Deciduous Early Development Part I: Japanese Maple

The first part of this development series covers a few gangly specimens of Japanese Maple.

Japanese Maple is one of the most challenging early development deciduous trees because of its propensity to make long internodes. It’s also one of the best examples of a theme that runs throughout the next few posts on early development, and that is:

  • Leave some unwanted shoots and branches to shorten the internodes of everything else 

This is really counterintuitive. But it also really works.

And, naturally, to thwart us from easy riches, the concept is not the easiest to apply. For if we leave everything, then we get big problems down the road.

The idea is, thin selectively. Take out some of the overly thick branches or those in danger of becoming so, and some of the long internode ones. For example, if there are four shoots arising from one place, two of them strong, perhaps cut one off. Leave the rest. Later the other strong one can be removed.

The reason we do this piecemeal is that if you do it all at once—make our early development trees ‘pretty’ by cutting off all the ugly stuff, or to perfect structure—we make them grow too strong the next year. Which translates to long internodes.

Cutting off everything we don’t like might end with a big pile of branches, maybe 50% or more of the plant. We’ve just made a huge imbalance in roots to shoots, too, and that will force the tree to replace what it has lost in stronger regrowth.

In early tree development, though, we want to shorten up the internodes. No amount of fancy wiring will shorten an internode…but managing our trees better will. We want to grow the young tree, but not hard enough that there’s long internodes, and the way to do that is to leave more than we might think. Also, leaving more than we ultimately want helps bulk up the tree faster.

A group of Japanese Maple rooted cuttings for a future clump style. The plant was defoliated last week (end of September) for the purposes of a student who wanted to study this technique. And it makes for a good photo essay, too.

After selective cutback, wiring, and marking areas with red pipe cleaners to cut back to in the growing season. The trunk on the right will also be cut back next year. We wired some top branches of the main trunk that might be options for a larger tree, or we might cut the trunk short. Looks like a mess, doesn’t it? But we’ll leave it for now.

Photo from midway-through work on another Japanese Maple clump, before cutting back extensions. One thing to keep in mind is that a 3-year old clump like this is at the beginning of a 10 year period to develop basic structure. The tree will give us a ton of choices in that span of time, and from those we’ll likely manage a beautiful structure. But we don’t have to do it all in a day.

And after shortening some extensions. Overall, this is a good example of the main lesson for this series, to leave more that you actually want to shorten the internodes of everything else. There isn’t much there yet, the tree has few branches. If you cut everything off you don’t like, the tree panics and will just grow long internodes again. There are many long, straight internodes here that were simply left because they are not yet a scar danger and as they will be cut off later there’s no point in wiring them. Extension is left off the top of the trunk selected to be the main tree, the shugi, to thicken it up. And this one also looks like a mess at the finish.

A different feeling, a thick-trunked Japanese Maple with a quirky appearance. And brandishing a snout. If a tree seems odd to you, don’t necessarily give up on it, try growing it into the next larger size. Though this tree is about 14″, it may be twice that big before we’re finished, and the big scars, the bumps, the weird movements will likely all recede. They might even become beautiful. Scaling up the tree in trunk diameter and overall size changes many things. (Potters know this one too, that your ugliest pot off the wheel is often the most beautiful of all when it’s fired.)

The elephantine branch on the right was shortened and an extension off the top was removed, along with selective removal of some strong shoots. Like all of these, the pot is a grow pot and we don’t pay attention to aesthetics.

With early deciduous trees, limit wiring to trunk and main branch lines, and as much as possible use the natural movements of the species to create form. The most effective way of developing bulk and ramification is to leave more than you think when doing seasonal pruning.

All of these still look messy, we haven’t improved the look of the trees much. But that isn’t the point of this phase of work. And to leave them in this disheveled, uninspiring state we’ll really need to believe in our ugly duckling to swan storyline…as we’ll need to relate the story with conviction to bonsai friends who will be wondering what the heck we were thinking.

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  1. Fran Prospero says:

    Thanks for the info Mike, it inspires a new thought process on tree development.

    Enjoy the weekend🌲

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Ray says:

    Excellent post Michael. I don’t spend enough time with maples but will endeavour to do more now

  3. Joel Gold says:

    Great post, good info to keep in a file.

  4. Carol Novak says:

    Ah, toriaezu. The most important thing I learned!

  5. Jeroen says:

    I really hope your book will include more of this kind of info.
    This is a great “why didn’t I think about this myself? Why has nobody said/written this before?”-example.

  6. Jeremy says:

    For what it’s worth, I feel like i’m In love with that last maple right now, and it’ll just get better with time! As always, Thanks for the post.

  7. Walt prohaska says:

    Nice post Michael,that helps in understanding this wonderful species.

    • Max Ludwig says:

      Hello Michael, great post, great reminder not to cut off everything unwanted. A mistake I made a lot in the past! How would you treat very young maples in terms of trunkdevelopment?

      Best regards, Max

      • crataegus says:

        Hi Walt, if you want a thick trunked tree, with some ‘meat’, then letting some extensions grow while in a box, flat, or the ground will be the only way to get that. If you want a thinner-trunked tree, with more natural lines, then just grow it in a bonsai pot. The branches will thicken the trunk naturally.

  8. Brian Lonstad says:

    Michael, Great information. Thank you, and I’m really looking forward to your new book….can’t wait. My question concerns Vine Maple. I loved your Artisan Cup entry. I have a medium sized, semi old yamadori I am working on. There is little information out there on this species….at least I haven’t found any. How do you develop the branches on VMs.? Treat it like a Japanese Maple or Trident Maple? defoliate? I haven’t noticed it having multiple flushes, but I have just repotted last year into a bonsai growing pot and it may be recovering and weaker than normal. Thank you in advance for any advice or direction.

    • crataegus says:

      Very little info out there on it, true. I would treat it like Japanese maple. I’ve tried to defoliate, and much like Japanese maple, you never really know what’s going to happen. You can cut one leaf off, and leave the other one, that works. But you don’t want to do much of that either because they don’t have a ton of leaves. It’s really a single flush plant.

  9. Max Ludwig says:

    Hello Michael,
    thank’s again for sharing your knowledge!
    I would love to know how you fertilize those trees in development!
    Best regards, Max

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