Japanese Maple Questions From a Novice Gardener...Help!

Discussion in 'Maples' started by shanna07, Jan 7, 2012.

  1. shanna07

    shanna07 Member

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    Argyle, WI, USA
    Hello! I am "new" to gardening (well, I've been gardening for 4 years now, but only container gardening...), and I'm looking to "expand my horizons" by doing some "real" gardening (as in, in the ground/landscape) this coming spring. The main thing I want to start with is a shade garden on the north side of my house, but I am also obsessed with the thought of having a Japanese maple (or two!) in my yard--I've even dreamt about it, haha! But I have a few questions...

    1) I live in zone 4, which breaks my heart b/c I know JM's are only hardy to zone 5 or zone 6. But the thing is, I live only ~10 measly little miles from the zone 4/5 "border"... Is it even remotely possible that I might be able to fulfill my dream and get away with successfully growing a JM (and even, one that thrives?), or is it absolutely out of the question?!? What if I'm sure to mulch it really good--would that make a big enough difference?? It's just that, I think of JM's as being a kind of investment--an investment you shouldn't make for something that might be doomed right from the start...ya know?


    2) I've been perusing dozens of websites, researching and taking notes on dozens of cultivars. I'm so frustrated b/c I keep coming across completely contradictory information from one source to the next. For example, 3 sites might say a particular cultivar is hardy to zone 5, while 3 or 4 others say zone 6... Another big source of discrepancy is size--mainly height. One particular cultivar ('Koto No Ito') is listed as being in the range of 6-9 ft tall on 3 different websites--but then another website says 20-25 ft tall...!?! Aaahhhhh! It's so confusing. So my question is, how does one interpret this contradictory information? AND, does anyone know of any particularly credible websites/sources (nurseries/retailers, databases, etc) that have particularly accurate information?

    3) In my first visit to this forum, I was browsing through threads for various cultivars, and I noticed a theme: LOTS of comments about how this cultivar or that is "temperamental", "precocious", and the like. Those and other comments gave me the overall impression that growing JM's is somewhat difficult or complicated, and isn't for "novice"/inexperienced gardeners... So, as a novice gardener, am I getting in over my head??? Is it just wishful thinking to think that I'd be "qualified" enough to properly care for a JM? What are the main issues/problems most commonly associated w/JM's, and what are the most important things to do (or not do) when growing one?

    4) And finally... Most JM's can (or even should) be grown in part shade. But what degree of part shade can they be grown in? I mean, what's the maximum level of shade? Can any take full shade? Would the north side of a one-story building be too shady? I'd love to have one in my future shade garden, but I don't know what exactly would be considered too much shade... Is a spot that's always in the shadow of the house (or most of the time) too dark? (In that case, as the maple grows, at least some part of it would probably get sunshine <i.e., the top, or the east or west side of it, depending on where it's situated>--but is that enough? While it's still a baby, however, the entire thing would be in shadow...would that work? My gut says no, but I figured I'd ask--just to be sure...)

    Sorry for writing so much! But any help would be GREATLY appreciated! :) Thanks!
  2. dt-van

    dt-van Active Member 10 Years

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    Vancouver, Canada
    I expect you will get lots of more detailed answers fromn the maple group, but here are a vew general guidelines I find are generally not spelled out in most books or websites.

    Heights of smaller trees like dogwoods and japanese maples are often given as something called the "mature height", usually the height of a tree about 10-15 years old. At this point the tree has established the basic "adult" shape and branching pattern and doesn't look like a seedling anymore, but it doesn't stop growing. The "ultimate height" is the largest a tree is likely to get before it starts to decline and die. Most trees do slow their growth rate when they get old, but still get a little bit taller and wider each year. If it has established a good root system then the middle years may be when the tree grows fastest. In the Pacific northwest where I live the growing season is long and many of the "old standby" varieties of japanese maple reach well over 30' in ultimate height and width and even a 20 year old tree can easily reach 18'-20'. Because most people buying trees these days have smaller, city yards the nurseries often don't list the ultimate height. Either they think it will scare people off, or they figure you will have moved away and won't care that the tree you bought will outgrow the site eventually.

    Shade tolerance is a relative thing which also depends on your area's overall climate. Here in the PNW we don't get a lot of really sunny days and even when we do it isn't usually really hot, so a tree might do well in full sun here, but die in a similar site in a place where the summer consists of mainly clear, hot sunny days. Sun in winter can cause bark damage in cold sunny climates, but not be a problem in places where the winters are grey. Additional light relected off a pool, light coloured patio, or surrounding buildings can make a shady site brighter than if you just consider the direct sunlight hitting the tree. Often here I have seen japanese maples doing well in the kind of shade you are describing, even in fully enclosed courtyards.

    When choosing a tree, don't get caught up in what zone you are on paper - look around your own and nearby communities. Are there any japanese maples in any parks or gardens anywhere? If so do they look relatively happy, or stessed?
    Do nurseries in your area sell japanese maples at all? If not, then ask them why not. Maybe they will say "we tried a few times, but they always died". If they do sell them them then hopefully the varieties they offer are the ones likely to survive in your area.

