clay, the water will have no way to escape and the tree will suffer from the roots being too wet.
4. Place the tree into the hole and back fill around the root ball with loose, rich soil, making sure there are no air pockets around the roots. Since the top one inch of the root ball is higher than the grade of the planting bed, you’ll need to mound some soil over the root ball. Cover the top of the root ball with approximately one inch of soil. Once you have the tree planted, put about a 2″ layer of mulch over the area surrounding the tree.
5. Water the tree, thoroughly soaking the root ball. Water on a regular basis for the first few months. Usually, watering once or twice a week is plenty. Stick your fingers into the soil around the roots before you water and make sure it is not too wet. The soil should be moist and cool to the touch, but not soaking wet.
6. Do not fertilize your new Japanese maple. They really don’t like, nor do they need much fertilizer. See this page for details about fertilizing.
7. Stake the tree if necessary. You don’t want the wind rocking it back and forth as the new roots try and establish themselves into their new surroundings. You can buy stakes at the garden store and secure them to the tree with something soft like a piece of cloth. Make sure to remove the stake after the first year. Or if you feel the stake is still needed, change the tie to make sure it’s not cutting into the bark of the tree.
Planting a Japanese maple tree that is balled in burlap
1. Closely inspect the root ball of your tree. Cut any strings or rope on the root ball and closely examine the stem of the tree right at the top of the root ball, making sure there are no strings wrapped around the trunk of the tree. Look closely. Sometimes balled trees that have been in the nursery for a long time are actually re-burlapped before they are sold, so make sure there are no strings under the fist layer of burlap.
2. There are different kinds of burlap that are used in nurseries. Some of them are natural burlap that rots quickly and easily once the tree is planted. Some are natural burlap treated with a green fungicide material that keeps the burlap from rotting too quickly before the plant is sold. And some burlaps are made of nylon and will never rot. In most cases the burlap does not have to be removed completely, but it’s a good idea to take a knife and make some vertical cuts in the burlap all the way around the plant. That way, as new roots grow they can easily find their way into the soil and the tree can quickly establish itself.
3. Dig a hole almost the same depth as the root ball. Actually, measure the root ball, subtract one inch and dig the hole to that depth. That will leave the root ball one inch above grade once it’s placed into the hole, which is what you want. Dig the hole about 8″ wider than the width of the root ball so you can back fill around the root ball with rich, loose soil.
4. The reason you don’t want to remove the burlap if you don’t have to is because you want the burlap to hold the root ball together as you place the tree into the hole. So after you cut all the strings and make some vertical cuts in the burlap, gently lower the the tree into the hole. Once you have the tree in the hole, start back filling around the root ball with rich, loose soil. Pack the soil around the root ball as you fill in the hole, but don’t cover the top of the root ball just yet.
5. Once you have filled in all around the root ball take a knife and cut the burlap around the stem of the tree, peeling it back to expose the top of the root ball. This is to ensure that the burlap is not too tight around the stem of the tree. Peel the burlap back and you can either cut the flaps off completely, or just tuck them in around the sides of the root ball. By back filling around the sides of the ball first you are actually stabilizing the root ball, so when you loosen the burlap on top of the root ball, the ball can cannot fall apart.
6. Now you can finish covering the root ball with soil, mounding approximately one inch of soil over the root ball, then placing a two inch layer of mulch over that. See steps five through seven above to finish the planting of your balled in burlap Japanese maple.
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Here’s a “How to” video about planting balled in burlap trees
So Mike, when a books say don’t romvee more than X portion of the root ball, this means the roots/prune of roots not the amount of soil washing after trimming and removiong soil is ok (saving some origional soilect) and replacing???
How old/large is too old/large to transplant a Japanese maple? We have a 6 yo approx 20 ft tree that needs to go. We would like to save it if possible.
If considering a raised bed option for bloodgood Japanese maple which can grow to be 20 feet tall how large in circumference and how high does the raised bed need to be? Is it acceptable to put a liner down between the raisedmound and the surface area of the ground? I live in an area that has a lot of limestone and i’m guessing the alkaline level might be too high.
I have a Japanese maple tree that is about 4 years old it is not very tall but is wide and is in the way of by side walk I want to move it ,is now a good time or should I wait until fall ?Since it is so close to by side walk do you even recommend moving it I don’t want to damage the roots it is beautiful and I have never replanted a tree do you recommend I have it moved by a professional? Thank you
hey mike ive purchesd a blood good red maple this past month of june and brought it home and planted it. the tree looks great but im wanting it to have the top canopy shape. the plant still has the stake from the store to help it grow upright but there are two stalks.. should i stake the other one up as well? and what type of prunning should i do in these early stages? i would like to be abel to send you pics. if possibel..
