Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio 44081 Copyright 2011
What do I need to know before I plant my beautiful Japanese maple?
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.
Here’s a “How to” video about planting balled in burlap trees