    If the situation seems iffy, but you really like them then go ahead and try. They aren't that expensive and many Japanese maples are great plants for beginning gardeners. My advice would be to avoid being tempted by any of the delicate specialist cultivars and go for a basic, green, non-cutleaf japanese maple in an upright rather than weeping form. A healthy tree of this type will offer you lots of pleasure - a nice branch pattern, nice delicate leaf shape, dappled shade, tiny colourful flowers in spring and nice fall colour. It will look much, much better than a fancy cultivar which is stressed, sunburned and plagued by problems. If it does well you can try a slightly fancier one next time.
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2012
  3. maf

    maf Generous Contributor Maple Society 10 Years

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    Northamptonshire, England
    Good advice above, from dt-van. I would like to add a couple of points.

    The planting site you are describing sounds like it is very close to the house. Such a site may give you a micro-climate half a zone, or even a full zone, warmer than the middle of a field a few hundred yards away.

    Also consider the possibility of growing Japanese maples in containers. You will need a suitable place to store them in the winter, such as an unheated garage or cellar, but it is a proven successful method in climates with harsh winters.

    I have also had good success growing Japanese maples on the north side of buildings. Such locations get no sun at all in winter, but in summer they usually get a few hours of direct sun at some point in the day, and as long as there are no overhanging trees the indirect light is usually pretty good.
  4. paxi

    paxi Active Member

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    St. Louis
    Couple of other points:

    1) If you dig around here you will some more you will find plenty of others who have successfully grown JMs in your conditions or colder. A poster named "zonebreaker" comes to mind. Reading the posts makes me believe that it does entail a fair amount more effort/care but doable. An alternative is to grow in containers and over winter in the garage (I did note that you are are trying to move to more in ground stuff)

    2)Davidsans maples in Springfield, MO may be a good resource for you. While not quite as cold as your locale, David has plenty of experience with JMs that have survived some tough winters.

    3) I second the recommendation to begin with relatively well established cultivars rather than the newest thing on the block. Take this with a grain of salt (I live somewhat south of you) but Kamagata, Waterfall, Tamuke Yama, Sister Ghost, Baldsmith have had little to no winter dieback and seem hardy in my limited experience.

    4) For shady areas I veer towards cultivars with more spring interest rather than fall (the latter seeming more dependent on sun for good coloration). Vertrees has a nice index with this information

    5) Welcome and keep us up to date with your trees!
  5. kaydye

    kaydye Active Member Maple Society 10 Years

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    Live in Mapleton, Illinois, zone 5
    I looked up where you live and you are south of Madison, should have no problem with certain cultivars. I am about 4-5 hours south in the Peoria, IL area and am at the north end of zone 5.

    I think eveyone has trouble with the information being different according to who is writing it. I think many nurseries list zone 6 as the lowest for Japanese maples to protect themselves, I can understand that. Forest Farm lists every Acer palmatum as zone 6, for example. Also, I think a lot of newer introductions haven't been grown long enough to know their ultimate height, plus their height in England may be different that their height in Washington, or New Zealand. In the upper reaches of their zone, they will probably be smaller, I would think.

    Since you aren't very far north, I will make a suggestion. There is a nursery (Davidsan's Japanese Maples) in Springfield, IL. He has many planted outside and that area, just like mine, has been known to get to -15 Far. even -20. Also, I noticed Paxi mentioned a few that have been hardy in St. Louis. I have kept lists from growers in the Chicago area and New York area of maples that have grown well for 10 years in zone 5. You might try to look up those posts, I think it was something to do with growing maples in zone 5. I'll list some I have had great luck with at the end of this. Also, don't forget the japonicums. They are zone 5 and rival the palmatums, in my opinion.

    As far as the north side or placement due to shade, it might help if you sent a picture of your possible site. I will say that I have been amazed at the low light conditions a Japanese maple can take and still do well. I have a A. palm. 'Grandma Ghost' that has been living in dappled shade for years in a really hostile area. I never expected it to thrive and planned on moving it, but it has done well. Since then, an ancient white oak that was creating most of the shade has died, so all is good. You never know unless you try.

    If you want to, I will put the link to my blog. It's just for my own records, but you can see what cultivars I am growing and if they are in the ground or a container, notes that I take, pictures, etc. If you want to email me privately, I have a spreadsheet that lists all my cultivars and how long I have had them in the ground. That might be helpful.

    As you can tell, I love my maples. If I had to choose between them and my husband...well:)

    japonicums I love: Fairy Hair, aconitifolium, Attaryi, Green Cascade
    palmatums that have been great: Inabe Shidare, Verdis, Saoshika, Beni Schichihenge, Kashima, Garnet, Suminigashi, Trompenbug, Ukigumo

    If you ever want to come down through Peoria and stop at my place, I'd love it. We could continue down to Springfield and all within a long day. You'd have to bring a big vehicle, though, but you'd go back with lots of goodies.


  6. kbguess

    kbguess Well-Known Member 10 Years

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    Iowa City, IA
    A pretty much risk-free choice would be Korean maple acer pseudosieboldianum. I have plenty of seedlings. If you want to try them, Ill send you several in the spring.

    A couple of hybrid palmatum-pseudosieboldianum have hit the market place that are supposed to be hardier than palmatum.

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