Find the Perfect Japanese Maple for Your Landscape

If you’re looking for a focal point to really set off your home’s curb appeal, don’t overlook Japanese maples.

Japanese maple most commonly refers to any cultivar of Acer palmatum, which is native to Japan, China, and Korea.

But cultivars of A. japonicum and A. shirasawanum are sometimes thrown into the mix as well – which are also native to Japan.

And, with over 700 cultivars, you will, without question, find one to suit your every desire.

These large deciduous shrubs/small trees come in a number of shapes and sizes.

Upright or weeping. Tall and picturesque. Short and muscular.

I promise I’m staying on topic…

Reddish orange Japanese maple growing in sunshine in a green lawn with foliage all the way down to the ground, and other types of trees and conifers in the background against a blue sky.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Their delicate, often purple leaves turn some sort of brilliant shade of red, orange, or yellow in the fall.

Their characteristic gray bark creates a clear silhouette in the moonlight and is beautiful against snow in the winter.

And their branching limbs offer balance to any design.

Japanese maples have the power to define your landscape.

Before you run out to get one (because you really should and because my intro is seriously convincing) here’s what you need to know.

Get it Right

Before even thinking about planting a Japanese maple in your yard, let’s see if they’re a good fit for your location.

Most cultivars are cold hardy to around 20°F, or zones 5 through 9.

Naturally, these small trees grow in the understory of woodlands, where sunlight is dappled. So, a location in partial shade is fitting.

A maroon leafed Japanese maple growing next to a traditional white American style house.

Full sun is great too if you live in a northern zone where summer temperatures aren’t as intense.

But if it gets really hot in your area, some shade is highly recommended. Otherwise, young leaves may burn and scald.

Variegated types are most vulnerable to leaf scorch. While it likely won’t kill the tree, it’s definitely unsightly.

As a bonus, these beauties can even tolerate full shade – just know that leaf color may not be what you expect and fall brilliance may suffer as well.

Soil type can be almost anything – clay, loam, sand – but it has to be well draining. Water logged soil is a sure way to kill almost any Japanese maple.

It’s also best if soil is slightly acidic.

If planted in clay soil, make sure it’s on higher ground to avoid standing water.

Keep Your Tree Alive and Vibrant

It all starts with the hole you dig.

Make sure it’s big enough – usually twice as wide as the root ball and just deep enough that the top of the root ball is flush with or just above the soil line once watered in.

A hole dug for a Japanese maple tree.

A little too high is okay. Too deep and you may have some problems.

If the roots are bound up, go ahead and make a few cuts with your pruners or a knife to free some of them up.

Backfill the hole well, adding some compost if desired. Make sure to tamp the soil to get it to settle. Also, don’t forget to check that the trunk is straight.

Staking may be a good idea if your tree is especially tall at the time of planting, or if you experience frequent winds.

Hands down, the most vulnerable time for a tree is during the first few years after it has been transplanted.And it’s no different for Japanese maples.

While established trees can withstand dry spells, newly transplanted trees cannot. So, whatever you do, do not let your tree dry out in its first few years after being transplanted.

Trees planted in full sun, especially in hotter climates, will need more water in general, even after established.

A few inches of mulch will help to retain moisture, not to mention suppress weeds and regulate soil temperature.

Be sure not to mulch too close around the base of the trunk, which will smother it. Lay mulch very lightly closest to the trunk, and thicker as you move away from the trunk.

Two young Japanese maples in the springtime, growing in a yellow-green lawn in a cemetery with gray headstones and grave markers, with more young trees with green foliage in the background.
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Japanese maples are typically early to leaf out in the spring, which is great for aesthetics. However, late spring frosts could kill off the fresh growth.

Trees planted in full sun are particularly susceptible to late spring frosts, as these areas will warm faster and encourage branches to leaf out earlier.

One way to delay leafing out is to add a thicker layer of mulch around the base of the tree, between 3 to 4 inches.

Again, avoid clumping mulch up against the trunk. It won’t be happy.

Prune all dead, dying, or diseased branches as you see them. Pruning for shape and structure is best done sometime in late fall through mid winter.

Be sure to practice proper pruning techniques. Otherwise, you’ll probably do more harm than good.

Fertilization may not ever be necessary. But if you notice your tree looking less than healthy, consider a soil test. We share more information about the steps you need to take at home to have your soil analyzed here.

In lieu of a soil test, the best option is to maintain a low level of fertility.

Since specimens are generally slow growing, too much fertilizer – especially nitrogen – can be particularly harmful.

A fertilizer formulated specifically for Japanese maples is ideal.

Also, since they are prone to frost damage, it’s important to wait until after the last frost to fertilize.

Finding the Best Cultivar

With so many to choose from, you may feel a little overwhelmed when choosing which cultivar of Japanese maple to plant.

Here’s how to narrow your selection down:

Know Your Zone

Cold hardiness is cultivar specific, so know your growing zone.

This will be the first step to narrowing down your selection.

Also, if you plan to grow your Japanese maple in a container, choose a variety that’s hardy to two zones north of your area. Or, be prepared to provide winter protection.

How Much Space do You Have?

Japanese maples vary wildly in size and growth habit.

A low growth Japanese maple growing up a wooden wall.

So, don’t make the mistake of buying a tree and picking the location afterwards.

Know exactly where you want it, and know that it’s a good location per the recommendations above beforehand.

An area with a diameter of at least 5 feet is a good starting point.

Knowing how much space you have to grow your plant will determine which varieties are a possible fit.

If you’re okay with pruning a little heavier every year, you can likely maintain your tree at a certain size. But if low maintenance is your golden ticket, pick a cultivar with a natural growth habit suitable for the space you have.

The majority of cultivars are considered slow growing, putting on less than one foot of new growth every year.

Dwarf varieties typically max out between 6 and 8 feet, while taller ones can reach over 40 feet.

Which Type Do You Prefer?

In general, there are two main forms of Japanese maples:

They’re either a more compact, large shrub with lacy leaves that tend to branch lower and even become weeping- or they’re more upright, with a vase-like structure and tree form.

A large, red leafed Japanese maple growing next to a traditional Korean tiled roof.

From there, you can usually find varieties with different leaf colors, usually purple, red, or green during the summer, and some amazing shade of red, orange, or yellow during the fall.

Different leaf colors and types have different implications for sunlight exposure, so keep this in mind when making your final decision.

Be sure that your specific cultivar matches your site’s conditions, not just conditions that are suitable to most Japanese maples.

You Won’t Be Disappointed

As long as you take your time with the decision, you won’t regret including a Japanese maple in your landscape.

Most importantly, make sure the cultivar you choose is a good one, not only for your zone, but your specific location in your landscape.

Also, be sure to baby your plant in its first few years in its new location. Mostly, you just need to worry about watering adequately.

There’s nothing more disappointing than investing time and money in a beautiful tree just to watch it slowly – or quickly – perish.

Choose the right location and keep it well watered and you should be a happy new Japanese maple grower.

Do you have experience growing Japanese maples? Tell us everything you know! Just leave us a message in the comments.

Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Amber Shidler

Amber Shidler lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and holds a dual bachelor’s degree in botany and geography. For four years she worked as a horticulturist, but is now a stay-at-home mom. With experience in landscape design, installation, and maintenance she has set her sights on turning her tenth-of-an-acre lot into a productive oasis. Amber is passionate about all things gardening, especially growing and enjoying organic food.

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