Pruning a Japanese maple

Pruning a Japanese Maple

Japanese maples are special and as such they require special treatment.  They are such cute little trees when we plant them but after a while they get much larger.  It is a matter of personal preference as to whether the tree looks better in its natural state or whether it is more desirable to prune it.  I am generally of the latter opinion. Using modified bonsai techniques on a Japanese maple in its developmental stages makes for a beautiful, well shaped specimen when the tree gets larger. Here is a picture of a tree that I have neglected for a while:

Japanese maple needs shape and definition.  Time to prune

Japanese maple needs shape and definition. Time to prune

A wise old bonsai expert told me long ago that, “One should prune and shape the tree so that a bird can fly through it.” I try to follow that advice and I find it to be helpful for the overall long term health of the tree as well as from a design standpoint.

Looking at a Japanese maple trunk

I want to see the trunk

The trunk of the maple tree is usually very nice and I would like to see a bit of it on this specimen.  I look into the canopy and study the tree to see what should be removed.  All cuts are made carefully and followed by standing back to study the next move.

There are some larger limbs that I will remove to open up the tree canopy. These cuts are made one at the time.

Removing limbs to open up the canopy of the Japanese maple and to accentuate the trunk

Removing limbs to open up the canopy of the Japanese maple and to accentuate the trunk

A lot of small new growth needs to be removed.  Removing these will further open up the view of the trunk and the path of the bird.  It will also allow the trunk to gain strength by not having to share nutrients with the weak new growth.  Some of these twigs will be cut off and others will be just snapped off with a downward jerk.

removing small growth inside the maple canopy

removing small growth inside the maple canopy

When the thinning process is completed, I go through and carefully cut tips from the outer reaches of the tree.  This will encourage branching and a degree of miniaturization.  At this point the job is finished.

The pruned Japanese maple looks like this:

A well pruned Japanese maple

A well pruned Japanese maple

I have a story that lets you know when the job is finished.

My good friend and client, Betty, has about twenty Japanese maples in her yard.  I have been pruning and shaping them over a period of twenty five years.  One time I was shaping one of the trees and a visitor asked, “How do you know when you have cut enough?”

I thought for a few moments and answered, “I keep cutting until Betty is rolling in the driveway screaming. Then I know I have cut enough.”

Here are some related articles:

Creating a topiary,

Tree forming,

The basics of pruning

Want me to prune your Japanese maple? Contact me at

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