“Although great thought and effort is involved in the creation and care of the Japanese garden, it is not about harnessing or defeating nature, it is about celebrating nature in its most splendid forms”.
The ancient shapes of trees capture the power yet inspirit and bestow peace and tranquility of the natural world. We find beauty in the extraordinary. Old wizened trees, sometimes gnarled, yet graceful, exemplify this spirit. We experience this power of nature even in contrived landscapes. Much younger trees can take on this appearance through careful planning, pruning and training. The Japanese maple is one very popular tree for this purpose.
The first and most important step in training Japanese Maples involves a pencil and paper, not a saw. There must be an understanding of what the finished product should look like before you start dropping branches! Sketch the tree as it appears now. You do not have to be an artist. Trace the main branches and overall shape from all viewing angles (easier after leaves fall in winter. If the view from a window is important, tape a piece of paper to the glass and trace the outline of the tree using the light from outside to reveal the shape on the paper.
Japanese (gardener) apprentices spend many hours studying trees with the qualities they admire. They sketch and paint trees in nature with desired qualities. You can sketch trees that appeal to you and compare these sketches to the sketches of your tree to see what might be possible!
Make several copies of your sketch and try different designs until you find the one you like. Erase crossing or rubbing branches first. Next, erase straight, parallel, or completely vertical branches in order to reveal a graceful and interesting ‘scaffold’.
As the tree is thinned, light and air can reach all the foliage more efficiently. The bottom branches should ultimately receive enough light to maintain good health. The horizontal spaces created will reveal the beautiful trunks and branches, giving it a peaceful and inviting air. When you have settled on a final plan, make sure the tree will look good from all important angles.
The best time to prune Japanese Maples is January or early February. December pruning can encourage insects and disease. Pruning too much in one season will cause the tree to produce many small branches at the cuts. You will be fighting these suckering branches for years. It is better to break major pruning into a three-year plan. The first year, remove the rubbing branches and dead wood. Then prune according to your plan, never opening large holes in the canopy or removing more than 20% of the tree in one year.
Take your time! Stop often to survey the effects of your pruning. Always evaluate each angle of view before a major cut. Spend time studying the new shape, size, and view. You can always cut more, but you can’t put it back on once cut!
Modern pruning methods call for cuts just above the branch collar (the raised ring where the branch meets the trunk) and discourages painting cuts. Japanese Maples are an exception! Leave a stub above the branch collar. The stub can be removed after it has died back to the collar. Seal all cuts larger than a pencil with wax-based paste (I have used Elmer’s glue in a pinch). Not following this procedure can result in die-back and rot into the main trunk causing decline and eventual death of the tree.
In late spring and early summer after the trees have leafed out, they can be lightly pruned to produce a cloud effect by separating the foliage into cloud-shaped masses along the trunks.
When cutting lateral branches, cut leaving an up and downward facing leaf node. Head back the up facing bud to one node to encourage the lower one to grow into a graceful arch.
Young branches 1/4 inch or less in diameter can be wired bonsai-style to direct their growth if necessary. Larger branches can be pulled down to stakes or tied to bamboo poles to direct growth or correct angles. Be prepared to leave these in place for 1 to 2 years. Take cares to protect bark from wire or rope damage. Wrap small wire and never let it cut into the bark! Tie loose loops in rope to prevent damage to the branch. Layers of bark are used in Kyoto, Japan to protect trunks and branches from cord damage. Small sections of rubber tubing or hose will also work - just not quite as attractive.
Although the initial training may take several years, future pruning will usually be very light. Remember to never remove more than 20 percent of the tree in any one year. Take your time and enjoy the experience!”