Winter Care for Japanese Maples

Winter Care for Japanese Maples - Maple Ridge Nursery

People are always curious what to do with their plants in the cold. Luckily, Japanese maples are some of the most cold hardy trees there are. However, there are still several things you need to know when caring for your Japanese maple over the winter. Whether it’s how to handle the watering or whether to protect it from extreme temperatures or a myriad of other things that can happen in the cold, this article is going to fill you in on all you need to know on how to care for your Japanese maple over the winter.

Let’s start by talking about what winter is rather than what it is not. Winter is actually an opportunity for the Japanese maple lover. Winter, and a Japanese maple’s dormancy period, is the perfect time to do all sorts of things with your tree. If you have an older specimen, it’s the best time to prune your tree. If you have a tree you want to move, then it’s the best time to dig it up and transplant it. Even if your trees are in pots, winter is the best time to transplant them into bigger pots. Winter is full of opportunity when it comes to your Japanese maple.

Winter Pruning of your Japanese Maple

Late winter is the perfect time to do any major pruning on your Japanese maple. Minor pruning can be done at any point in the year, but you want to perform any major pruning in late winter while the tree is dormant or just before your tree pushes out spring growth. Limit pruning during the early winter months, as open wounds can be more susceptible to diseases and cold damage. If pruning is necessary, focus on removing dead or damaged branches. Save major shaping and thinning for late winter or early spring when the tree is still dormant, minimizing stress on the tree. This also has an added benefit of promoting extra growth during the initial spring flush. You still want to remember never to prune more than one third of the tree off at any one time. When pruning off small branches in the spring or summer months, we like to use what we’ve coined the pinky rule. If the branch is skinnier than your pinky, then you can clip it at any time. 

When pruning a Japanese maple it is imperative to use clean, sharp cutters to make precise cuts on your Japanese maple tree. Our favorite pruning tool are these Carbon Steel Concave Cutters. This is the best tool for pruning Japanese maples. Whether you're a bonsai artist or home gardener these cutters will help you make precise cuts close to the branch. I wouldn't touch a Japanese maple with any other kind of clipper.

Planting your Japanese maple in the Winter

There’s an old adage that my father used to say, “The best time to plant a Japanese maple was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today.” This is 100% true. People are always asking when they should plant their tree, or they’ll say they want to wait until the spring or wait until the fall. What are you waiting for?? The sooner you get your Japanese maple in the ground, the sooner the roots get established and the sooner your tree can start really growing. So, don’t worry about the time of year, just get that tree in the ground. As long as the ground isn’t frozen and you are actually able to dig the hole then you can plant a Japanese maple.

Now that I’ve laid out the blanket rule that you should always want to get your Japanese maple in the ground as soon as possible, let’s dive into a few winter specific things to know when planting your maple in the cold. A huge benefit of planting a Japanese maple in the winter is that it drinks very little water this time of year. As long as we get some rain about every two weeks, the tree should be fine. This is a far cry from the treatment that a Japanese maple needs when planted in the summer. Not only does your tree not need much water in the winter when you first plant it, you also won’t have to water it much all year. When planting a Japanese maple in the winter, you’re giving your tree time to get established and acclimated in your yard. By the time spring and summer role around your tree should be established to the point that the rainwater is keeping it satisfied. Still make sure it’s receiving a thorough watering about every week or two, but that usually is something the rain can handle.

While I believe that these benefits far outweigh the downfalls, there is one concern with planting a Japanese maple in the winter, especially here in the south where we get crazy winter weather fluctuations. As long as a Japanese maple is dormant, it can handle temperatures even as low as zero degrees. However, we often have stretches of warm temperatures in February that cause some of our trees to leaf out in late February or early March. While we’re as excited for an early spring as anyone, there is always at least one freeze or frost that occurs in March or even early April. Japanese maples do not handle freezing temperatures very well when they are leafed out. We suggest protecting any Japanese maple from freezing temperatures after it has leafed out. This can mean bringing smaller, potted trees inside your garage overnight, or covering up your larger, in-ground trees with some sort of sheet that is not too heavy as to break branches. Obviously, protecting your trees once they are in the ground is much more difficult than while in a pot, making this really the only major downfall of planting during the winter.

Transplanting your Japanese Maple in the Winter

You can transplant your Japanese maple from one pot to another any time of the year. However, winter is the only time that I would recommend ever digging a mature tree out of the ground. This concept is similar to that of pruning. Your Japanese maple is least active in the winter; therefore, this is the time of year where you will disturb your tree the least by digging it up. Even still, you want to be very careful when taking a Japanese maple out of the ground. Make sure to dig a wide enough hole as to disturb the roots as little as possible. The root ball will typically extend to the drip line or the canopy of the tree. Once you have removed the tree from the hole, make sure to immediately place the tree into its new hole or container and water thoroughly. As long as you follow these steps, are very careful as to disturb the tree as little as possible, and transplant during the winter, then your Japanese maple should be completely fine.

Winter Care Tips for Healthy Japanese Maples

More than all of this other information, you probably started reading this article because you want to know the best way to keep your Japanese maple healthy over the winter. Luckily, there isn’t a whole lot that you need to do to keep your tree happy and healthy. Japanese maples are tough trees that are usually killed by kindness more than anything else. My first tip is not to overwater your tree in the winter. As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese maples are not actively growing during their dormancy period and hence aren’t drinking much water. This fact coupled with slower water evaporation in the winter causes moisture to stick around in the soil much longer. This will give your maple wet feet, which is one of the worst things you can do for your Japanese maple. Roots that stay wet can rot or develop diseases such as Root rot, Pseudomonas syringae, Pythium, or Verticillum wilt. This is why proper drainage is so important for your Japanese maple year-round but especially in the winter.

