How to plant and care for Japanese maple

The leaves of Japanese maple may be red, light or dark burgundy, or light or dark green. Some Japanese maples, like Bloodgood, remain short, around 10 feet tall, while other varieties are capable of reaching a height and width of 25 feet. 

When to plant Japanese maple

Japanese maple, which is cold hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8, is best planted in early spring as soon as the soil is workable. 

Where to plant Japanese maple

Japanese maple is best suited to morning sun or full shade. If not planting in full shade, then evaluate the sun conditions in the landscape to choose a location with afternoon shade protection to help prevent scorching the leaves. The chosen location should also have well-drained soil.

Read the nursery plant tag that came with the Japanese to see what the potential width of the tree will be. If only the height is noted, expect the width to be about the same. Select the planting location far enough away from other trees and buildings to give the tree room to expand unhindered.

How to plant Japanese maple

Dig a hole two to three times as wide as the root ball and as deep as the root ball is tall. Remove the tree from the container. If planting a burlap wrapped root ball, leave the burlap on the root ball. Place the root ball in the center of the hole. The top of the root ball should be level with the surrounding round.

Backfill the hole halfway with the soil removed from the hole. Water around the root ball to settle the soil. If planting a burlap wrapped root ball, cut the wire or cord holding the burlap and fold the burlap down to expose the top half of the root ball. Finish backfilling the hole. Water again, adding more soil if needed to make the surface area level.

Use the remaining soil to form a ring, or curb, 2 to 3 inches high around the outer perimeter of the hole. The soil ring creates a saucer effect to direct water to the root ball.

Care for Japanese maple

Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch, like wood chips or leaf mold, over the worked soil, keeping the mulch about 4 inches from the trunk of the tree. The first year, water every seven to 10 days if there is no rainfall.

Wait until the second year to fertilize Japanese maple and only fertilize once per season, like in the spring or early summer. An acidic water-soluble all-purpose fertilizer like that used for azalea can be used following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Prune broken branches or branches that are touching any time during the year. Wait until winter while the tree is dormant for heavy pruning to maintain shape.


Japanese maple is a prolific self-seeder. Shown above is a Japanese maple with red seeds clinging to branches. The seeds drop each year resulting in hundreds of tiny seedlings growing anywhere the wind carries the seed though many seedlings pop up beneath the tree. Just a few of the dozens of seedlings are marked with an arrow. I let the seedlings reach about 6 inches tall and then dig the up to give away or pot as a future gift once the tree is taller.