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Northeast Gardening: Japanese Maples

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Japanese maples brighten the landscape year-round.

 The lacy foliage and cascading manner of Acer palmatum dissectum add grace and elegance to the landscape.

It all goes back to my novice year as a new homeowner and hesitant gardener when a nor’easter raged across Long Island’s North Shore, destroying an evergreen outside my study window. I hugged the tree as if I could keep it from bending to nature’s will. My tears mixed with the rain running down my face. “Don’t die,” I told it. “You’re my tree.” It was the first time I realized that—if such a thing is possible—I did indeed own a tree.

Two decades later I still mourn that evergreen. But now I have many trees and I take none of them for granted. Each has a place in my heart as well as my landscape—the Japanese cherry, whose pink petals carpet my patio in spring; the Kousa dogwood that bears berries as well as blooms; the star magnolia that inspires the shade garden with the glory of its white flowers; the magnolia with its suede-backed foliage and creamy fragrant flowers; the witch hazel that draws a golden curtain on winter; the towering oak that scatters the childhood treasures called acorns.


But the tree I expect to enjoy the most this season is the laceleaf Japanese maple—Acer palmatum dissectum. I have five Japanese maples on my property, including one that cascades over the koi pond.

But the dwarf weeping maple assumed special status last fall, when we began a landscaping project that will be completed this spring. The project involved repositioning the tree to accommodate a new pathway from the patio to the pool.

We had some concerns about transplanting the maple, but it is doing just fine in a sheltered spot where it will get what it needs:

  • protection from prevailing winds
  • softly dappled shade to prevent its delicate leaves from scorching
  • well-drained, slightly acidic soil
  • consistent moisture

And we moved the tree early enough so its fibrous roots had time to settle into their new digs before the ground froze. Even in winter the tree’s bare curving branches have made it a lovely focal point.

And in summer the Japanese maple’s sweet structure and the sheen of its burgundy-tinged leaves should turn it into a small majesty.

There are so many Japanese maples to choose from—some are tall and vase-shaped, others are mushroom-shaped and cascading. Their lobed leaves can be deep purple, bright green, coral pink or creamy white. They’re all gorgeous in fall.

I’m lucky that my garden falls right in my trees’ comfort zone: USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. But even if you live in a slightly chillier climate, don’t give up. Try one of the smaller Acer palmatum cultivars in a container, but wrap it in winter or move it to an unheated garage, so the plant stays dormant till spring. Or sink the tree into the ground with an insulating layer of mulch to protect its shallow roots.

And other Asian maples may do the trick—such as Chinese paperbark maple, with cinnamon-brown peeling bark, and dark-green leaves that turn red as the weather cools; or Korean maple, whose foliage echoes autumn by turning pumpkin-orange. Both are hardy to Zone 4. Which should warm the souls of cold-climate gardeners who covet Japanese maples.

Tell me about the special tree in your life.