Proper insulation around the base of the tree is a key element in winter care for Japanese Maples. Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as straw or wood chips, to a depth of 2-3 inches. Mulching helps regulate soil temperature, preventing extreme fluctuations that can stress the tree's roots. Additionally, it acts as a protective barrier against frost heaving, which can damage the roots by lifting them out of the soil.

While we rarely experience this here in Georgia, heavy snow accumulation on Japanese Maples can cause branches to bend or break. If your Japanese maples accumulate excess snow use a broom or soft brush to gently remove snow from branches, starting from the bottom and working your way up. This precautionary measure prevents the accumulation of excessive weight, reducing the risk of structural damage.

Winter is a dormant period for many pests, but some, like mice, rabbits, and deer, may still pose a threat to your Japanese Maples. Install protective barriers, such as wire mesh, around the base of the tree to deter these creatures from nibbling on the bark during winter months.

Another thing to keep in mind when caring for your Japanese maple over the winter is fertilizer. You want to refrain from any fertilizing in the winter. Wait until spring before fertilizing your Japanese maples. Japanese maples need the winter and their dormancy period, and that shouldn’t be rushed. We usually wait until early to mid-April before fertilizing as we want to be sure that the trees are done with their dormancy. Fertilizing can be pushed back even later in climates where spring arrives later. When it is time to fertilize we use Happy Frog Japanese Maple Fertilizer. Happy Frog is an organic, slow release fertilizer specifically formulated for Japanese maples. Apply Happy Frog in the spring for a happy and healthy Japanese maple all year long. Patience is absolutely a virtue when it comes to Japanese maples. Be patient with your dormant maples and they will likely reward you in the spring. 

Winter Care Tips for Potted Japanese Maples

Potted Japanese Maples are more vulnerable to winter's chill than their counterparts in the ground, making thoughtful care crucial for preserving their beauty. In this guide, we'll explore essential winter care tips to keep your potted Japanese Maples thriving even in the coldest months.

Choose the Right Container for your Japanese Maple

The most important factor for any potted Japanese maple is the container itself. Opt for a container with proper drainage holes to prevent waterlogged soil, which can lead to root rot. Consider using a container made of insulating materials like thick plastic or ceramic, providing an additional layer of protection against temperature extremes.

Insulate the Pot of your Japanese Maple

Potted plants are more susceptible to temperature fluctuations, so insulating the container is essential. Wrap the pot with bubble wrap or burlap, leaving the top and drainage holes uncovered. This helps regulate soil temperature, preventing root damage caused by freezing temperatures.

Elevate the Pot of your Japanese Maple

Place your potted Japanese Maple on pot feet or bricks to lift it slightly above the ground. This minimizes the risk of the pot sitting in cold, waterlogged soil and helps maintain adequate drainage. Elevating the pot also prevents the roots from freezing due to direct contact with the cold ground.

Mulch your Potted Japanese Maple for Root Protection

Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the potted Japanese Maple to insulate the roots. Use materials like straw or wood chips to provide an additional barrier against extreme cold. Mulching helps maintain soil temperature and prevents rapid temperature fluctuations that can stress the roots.

Monitor Japanese Maple Soil Moisture

While Japanese Maples in containers require less water during winter, it's essential to monitor soil moisture. Water the tree thoroughly before the first hard frost and then allow the top inch of soil to dry out before watering again. Avoid waterlogging, as excessive moisture can lead to root rot in the colder months.

Consider Temporary Indoor Shelter for your Japanese Maple

In regions with extremely harsh winters, consider moving your potted Japanese Maple to a protected location, such as an unheated garage or porch, during the coldest periods. Ensure the tree receives some light to prevent it from becoming overly dormant.

Shopping for a Japanese Maple while Trees are Dormant

It is often said that the winter isn’t a great time to shop for a Japanese maple because they don’t have any leaves on them. However, I want to buck back against that notion. It’s true that it can be difficult to determine how much you will like a certain tree without seeing its leaves, but more often than not leaves can be a distraction when picking out a tree. So often people will pick the tree with the prettiest leaves on it regardless of the circumstances. While the leaves are great, you don’t want to ignore the trunk and branching structure of the tree. When shopping in the winter, you can see the structure of the tree without the allure of the leaves impeding your view. Of course, the leaves can help you decide which variety of Japanese maple you would prefer, but if you’ve done your homework and know what you want, then choosing the perfect maple without leaves may actually be a better strategy.

Winter is also a great time for shipping Japanese maples as there are much fewer issues that that can arise from a dormant tree during the shipping process. We recommend getting your trees shipped to you before early spring so that your tree can acclimate to your climate before spring arrives and your Japanese maple leafs out. Now is a great time to buy a Japanese maple. You can now shop our entire Japanese Maple Collection.

Winter is obviously a time of great consternation among gardeners. All of these cold days can make it hard to wait for spring but remember how important winter actually is for Japanese maples and the garden. This season is full of opportunity for us to alter and manicure our gardens. By implementing these winter care tips, you can ensure that your Japanese Maples not only survive the colder months but thrive, ready to grace your garden with their beauty when spring arrives. Remember that each tree is unique, so pay attention to its specific needs and adjust your care routine accordingly. With a little extra attention during winter, your Japanese Maples will reward you with vibrant foliage and stunning displays year after year.

Spring is right around the corner and I hope this article helped get you through the cold.