Pruning Japanese Maples

This post should probably be called “thinning Japanese maples” because for the most part, I don’t do any serious shaping of the trees.  These trees have been where they are for 20 years already and their shapes, for better or worse, have been determined by their placement.

The first that you’ll see is in a bed that backs to a house. It’s been given enough room so its shape is fairly regular and uniform and no one has to walk too near it so it’s been allowed to develop pretty naturally–no large branches were removed unless they died.

The next also stands alone in a bed, but unfortunately, a walk runs behind it.  Therefore, it grows into the walk and The Spoiler, who, perish the thought, hates the idea that foliage should brush against anyone, has been known to take the electric hedge trimmer to the back and sides of it.  So it’s fairly grotesquely shaped, needless to say, on the sides where it borders the walk.  The Spoiler can’t be reasoned with on this score.


Here’s what that damage looks like.  When thinking about siting your own maples, remember this.

Unpruned maple--rear view This is the unpruned version.  Notice how the canopy catches all the dead leaves.



From the front, this tree is lovely and natural, but does need to be thinned.  Here’s the before photo.

Unpruned maple--front view Notice all the light colored wood here.  As it turned out, I wound up taking out over half of the tree’s branches in dead wood!  The project took almost two hours.  I should never have let it go as long as I did.


Thinning these trees is actually pretty simple and I enjoy it.  Almost all of it can be done with a simple hand pruner because the branches are so light and delicate (no hedge trimmer, ever please!  About the heaviest tool I’d ever need is my long-handled lopper)

Because this hadn’t been done in 3 or 4 years, some of the branches were so dry that they actually broke off in my hand as I was reaching for other branches to prune.  It made the work very quick and easy.

Here’s a “before pruning” photo of the first tree I discussed:

Japanese maple before pruning The “healthy” branches are red or deep brown.  The ones that are dead and need to be pruned out are light brown.  It’s very easy to distinguish the two.

Here’s the same tree, after a section has been pruned.


Japanese maple after pruning Notice the difference.  Pretty much all that remains in this section is healthy red or brown stems.  A section at the back of the tree remains to be pruned.




For something a little more dramatic, here are the “after” photo of the Japanese maple it took me 2 hours to prune.


Pruned maple--front Notice all the brush still on the ground–and notice how clearly the trunk and some of the major branch structure of the tree is visible now.

Pruned maple--rear The branch structure–and the electric hedge trimmer mangling–is even more visible in this rear view now. And best of all, the leaves are out of the canopy and shouldn’t catch there quite so badly now.



So that’s all there is to it–people think there’s some “mystique” about Japanese maples.  By keeping the dead wood thinned out, the tree should remain healthy and strong.  And as you see by the snow, while the tree is dormant is the correct time to do it!




4 thoughts on “Pruning Japanese Maples

  1. Sue March 17, 2013 / 9:50 am

    My to-do list today (provided it warms up somewhat) includes tackling two just like this although it’s only been 2-3 years since they werelast pruned so they hopefully won’t take as long.

  2. gardendaze March 17, 2013 / 10:57 am

    Even doing this in heavy snow flurries (that’s why some of the photos look grainy), I still found this a very enjoyable task. I hope you will too. And the “after” results are so worth it, as will the growth on the trees come spring–when it even does come!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. Rodney March 19, 2013 / 8:51 am

    Hi, thanks for posting. Your article reminded me of the other year when I decided to help my wife the creative one in the family trim our Japanese Maple. To her surprise I reshaped the tree she had been shaping for the last year or two. OOPS, I decided to stay with Planting and gardening and let the trimming up to her. Putting us both where we are most gifted. We live and learn! I’m just glad shes patient! 🙂

    • gardendaze March 19, 2013 / 9:04 am

      Hi Rodney,
      Thanks for sharing that! It reminds me of the time The Spoiler thought he was being helpful by “weeding” for me. When I turned around to look, all of the annuals I’d just planted were lying on the sidewalk in a clump. Weeding is now solely my job. We reap what we sow, I guess! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Experience makes us all better gardeners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.