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…




  1. Rusty says:

    Michael, I have a young (15 years?) maple which I am training for broom style. I started pinching new shoots leaving two sets of leaves and noticed that after I pinch the leaves get bigger. I am guessing I should have let it grown out more and then trim back in the summer, is that right? Also, is it better to trim back twice – once in the early spring while branches are bare and easy to see and once in the summer to shape the foliage?

  2. crataegus says:

    hi Rusty,

    To begin with, try to leave only one set of leaves, not two sets, if you’ve reached the perimeter of the tree’s design. But we can certainly let it grow longer if we need the length.

    The remaining leaves will get larger, that is normal. When we pinch the centers, those remaining leaves are still growing and small.

    If you trim back in the summer on a refined tree, you will have a much longer internode, and much thicker twig. But you are right—trimming back twice as you describe is a good basic plan.


  3. Rusty says:

    I just figured out something and would like to hear your thoughts on it – I noticed that on rainy days I still have to water my maple because not much rain actually gets to the pot, most of the water rolling off the foliage. Am I over reacting and overwatering my tree or have you noticed the same thing?

  4. crataegus says:


    Yes, you’ve pinpointed a thing you will notice more and more of as your trees become more developed and have thicker crowns. Pines can have the same issue. But the structure and layering of Japanese maple leaves is such that this issue is pronounced in them: Rain rarely reaches the pot!


  5. Robin Bedich says:


    My Japanese maple which is now 8 years old is having problems. The top layers of leaves has dried out. The rest of the tree seems fine. What do you think the problem is? It is a beautiful tree and I want to do whatever I need to save it.

    Thanks much,

  6. Michael Lobo says:

    I have a Japanese maple I bought from a Chinese grocery store, the trunk is pencil thin (I think it was grown from seed) its about a foot tall, I wish to prune it to give it a denser crown, I buried the pot in the ground outside under a Yew bush for protection. it is relatively small but I want to thicken it up rather than let it grow taller. I am unsure what I plan to do with it as of yet. if i shall keep it small and bushy or let it grow naturally, but I do want a strong branch system as well as more than one trunk. thanks! hope to hear from you soon!
    all the best
    Michael Elliott

    • crataegus says:

      If you plant it in a larger pot that’s a good first start. Most japanese maples if planted in the ground get too strong, then they get away from us and we have to cut large things off, creating large wounds. Keep the bottom roots cut off and save the flaring ones, and put it in a nursery pot for several years as you work on the top. For more than one trunk consider a graft at the base or an airlayer in a few years up where there is a branch forking.Take your time. Deciduous trees are best if we take some years with them.

      • Michael Lobo says:

        The one I got is less than a foot and is in a 1 gallon pot. I believe the pot is too big for it but I will take your advice, for now i planted the entire pot in the ground under a yew bush for protection in the fall. I’ll post pictures when the warmer season arrives. thank you.
        Michael Elliott

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