When/how to start pruning a japanese maple sapling

chisey(TN)March 4, 2013

I have a very young sapling that I transplanted from a Bloodgood japanese maple in Fall 2011. The tree is now only about 4.5 feet tall, but I'm starting to see growth that couple be problematic later on. So the question is . . . is this tree too young to be pruning for structure? If not, now may be my last chance before it starts to leaf out.

Some pics . . .

Here you can see the whole tree and get an idea of two problems: a branch growing back toward the middle, and two codominant leaders.

Here's a closer view of the branch growing back toward the middle:

And here's a better view of the two apparent leaders, splitting apart only about a foot from the ground, with the second stem branching toward the street:

Should I start working on this now or should I let the tree have a couple more growing seasons before I worry about it? I've never grown a tree from such a small size and don't want to get too antsy and hurt the little guy.

Any info or advice is welcome. Thanks.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

I am not necessarily drawn to central leader Japanese maples.

If it were me I would probably trim that lowest branch this year then the next lowest next year.

For the two leaders....I dunno.....what is it called....reduction pruning when ya snip the end buds on one of the two leaders to stunt it and create more of a branch?

    Bookmark   March 4, 2013 at 9:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I would trim a couple of the lowest branches. However do not trim so quickly that the tree becomes leggy, and the trunk can not support the tree.

Decide what you think you should trim off and then only do about 20% of that.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2013 at 10:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I see no need to do anything now. Wait and see.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 12:53AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hey ...

i am much more aggressive than them there folks ..

but first.. WHATS YOUR GOAL???

tell me what your dream plant looks like.. and then decide where you want to go ...

and i will tell you your first goal.. yes.. you can have more than one ... its at the end of the drive way.. you need to raise its canopy above the point of your head while sitting in the car ... while backing up.. the neighbors will have a low tolerance for you running over the neighborhood kids ...

and.. as a maple.. its been there long enough to take the 2 lowest branches off [ i can NOT tell if there are two or three ... i see two plainly.. and a hint of a third ...] .. the little stubby ones ... ask if you dont know how to prune properly ...

then.. next ... and this is hard even with the pix.. not really being there ... i would SHORTEN one of the two leaders ... first pic.. the one that CURVEs into the shrub at the garage ... lets give dominance to the other on its right .... the straighter one ... and secondary dominance to its partner on its left.. so a few inches shorter than that one ....

and then.. put down the shears.. and step away.. until next year... though i might take a quick look in fall ...

while you are out there.. pull back the mulch.. and find out if the root flare is at ground level.. ask if you do not know what that means ...

short of backing over it with the car.. you are going to be hard pressed to kill this thing ... and i doubt that would kill it.. unless the tires squished the trunk ... but one thing for sure.. a little pruning is NOT going to hurt it ...

you are still responsible for proper watering this summer in drought.. and it should be near free range by next summer ... but for the worst weather ...

good luck


    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 8:25AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

but first.. WHATS YOUR GOAL???

First, the 'codominant leaders' is the clue. Maybe we should explain what his goal should be - an attractive, multi-stemmed tree faintly (or strongly) reminiscent of bonsai. So 'a branch growing back toward the middle' for most folks would be excellent. With this reality in mind, why prune anything until it gets some side branching?

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 9:09AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks all for the responses. A bit on my goals . . .

* Ken is right that ultimately the canopy will need to be fairly high, but this will be years and years from now. This tree may not end up being "true" since Bloodgoods are hybrids, but if it is then it will be a large tree compared to many japanese maples. The goal is certainly not to cultivate a bonsai. Ultimately the canopy will be over and above the mailbox and driveway.

* As to the leaders, I'm fine with it branching into multiple leaders (Bloodgoods usually do) but I think it needs to be a few feet off the ground at that point. I'd like a dominant trunk at least 2 feet high before it starts spreading out.

* I'm fairly well read on proper pruning and proper timing of it, but I've just never read much about how big the tree should be when you start. I wouldn't want to cause it to be leggy or anything else undesirable. If it would be best to wait I am more than willing to do that . . . I know I can be as guilty as anyone of wanting to just do something when waiting is the best course of action.

* Unless it would really be a bad idea, I will trim that very lowest branch. I already clipped one off that was only an inch or two off the ground, but that's all I've done so far.

Thanks again.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 12:51PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

take both the lower ones ...

to get over the mailbox.. we are talking 4 feet MIN ... and we are going after that now ...

why wait until you are cutting off one inch branches.. making big wounds???

and i would still reduce the dominance of the second leader.. to favor what i might call the third ...

and finally.. keep in mind.. almost NOTHING there now.. will be there.. when the canopy is to your preferred height ... and.. again ... if you look at the first pic ... all that will be there is the leader that looks like it goes in the garage ...


ALL THE LEAVES ARE FOOD MAKING MACHINES.. TO GROW THE ROOT MASS.. TO MAKE A FUTURE TREE .. carp.. darn caps lock ... so we never want to remove too much at once .....but if your goal is height.. why do you want multiple leaders down low now ... again.. trees heal wounds .. but its easier to heal a 1/4 wound .... than a inch or two wound ...

one trick.. as you drive around town.. just look at other specimens.. if you cant find JM's to look at.. you arent trying very hard .... just study how others have done it.. and when you start 'seeing' what they did wrong.. you will be well taught ... [you usually find the bad ones.. in front of businesses .. lol micky d's.. etc.. when they prune them 3 times of year.. to our horror ...]


