Japanese maples on a budget

Several of the garden’s Japanese maples started as runts or rejects. When the gardener is continually unable to resist adding more plants it’s important to get a bargain here and there, particularly when the wife screeches whenever a new plant is brought home. It helps to soothe her (though only slightly) when the plant has been salvaged from a dumpster, or pulled from the discount section for next to nothing.

The Butterfly Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’, above) was beaten and battered when I found it. It appeared that it had fallen off a truck, and then run over a time or two. There were few leaves, and branches had been mutilated so that it was a pitiful sight. I don’t recall if I paid a penny for this reclamation project, but it wasn’t worth much. ‘Butterfly’ is a slowpoke in the best circumstances, but it took several years for it to grow to look just okay, and five years before it regained its full vigor. Now, it’s happy, and so am I, though there are branches only on the perimeter and none in the center. But, no one will notice, and I won’t tell if you don’t.

‘Butterfly’ has green and creamy white variegated foliage, and I don’t think it will ever grow taller than ten feet, so it’s a good Japanese maple for smaller gardens. With a damaged central trunk it has spread wider than its usual form, but the only problem is that I’ve planted it a bit too close to a stone path so I have to duck under the branches when they’re wet from rain. ‘Butterfly’ occasionally sends out branches of solid green foliage that are  distinctly different in color and shape, and these should be pruned out a few times a year so these branches do not overwhelm the slower growing variegated parts of the tree.

The variegation of ‘Butterfly’ is quite different from the Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above) that I planted earlier in the spring, though both are green and white. ‘Butterfly’ is a creamier white with prominent portions of green, while the Floating Cloud maple is whiter, with much less green, and sometimes a bit of pink that fades as the leaves mature into summer.

‘Oridono Nishiki’ (Acer palmatum ‘Oridono Nishiki’, or sometimes ‘Orido Nishiki’, above) has foliage with irregular combinations of green and white, and also pink on newly emerging leaves, but older leaves often fade to green. In my garden this vigorous Japanese maple has battled a grove of bamboo that at one time engulfed the entire tree when it was smaller. Somehow it has persevered, and now it towers over and shades the bamboo.

A ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, below) was planted by the front walk when the garden was first constructed twenty some years ago, and in my haste to get the garden started the maple was planted so that it would eventually grow to partially block the walk. So, I decided to move it, but it was too big for one person to handle. I was three quarters of the way into the transplant when I realized my dilemma, but instead of recruiting one of my sons to help I hooked a strap to the rootball that was halfway dug out, tied the strap to the bumper of my little car, and jerked it out of the hole.

Clumps of dirt and root were left dragging behind as it was pulled to the new hole, and needless to say this is not the proper way to transplant a tree of any sort, much less a treasured Japanese maple. But, after replanting it I paid a bit of extra attention to watering for the next month, and it survived with barely a hiccup. I’ve found that most people consider Japanese maples to be fragile and slow growing, when I believe that the opposite is true.

Now, the ‘Crimson Queen’ has grown nearly eight feet tall and ten feet across, and it grows slightly into the driveway so that I warn delivery drivers not to enter. The Japanese maple isn’t the only plant that grows into the driveway, but it’s the most valued. I laugh when friends and family pull into the drive, and then have to back out through this obstacle course. The driveway is short and straight, but the overhanging plants demand veering one way then the other. Nothing has been damaged so far, but it’s inevitable, and I hope when it happens that it’s the fernspray cypress, or nandinas, or roses,  and not the maple.

There are now twenty-three Japanese maple cultivars in the garden (I think), and if I can figure something of interest to say about them I’ll be back with more photos. I’ve planted many dozens of trees in the garden, and more shrubs and perennials than I can count, but my favorite plants are the Japanese maples. There are many varieties to choose from, and I hope that I might spark some interest for someone out there to consider something a little different.


7 thoughts on “Japanese maples on a budget

  1. Dave….thoroughly enjoy your posts, especially when you opine about your Japanese maples, about which we’ve exchanged some thoughts. One of your professional landscape designers incorporated a Japanese maple into an area where our stone front walkway meets our driveway. It’s been 6-8 years now, and the maple hangs a bit over the drive and the walk. Both require some lifting and ducking to navigate. I can easily trim off the main offending limb(s) in hopes that will do the trick, but am concerned about proper timing of this surgery. Your advice? Also, where limbs are beginning to grow and rub together, I forsee a problem. Hope I’m wrong. Is this also going to require some surgery, or will the bark just ‘toughen up’ over the years?

    • I’d be comfortable pruning a Japanese maple any time that I get around to it. I don’t worry about crossing branches or ones that rub, though it’s best to prune these out. I’ve had branches that fuse into one because they’re growing too close, so I don’t think there’s much harm in leaving them alone.

  2. Hi Dave,
    I love your posts! Any suggestions for a short Japanese Maple to plant in my front yard? I am looking for an “interest focal point” which I can uplight at night down the road. Maximum 6ish feet growing height. I’m hoping it can be purchased locally. I would love a few suggestions.
    Jayme from Warrenton

    • Most Japanese maples will mature to a height above six feet tall, though for some this will be after a number of years. There are a handful of commonly available cultivars that will slowly grow to ten feet or less. Most of these are the weeping types with pendulous branches. The branches mound upon one another so that upright growth is very slow, and for these types the eventual spread is often the more pertinent factor to consider.

      There are several low growing upright varieties of Japanese maple, the smallest of which are usually selections from witch’s brooms of taller growing trees. In my garden ‘Shaina’ has barely reached three feet in five years, starting from a bushy two foot tall tree, and ‘Skeeter’s Broom’ is another that is unlikely to grow past eight to ten feet in twenty years.

      In selecting a weeping or upright Japanese maple from these varieties I would consider the setting in which it will be planted. It’s looks odd to my eye to see one of the weeping types planted in the middle of an area of front lawn where a more upright tree is more appropriate. Closer to the house the weeping tree is the better choice, though it is important to consider the distance it is planted from walks and driveway.

  3. I do love it when I find a “charlie brown” tree in the TLC section. They usually take up forms with real character once they come around and establish vs. the non-TLC ones.

    • Nursery grown plants are sculpted and pruned for fullness and conformity. Japanese maples are often most beautiful with fewer branches so that their graceful form is more evident. Thus, a few broken branches can be a plus.

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