Pinching Japanese Maple: Part 1
Although it might be different where you are, Japanese maple spring work is now here in Portland, Oregon. It is often some of the first work to be done on deciduous trees.
I should qualify that: now is about right for beginning work on REFINED maples. Younger plants or those where trunks and primary and secondary branches are being grown are totally different. We push those and don’t trim early, maybe cutting in early fall or early spring only. Cutting back hard in the early years will bring more budding, and help develop branch taper.
But with older trees that already have some ramification, pinching is the best way to develop balance, prevent scars, and create elegance. If we grow the old tree strongly, fertilizing heavily in the spring and then whacking back, all we get is a tree much too strong on top with weak lower and inside branches. By taking out the center shoot, in between the first two leaves, usually using a tweezer, we can prevent those from getting too strong.
Japanese maple shoots grow out at different rates all over the tree. Some shoots will be first, and those are your strongest. When we see that little shoot developing and elongating, take it off immediately. If we don’t, that shoot will gain strength and get thick, and be too strong next year too, and it will also have a really long internode. If we pluck it early, it is possible to get short internodes. Later, the weaker shoots will grow out, a few days or a few weeks later. You may want to pluck those too, or you may choose to leave them a while to strengthen the twig a bit.
If you have a very old tree with some truly weak branches, even some that are dying back a bit, you might want to lightly fertilize in the spring. But if we fertilize too much…we get a young tree again! A small amount of inner branch loss is accepted on a very old tree. Trimming the leaves—every other one in the strong areas and none in the weaker areas—is the next step, but that is next month’s work…