‘Rules’ that will help you ‘immensely’ when pruning Japanese maples

Alan Titchmarsh explains how to prune an Acer tree

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Winter is an ideal time to prune, as the lack of leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs enables gardeners to see what they’re doing more clearly. What’s more, since sap is not as active during the winter, cuts are less likely to “bleed”, and the tree or shrub sustains less of a shock than being chopped when sap is in full flow. Wounds will callous over just as they would in nature, and this natural healing process should happen before growth begins again in spring. While Japanese maples are usually planted around October to March, December is a great time to start pruning acers.

In a YouTube video titled ‘How to prune a Japanese maple tree’ John Valentino, President of John & Bob’s Smart Soil Solutions, shared his top tips for pruning Japanese maples.

He said: “It’s a chilly day here in December, but an excellent day to show you how to encourage health and growth on trees by pruning them when they’re dormant right up until early spring. We’re gonna specifically show you step by step how to prune a Japanese maple. 

“I’m John Valentino, President of John and Bob’s and I’m a landscape architect and a landscape contractor. I’m going to start with talking about thinning and heading back as the first step to properly pruning a Japanese maple.”

The gardening pro stressed that timing is “important” when thinking about pruning Japanese maples. He said that for gardeners who have small acer trees and want them to grow more, they need to prune it in mid-December when it’s dormant or just beginning to be dormant.

However, this is different for those with larger maples. John said: “For a big Japanese maple that we’re always trying to control the growth, I would wait and prune it in the spring after it puts on all its leaves because those leaves conduct photosynthesis and allow that tree to get even bigger. 

“So we would trick it by as soon as it puts on all its new growth we cut all that new growth off and that’s an excellent way to control size on any tree or any plant.”

When pruning Japanese maples, it’s essential to avoid heading back cuts as it’s improper to do that to acer trees and also any tree, according to the expert. Heading back cuts are when you cut a branch right in the middle without paying attention to where the buds are or where the angle of growth is directed.

The expert said: “A heading back cut is when we cut it right in the middle with no regard to where it emanates and no regard to any buds or anything. Avoid these cuts.”

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Instead the expert urged gardeners to make thinning cuts to their acers. John explained: “So a thinning cut is when we take the entire branch off, we go back to where it starts and we cut it off so what we’re left with is a tree that looks the same but just has fewer branches.

“Then you can see through it you can see the structure of the tree. The key to that and the beauty of that in a Japanese maple is these thinning cuts.”

Before making thinning cuts, John advised carrying out “preliminary cuts” first, especially for larger Japanese maples. He claimed that this would be “very helpful”.

The expert said: “A lot of times branches are heavy and if you try to go right in and do a thinning cut, because it’s so heavy it’ll start to tear. It could tear some of the important parts of the trunk and the bark of the trunk and make a very bad cut. We want clean, precise cuts that heal very easily.”

Once the cuts to the prances have been made, John advised against adding anything on the cuts. He said: “Don’t put anything on the cuts, these heal best by making nice clean cuts with sharp instruments and they’ll heal themselves. 

“So if your branch is heavy, that’s actually a good technique to cut it in half where you take a lot of the weight off and then make the final cut where you just have a little stub of the branch left – that makes for a very good clean cut.”

A particular type of branch to remove from Japanese maples are crossing branches. John explained: “So there’s a few simple rules that will help you immensely if you keep them in mind then you don’t have to keep a whole lot of things in mind and one of the rules that will serve you well is to remove crossing branches. 

“So, especially on a young tree a lot of times you’ll see branches going in every direction and crossing each other. Whenever you see that you want to do a thinning cut to remove that entire branch we want to do away with crossing branches.”

In some cases gardeners can find branches that are beginning to cross and they can pick a bud that would go a different direction if they want to leave the branch. When an acer tree is young, the expert advised against taking everything off. He said: “You want to leave a good amount so it’ll have a good amount of leaves which feeds itself in the spring.”

Branches that are growing too close to each other around the trunk. The gardening pro said: “We want to do away with branches that are too close together because if they’re too close together on the trunk, they’ll all kind of grow together. 

“They’ll make it so you might have weak attachments there because the branches are so close. Instead we want to spread them out, so they can have firm attachments.”

According to John, for any tree, but very much so for Japanese maples, the aim is to open the centre a little bit and so gardeners should take more branches out from right in the middle of the tree to carry out this task gardeners should use thinning cuts and steer clear of heading back cuts. The expert said: “So we’ll look in the centre and if the branch is pointing towards the centre, we’ll take quite a few of those out.”

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