Thanks Dave from Ohio
JAPANESE MAPLE what is the best type of covering around the tree? currently we have small crushed stone.
I don’t think it’s critical, but shredded bark mulch is usually the best but I’m sure the stones are fine.
I have a new Red Dragon japanese maple I got in March, and it had a very hard summer, and I’m afraid I’m killing it. He’s planted in a pot. When I first potted him I put a small amount of gravel in the bottom and punched holes in the pot to allow it to drain, and I used some pretty rich potting soil. His leaves scorched over the summer (very hot dry weather) and he gets mostly morning sun on my balcony, but not a lot of shade. I watered him regularly, but I started to worry that he was getting too much water. I lessoned the water and he produced a small lower leafy branch about a month ago, and I hoped this was a sign of recovery. I just recently cut off another branch that seemed dead, but now that little new offshoot branch looks like its starting to die, and part of the bark is turning black where it once was green. There are so many things that could be going wrong. Too much water, too little? Too close to the gravel in the bottom of the pot? To fertilize or not to fertilize? Should I try to re-pot him? Help.
Container growing is tricky. The trick is really well drained soil so the gravel in the bottom is fine as long as the rest of the potting soil drains well. Most store bought potting soil is not good for things like Japanese maples because it doesn’t drain well enough. If the soil is well drain it’s difficult to over water. Fertilizer? I wouldn’t, not now. Give the tree a chance to recover. It’s not unusual for a Japanese maple to struggle in the summer. It would be much happier in the ground.
Peter David says
How about dwarf lace leaf maples? Can I transplant in spring before leaves appear? I am in Washington State on the temperate side by the coast. I want to put it in our parking strip that gets full sun during the summer in the middle of the day. Any advice?
Thanks in advance!
As long as you dig it before the leaves appear you should be fine. Laceleaf maples really like a combination of sun and shade. Full sun surrounded by concrete might not be the best place for it.
Linda Mello-Teta says
I have 2 young small coral bark maple trees that I think I planted too low in the ground.
they seem to be healthy now, but I was considering digging them up and replanting higher as you suggest in your tutorials.
What are your thoughts on this idea?
I think it’s a good idea if they are still dormant or recently planted.
Bobbi & Ron Gildea says
When we bought our town house, the original owners planted a Japanese Maple in a bed that blocks vision of the front door when it is in full bloom. The tree is now 16 years old and we would like to Moche it to a better location on our property. Is that possible given the age of the tree.
Bobbi & Ron
It would be very challenging and would require a very large root ball. See this http://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2015/11/moving-a-large-laceleaf-weeping-japanese-maple-tree/
Janice Wotochek says
Mike: I planted an Inaba lace leaf Japanese Maple just 3 weeks ago and that was before I read your instructions on planting a Japanese Maple.. I live in zone 5. The leaves are already drying and falling off. I’m afraid it’s dying. It’s planted in well drained soil, but when I planted it I added sphagnum moss, potting soil and liquid Miracle Grow. I fear too much fertilizer and you said not to fertilize. Also, it may be planted too deep. I moved some of the soil away from the crown and there are now a few small roots above ground. Would you suggest digging it out and removing the fertilized soil? This is our second one that is dying. What can I do to revive it before it’s too late. Thank you so much.
The Miracle Grow fertilizer is probably harmless. Just make sure it’s not planted too deep and only water as need. At this time of year, not a lot of water at all.
We are moving in 2 weeks and would like to take our 2 year old bloodgood with us. We’ve had at least 3 or 4 hard freezes here in NC. When we dig it up, should we put it in the ground at our new place right away or put in a large container until spring? Should we wrap the root ball in burlap regardless? How often should we water? I’ve read that we can dig up in winter. But can’t find any info on whether to put in the ground right away or not. Thanks so much! Oh and should we feed it with anything other than water?
Plant it right away, wrap the ball in burlap. Remove the burlap before planting if it’s synthetic burlap. No fertilizer, do not plant too deep, water well first time then just a little water until spring. Come spring water once a week.
Please forgive my ignorance, but is it necessary to ball up the roots of my Japanese maple once I dig it up if it is immediately going back into the ground? I plan to have the new spot ready to go before I dig it up. Planning on waiting until the dormant period per your article. Thanks!
No, you can actually bare root dig a dormant tree. No ball is necessary as long as you plant it immediately. I do it all the time.
Craig Punton says
I have a 14 year old Acer Palmatum tree which is pot bound. I would like to transplant it into my garden could you advise how best to do this and how much of the woody roots should I remove? I’ve heard of a boxing off technique but am not sure what to try? Any advice would be appreciated.