    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 1:30PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Ken, most japanese maples do have multiple leaders at a relatively low level. When you look at google images for Bloodgoods, the single trunk is rarely more than a few feet high when it starts to split into multiple leaders. So I have followed your advice and checked out specimens when coming up with my expectations.

This is why I asked the question. I don't want multiple leaders this low, but I also don't want to do anything to the tree now that will adversely affect its growth so early on. Hence the caution, which I feel is warranted.

This thing won't have 1" branches for at least a couple more years. There's time. I just want to know best practices for helping achieve the desired structure when the tree is this young.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 3:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

my late father.. got a seedling from his late brother..

it is now 12 feet tall.. single stem to 5 feet ..

i dont care what others do with them.. and i started by asking you what you want..

if you have a goal .... do it.. and dont worry about others think..

and i will say again.. pruning does NOT HARM A TREE ... in any way ... properly done ...

if you want it single trunked.. then aim toward such ... and surely.. it doesnt have to all be done now ... its like teaching junior math.. yes.. you can wait until he is 18.. but if you do it little by little.. over the years.. with a goal in mind.. it will be much easier ...

i understand this is new to you.. but you cant hurt a maple ... frankly.. you could cut it to the ground [to get rid of that zig zag trunk].. and with a little water..it will be the same size by fall ... you just cant go wrong ...

you know.. i have spent about an hour longer typing ....than it would take me to walk up to this thing and teach it a lesson.. and by fall you would be amazed ... just suck it up.. and do something.. and then forget about it.. its a maple...


    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 6:38PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

chisey, I think that you are preoccupied with pruning. One reason why Japanese Maples are so popular is because they naturally form such desirable habits. A case in point is a former thread, while I don't recommend leaving it in the whiskey barrel :) look how nicely the low-branching tree turned out with very little care.

Here is a link that might be useful: whiskey barrel maple

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 8:00PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

and i will say again.. pruning does NOT HARM A TREE ... in any way ... properly done


All our arborist manuals will have to be redone.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 8:20PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Because of the location of this tree, it does need to be just a little higher than that before it starts branching. I do not want to overprune it; its parent tree has a beautiful form and I don't think it was pruned terribly much.

I just want to get it off to the right start and do whatever pruning needs to be done at the best time. I wasn't sure if early was good or if it was bad. It sounds like there isn't a consensus, but I'm getting the picture that a small amount of limbing up won't hurt if i don't go crazy with it.

FWIW, this little guy has probably tripled or quadrupled his mass since he was planted in October 2011. I'm excited about what he will look like by this time next year.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 8:46AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

It's a good idea to omit the term "leader" when discussing the growth habit of Japanese maples......or many other types of shade trees for that matter. While they may look like they have a distinct leader (or 2 or 3) when still in the sapling stage or very young, they do not maintain this distinction as they age. And it is not advantageous to encourage a single leader situation on these types of trees. It is actually counterproductive to developing a sound branching structure. The horticultural term for this is a decurrent growth habit and any shade trees that produce a rounded or spreading canopy tend to fit under this classification.

Second, I would not endorse limbing up too early in the life of the tree. The lower limbs help to develop trunk girth and stabilityand it is often recommended to wait 3-5 after planting before gradually removing any lower limbs.

Quality pruning on Japanese maples is a bit of an art form and most definitely a case of less is more.......IOW, use a very light touch :-)

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 5:40PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Thanks very much! I appreciate the the info and you specifically addressed my fears. I will let things develop a bit longer before I do much pruning

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 12:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yes, its true that its good to go little by little if you have a plan for what you want, it rather depends on you knowing exactly what you want and having the diligence to see it through. Even then, the tree may fight you every step of the way (or it could go right along with it, you never know).

If you just want a nice looking tree, let it do it's own thing and just "clean it up" as needed.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2013 at 10:44AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I decided to revive this thread to call your attention to the trunk. Note from the 1st and 3rd pictures above that there is a corkscrew-like bend in the trunk just a couple of inches off the ground. It was like this when it grew up under the mother plant and I thought that it would make for an interesting appearance as the tree developed.

But will it eventually cause the tree problems? I picture in my head that as the trunk gets thicker that double bend in it could cause two sections of the trunk to rub together. Is this any concern?

    Bookmark   April 2, 2013 at 1:55PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Can anyone ID this wood? (firewood)
It burns very slowly. It's perfect for nighttime, and...
Beautiful Trees In Bloom Around My Neighborhood.
Here is the Yoshino Cherry Tree(i think) next door....
Miliusa sinensis
Small tree of interesting flowers.
Maple woes
I had a Trident maple planted (poorly) in my yard at...
Landscaping pine forest back yard
Hi, We have a house and the backyard is entire pine...
Sponsored Products
50 Marquee Cards/Plain Envelopes
$40.00 | Horchow
Hampton Bay Outdoor Lighting. Oil-Rubbed Bronze Solar Path Lights (4-Pack)
$89.97 | Home Depot
Radial White 16-Inch Outdoor Wall Light
$213.95 | Bellacor
Princess & Frog Coat Tree
Classic Hostess
ProAire Ductless Type-A Recirculating Kit for Island Range Hoods
Signature Hardware
Finding Spring Arrangement
$549.00 | FRONTGATE
Artemide | Tolomeo Classic LED TW Wall Light
$805.00 | YLighting
DuroStar 10,000-Watt 16.0 Hp Gas Generator with Electric Start Kit
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™