How To Prune An Overgrown Japanese Maple Tree

In this article, I’ll be showing you how to prune a Japanese maple tree.

There are two major types of Japanese maple trees: Laceleaf and upright maples. The Lacleafs have a weeping form with lacy-looking leaves, while the uprights have more solid leaves and grow to point upwards without tilts.

Both of these species are beautiful, but to maintain its beautiful looks, you have to prune them properly.

When To Prune Japanese Maple Tree

Unlike many other trees, Japanese maples are not season-specific.

However, pruning in the spring may not give you the best results, since this is when the tree will be producing new growth and will be flowing with sap. Pruning in the winter and the summer seasons are considered by experts as the best times.

The reason why winter is preferred is that the tree loses some of its leaves during this season, which makes it easier to spot the branches that need to be cut back.

The summer on the other hand permits for more accurate measurement of the brand that needs thinning. You have to be careful of the temperature if you plan to prune in the summer. If the temperature is too hot, removing branches that provide shade will allow harsh sunlight into the center of the tree.

A summer temperature of 80° Fahrenheit is ideal for pruning the Japanese Maple tree.

Pruning Upright Trees

To prune the upright Japanese Maple tree, you need to follow 4 major steps.

Firstly, you have to prune off the lower limbs which choke the lower shrubs or cause obstacles to walkways. Secondly, you need to prune off the deadwood. These include dead or brittle branches that no longer produce foliage.

The next step is to separate the tree into different layers. Remove any branches that are encroaching into the layers below or above them.

The fourth and final step is to give the branches an even thinning. Cut off some of the small lateral branches and keep the others to get an all-round thinned outlook.

The preferred look is to have fewer branches filling the empty spaces.

Pruning Laceleaf Trees

Pruning the Laceleaf Japanese Maple tree is a bit more complicated than pruning the uprights. Some gardeners don’t like pruning this species at all, but this will result in too much foliage.

On the other hand, some gardeners are fond of pruning too much, which will result in very little foliage.

For the upright maples tree, it is important to preserve the tree’s natural shape and promote its shell-shaped growth.

To begin, you will first have to remove all deadwood and low-hanging branches. Do not prune the thicker branches if they are more than 50% of the thickness of the trunk’s diameter. Any branch that doesn’t suit the aesthetic look of the tree should also be pruned out.

Also, if you find any branch that doesn’t curve or divide, then you can prune those back as well.

Similar to the upright trees, you should also separate the layers and cut off branches that do not conform with the tree’s natural pattern.

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The last step is to create a top layer with a veiled form. This is a uniform curtain that protects the rest of the tree’s foliage.

Pruning Tips

Below, I will list out some important pruning tips for a maple tree.

  • You can prune in almost any season, especially the winter (avoid pruning in the spring)
  • Prune according to the natural growth pattern of the tree
  • Remove all the dead, decayed, or brittle branches
  • Do not remove more than 50% of the tree’s mass
  • Don’t attempt to change the tree’s shape (prune according to natural shape)
  • You can reduce the width of the tree, but not its height
  • Don’t cut off large limbs that are up to half the diameter of the tree trunk

How To Keep Japanese Maple Trees Small

Japanese Maple trees are usually small trees, shrub-like if you will, although some grow tall. Most varieties grow no more than 15 feet high, while a few larger species grow as high as 50 feet.

The really small species are grown as bonsai specimens in small pots or containers.

To control the size, all you need is some minor pruning. However, if keeping your Japanese maple small is so important to you, then you should buy the small varieties.

Japanese maples have very good qualities, so I can understand why you would like to have them in your yard.

Below are some tips for you to have small-sized Japanese maples in your yard.

Buy compact species: This should be a no-brainer. If you’re keen on having a small Japanese maple, then just buy one.

The one you buy shouldn’t be able to grow more than 10 feet at full maturity. Burgundy Lace and Crimson Queen are among your best options.

Pruning: For a mature Japanese oak, the best way to keep them small is by pruning regularly. The early winter season is the best time, although you can remove deadwood anytime you find them.

Delay pruning young trees: For a young tree, pruning it will promote quicker growth. You can delay pruning for a while to slow its growth.

How To Prune Overgrown Japanese Maple Trees

No matter how overgrown your Japanese maple tree gets, you must not prune more than one-fifth of its canopy or more than 30% of the whole tree.

Follow the steps below to prune the Japanese Maple Tree.

Step 1: Clean off all the dirt from your cutting tools and wipe them off with an alcohol-based sterilizer. Any blunt tools should be replaced or sharpened before they are used for pruning.

Step 2: Remove all dead, decayed, or brittle limbs from the tree. Cut them back as close to the trunk as you possibly can.

If you find any branches that grow straight up or down, then you should also cut them off. Branches that are crossed or are rubbing against each other should also be cut off.

Any limbs growing toward the tree’s center also has to be cut off.

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Step 3: Cut off any low-hanging branches that shield the of the trunk. When Japanese maples are untrimmed, they form a shrub-like look. Before you trim such trees, determine the point from which you want the canopy to start.

Remove all the branches below the point where you want the canopy to start.

Step 4: Remove all branches that disturb the planes of other branches during thinning.

The lateral branches of the Japanese maple should come from all sides of the trunk and foliage must be produced on a horizontal level, which is perpendicular to the tree’s trunk.

Cut off any branches that shoot down or up into the lateral branches to avoid overcrowding. Doing this will also give the tree a good shape.

The aim here is to have overlapping layers of foliage along the tree’s trunk.

Step 5: Trim the rest of the branches as required to give the tree your desired shape. This step should eliminate the long and unbalanced branches.

Concentrate your efforts on removing thin-looking limbs, keep the thick-looking, healthy limbs intact, as they are the main branches.

If you discover that the end of the main branch is growing between two of its offshoots, then make a heading cut to remove the major branch from the center. This will allow the 2 offshoots to grow into thicker branches.

What You Will Need

  • A cleaning brush
  • Bleach or alcohol-based sterilizer
  • Water
  • Clean rags
  • Pruning shears
  • Loppers
  • Pruning saw
  • Tree wrap

Extra Tips

After trimming, you can wrap up the tree with a protective park to spare it from sunburn, that is if it is planted in an area that is exposed to too much sunlight or temperatures higher than 80° Fahrenheit.

Aesthetic Pruning Of Japanese Maple Tree

Follow these steps if you want to achieve aesthetic Pruning of your Japanese maple tree.

Knowing all the dynamics of the tree is the very first step to take. Study it from all its angles and identify all redundant branches, as well as branches with excess foliage. After that, create a mental image of how you want the tree to look.

You also have to consider the age of the tree and how it was planted. Identify all the natural elements that have affected its growth since it was planted and determine if it needs more or less water.

Incorrect pruning will lead to the development of ugly tree knuckles. These knuckles will defeat the whole purpose of aesthetic pruning, as the main aesthetic concept of “coarse to fine” will no longer be applicable.

The gradual progression from having a thick base to a fine tip is essential to having a fine, aesthetically pruned Japanese maple tree.


There are many varieties of the Japanese maple tree, all requiring regular pruning to get the best results, both for healthy re-growth and aesthetic reasons.

I hope this article on how to prune a Japanese maple tree has been informative.

Good luck!

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