My biggest concern this time of year would be severing those sizable roots. This is something that I would be much more comfortable doing after Thanksgiving when the plant is dormant. Once dormant you can do the boxing off technique or just cut the heavy, circling roots and pull them away from the root ball. Dormancy season starts around Thanksgiving and ends in early spring just as the plants start to make leaves.
Craig Punton says
Thanks so much for the response. The tree has been in the family for some time now and after finally moving house I’m really keen to get it in the ground and let it flourish. I will totally follow your advice and wait for dormancy. Would you advice much in the way of root pruning? Or just focus on the encircling roots?
marc rose says
I planted a Emperor Mother’s Day in a semi raised bed. We have heavy clay soils in middle TN. The area does get water run off from the area above. The tree is doing fine and no real issues but I’m worried. I use a moisture meter to see how the soil is draining, the top 4 or 5 inches will be lightly moist and then when I hit the bottom at 6” it stays saturated. We had a record wet July so that didn’t help. As I said the tree looks good and it’s been in that spot for almost 90 days. I worry the wet cool months will harm to root system and possible root rot. I love where it is but if it needs to be moved then I will. My goal is a healthy happy tree before I worry about the location. Also just purchased a 25 gallon tamukeyama that will be on the level above the grade line of the Emperor. I still am concerned with such a large root ball of getting water standing in the hole I dig. I was going to dig s hole 1/2 the height of the roof ball and raise the bed for it. Any ideas would be great. BTW I really enjoy reading your material and you are a wealth of knowledge.
Thanks in advance,
As far as the second tree is concerned I think your plan is sound. Just make sure you back fill the hole with the clay that you take out of the hole, that way excessive water can not seep in and around the root system and stand there. Keep in mind, the soil in the root ball as it comes out of the pot is very porous and lose and water can run right through it. Therefore you have to make sure extra water cannot enter the hole.
The first tree? I’d consider raising it so it’s planted on somewhat of a mound and also back fill with clay and build the mound out of clay. That way water coming down the hill will be shed away from your tree and it will run right past it. However, when planting this high you have to be mindful that in really dry conditions you must water the trees. But planted in this manor it would be difficult to over water them.
Jennifer Kilroy says
We have put weed cloth down in a bed that includes a Japanese Maple.
This spring the maple isn’t blooming.
Could the cloth in the bed be choking the roots?
Probably not, is the tree to wet or planted too deep? The root ball should be slightly higher than the grade of the soil.
I have planted a few JMs this past week (3 gallon sizes). Didn’t mulch too closely (stayed 1-2 inches away), so the roots are not covered by mulch… but we have voles im our yard and a friend recommended wrapping the root (and 4-8 inches of the little trunk). I purchased that tree wrapping, cardboard-looking stuff and wrapped it loosely (to have oxygen to the root) but stuck the ends under the mulch. Now my question is: is this alright for the roots or should I unwrap again and hope that the voles stay away?
Would be so happy for your help.
As long at that material is biodegradable I guess it would be okay buy it’s possible that the wrapping around the roots will create air pockets between the wrap and the root and that will cause some root damage if roots are exposed to air. I’ve never really heard of anybody doing this.
Thank you, Mike. I am uncertain: Might just unwrap and hope for the best 🙂 Do you have any experience with vole prevention? I heard that they like to bite in the roots to get the sap/fluids. And I couldn’t think of anything else to do than wrapping the roots. But I also am in doubt if the wrapping will prevent water from getting to the trunk… would that be a concern (or is it not important for the water to get super close to the middle of the roots?).
Hey I have a small red Japanese maple that appears to be struggling from the soil retaining too much water and leaf scorch from the wind. Would it be a good idea to use sphagnum moss in the pot with a little soil on top to help it recover?
If it’s in a pot it needs a well draining potting mix. If in the ground, it depends on how long it’s been there. Now is not a good time to move it unless it was just planted.
I just purchased a 15 gallon Turmakeyama Japanese Maple to replace a diseased red maple tree. However, I read that I must wait a year before planting in the same spot. How long can I leave the new JM in the burlap?
I’m not so sure that I buy into that theory. If we don’t know what disease, and if in fact it was a disease and whether or not it lingers in the soil, which is highly unlikely. Me? I’d plant it right away rather than try and keep it happy in that ball for a full year. That would not be an easy thing to do without planting it.
I purchased a Blood Good Japanese Maple recently from a reputable Nursery. It is around 6-7 ft tall and came with a tall stick attached to the tree to keep it growing vertically. I planted the tree 2 weeks ago with the stick still attached. I want to use a tree staking Kit to keep the tree straight and level as well as give the roots a chance to take hold. Should I remove the stick that came with the tree or can I use it at the same time as the staking kit?
I’d probably remove it, or at least make sure it’s loose in the soil and not tangled in the roots.