‘Never prune more!’: ‘First port of call’ when pruning Japanese maples – ‘better finish’

Alan Titchmarsh explains how to prune an Acer tree

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Japanese maples, also known as acer trees, are low-maintenance trees with beautiful red foliage. Pruning the maple several times a year is a great way to keep the maple in good health and looking elegant. Japanese maples can handle anything from a light trim to more extensive pruning, depending on the time of year and the tree’s health. With a pair of shears and the right technique, gardeners can cut back excessive growth and give their tree a harmonious shape.

Pruning acer trees is beneficial for them not only because it can enhance the tree’s attractive shape (if done correctly). But it also helps keep it healthy by opening up circulation and allowing your tree to breathe. 

At the very least, it is necessary to prune away dead leaves and branches on your Japanese maple trees. 

Although autumn and winter are known as the ideal times to prune most plants, Jenny Andrews, gardening enthusiast at Garden designs noted that Japanese maples are the exception.

This is because the sap that will ooze from the cuts in those seasons can lead to “disease and a weakened tree”.

Instead she suggested: “The best time for pruning is July-August when sap won’t ooze from the branches. 

“Because many Japanese maples are grafted, any shoots that grow from the base of the plant should be removed as these can become stronger than the grafted section and overtake it.”

To assist gardeners on how to exactly prune their acer trees, Express.co.uk spoke to Emma Loker, gardening expert at DIY Garden, who shared a three step guide to achive a “better finish”.

Step 1: Out with the old

The first step is to remove any dead or dying branches with discoloured or flaking bark with a clean cut and go slowly to prevent inadvertently slicing into an adjacent branch.

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Emma explained: “Old, dead branches are the first port of call when pruning your Japanese Maple. Often, a Japanese Maple’s branches will die if they don’t receive enough sun exposure, so you may find that the under-branches aren’t looking their best. These are the branches you want to tackle first.

“Using a pair of bypass secateurs, cut dead branches where they meet the closest healthy branch. Snipping at the junction ensures you only remove dead growth.”

Be sure the pruning secateurs are sharp to help ensure clean, smooth cuts. Clean cuts will help your tree heal faster, and sharp clippers will help you prune easier. 

It is also important that your pruning shears have been cleaned. This helps avoid the possible transfer of disease and pests from any plant that has been pruned recently. 

Step 2: Step away and go again

It’s important that gardeners minimise how much they cut off each time, because each cut is a wound and may weaken the tree. 

Prune gradually and trim only a portion of the live branches slated for removal. It may take a while to achieve the desired form.

The gardening expert said: “Japanese Maples are all about aesthetics. So, frequently stepping back and analysing which branches to cut next will provide a better finish.

“Pick out any branches that are getting in the way, such as those hanging over paths or that aren’t aesthetically pleasing. This includes the little shoots at the tree’s base.”

Step 3: Close main branches wisely 

The third and final step is to choose which of the tree branches are the main ones. Cutting off the wrong ones can do serious damage and could take a while for the tree to recover.

Emma warned: “However, in this stage, you need to be careful. Never prune more than one-third of the canopy, as this may make it hard for the plant to recover.

“You’ll also want to consider whether you’re pruning for shape or to remove bulk. If you’re pruning for shape, only remove small branches that stick out. Cut these branches right down to the main branch.”

For restricting size, remove lower branches – this will ensure a compact shape. Then, get rid of shoots in the tree’s centre as this will stop the branches competing with one another.”

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