Pruning Acers – How & When To Prune Japanese Maples

In an ideal world, there would be no need to prune your Acer. Generally speaking, they are fine without being subject to the secateurs. But as with many shrubs that do not actually need pruning, we sometimes have a need to prune.

Other than formative pruning for those Acers which go on to make large shrubs or trees, the Acers and Japanese Maples, in particular, are best left alone. The main exception to this non pruning is the removal of dead and dying branches that have succumbed to the cold in the previous winter.

If Acers – or Maples – are planted in the right position, and do not suffer overcrowding from other shrubs, then the least done by way of pruning the better.  The problem with positioning Acers is the fact that most are bought as relatively small shrubs, with a general habit of slow growth, so planting in the ‘right’ position often means gaps to be filled around the newly acquired plant. Even those bought with the intention of being ‘specimens’ somehow seem to need the protection of a few small shrubs – or simply a covering up of the bare earthy around.  Being reluctant as we are to remove these ‘sheltering’ shrubs once they have grown and turned into smothering rather than sheltering, the Acer suffers, and the secateurs are seen as the only answer. 

Pruning Japanese Maples – Acer JaponicumTypes

Most of the e-mails I get about pruning Acers are generally about the Dissectum varieties, which have decided upon their own course of action – or direction of growth when planted in a rock garden or container. Acer palmatum Dissectum – and its many different cultivars, are normally dome-shaped shrubs with a very uniform habit of growth. However, when planted as a specimen in a rock garden or container, they often veer off to one side – and invariably not the ‘side’ you wish.  

Pruning is sometimes seen as the only course of action. This is often the wrong thing to do, for if you cut a sizeable section of the Acer away, you still have a root system below ground, that wants to support the size of the plant is has become part of.  It will keep finding and sending its food reserves to try and re-grow the plant as soon as possible.

New growth, if it happens, invariably starts again on the removed side, and in a short time, the shrub is again trying to assume the shape that it wanted in the first place.

It is far better to allow the Maple to grow the way it wants if at all possible, and to alter the surrounding and aspect to suit!

If any pruning is done, then it should be carried out during late, and in any event, before the early spring sap rising. Again, the exception is if there is any damaged wood after a severe winter.

How and When To Prune Acer Trees

Regardless of all the preceding information and advice, someone, somewhere, will want or need to prune their Acer or Japanese maple. We accept that the world is not always ideal – so this is how to do it.

Pruning Mature Acers

Acers sometimes fall into neglect, normally by way of being planted in the wrong position. Life happens and the Acer has to be saved.  Acer trees, normally have quite a dense canopy of foliage and can be a nuisance – casting shade over large or unwanted areas of the garden. They do not normally respond too well to having a large central leader taken out. This often leads to dieback over a few years.

However, lateral branches – other than the ones that emanate directly from the main trunk, can be removed or reduced in order to curb the spread of the tree. Many tree Acers are in any event upright in growth habit, so such pruning can allow light to penetrate through the tree canopy to the garden – or house below.

Formative Pruning of Tree Acers.

Most newly bought Acers, which are ultimately to form trees: Acer cappadocicum; Acer platanoides; Acer pseudplatanus etc. will have had their central leader removed, to allow the start of a branching hait by the two opposite buds – which will then form branches. If this is not the case, then simply cut back the central leader to two strong buds, to allow for this to happen. Further formative training of this type can take place by pruning the central shoot of the laterals. Bear in mind, that this will then be aiming towards a dense foliage canopy if carried too far. Far better to allow the lateral side shoots – branches – to spread out and allow for a relatively open centre of the tree as it grows.

When to Prune Maple Trees

Always carry out such pruning in late Autumn or Winter. NOT in the early spring or summer. By all means decide in the summer which branches are going to be troublesome – make a note – and do the work later.

The reason for this dormant season pruning, is that Acers bleed their sap if pruned in the spring or summer. (So much so, that some Acers are actually grown for the purpose of sap collection!). It is said to make good wine!

Pruning Small Acer Trees and Shrubs

If the steps are followed below for the Japanese Acer group, then it is possible to open up the centre of the shrub – which might be good if it is a large specimen. The resultant form can be attained over several years of light formative pruning. Much of the beauty of the Maples is their branch structure – other than the beautifulo foliage for which they are normally grown.

Often after severe winters, there is a case for cutting out damaged shoots and branches on Japanese Maples. Sometimes this winter damage does not show through until leaf break time in late Spring. Simply cut the dead wood back to a pair of live sprouting buds – about 2cm – 1in above. 

Ready to prune

This group of shrubs rarely need anything other than the lightest pruning (a) to bring back the shrub into a more desired shape, and (b) to take out ‘rogue’ crossing and week shoots.

In this diagram, you will see some ‘crossing’ shoots and a few small twigs – which if allowed to grow – will spoil the shape of the shrub.

In the summer growing season, it is a good idea to loosely tie a little tape or string where you think best to prune for the desired shape in the coming Autumn.

Red marks show where to prune

This diagram shows the proposed pruning cuts at the red marks – to sort out the few potential problems mentioned above. The aim should simply be to open up the centre of the shrub. This is more preferable for Acers, so that the attractive branch form can be seen,

Always make the pruning cut back to within a few inches of the main branch. There will be a little dieback of the stub, but this is normally self-healing and does not require any of the tar based pruning treatments. 

Pruning complete

The pruning has been done! 2 further small branches on the right hand side could be pruned to give an ‘instantly better’ shape, but I would wait to see what sprouts on the left and side to even things up a little! 

The least done to this group the better! If really necessary, can be reduced in size at this time of year, but far better to allow it to grow to its proper maturity. Most of the foliage growth will be around the perimeter of the branches – so there will be plenty of room to under-plant attractive low growing shrubs or perennials.

About Tim Stephens

I'm a professional gardener with degrees in Horticulture & Landscape Gardening. I want to help you create the garden of your dreams. I want your garden to look like it’s maintained by a professional. As if I was there doing it all for you!

2 thoughts on “Pruning Acers – How & When To Prune Japanese Maples”

  1. I have a potted acer that seems to have FROST damage, are these trees susceptable to frost, or is the positioning out of wind important?


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