When we moved into our house, I was thrilled to count eight Japanese maples left behind by the previous owners: one in the ground, one on an awkward slope, and six in large pots. But it’s clear that not all of them are thriving in their current locations. Which raises the question of how to move a Japanese maple without killing it. Unsurprisingly, the easiest answer is: grow it in a pot to start with. These small trees have equally compact root systems, and adapt well to container living. Moving a Japanese maple in the ground is a much more fraught affair, and the odds of success depend upon things like its size, how established it is, and how much space there is for digging around it. If you also have Japanese maples growing in the wrong place, here’s everything you need to know about moving them.
- Japanese maples 101
- How to tell if a Japanese maple needs moving
- How to move a Japanese maple without killing it
- Factors affecting the odds of success
- Alternatives to moving your acer
Japanese maples 101
Japanese maples – also known as acers, from their Latin name Acer palmatum – are small, slow growing trees native to Russia, China, Korea and Japan. In Japan there is a long history of including acers in paintings and poetry. And every year, thousands of people take part in momijigari, or ‘maple leaf hunting’ in fall. Today, Japanese maples are also popular all over the world for their compact canopy and brightly colored, delicate foliage. Many acers also have attractive stems and add structure and visual interest to all kinds of gardens – from small city courtyards to large, naturalistic woodland planting schemes.
In fact, I’m pretty confident that there is one of these elegant little trees for every garden. But what if yours, like some of mine, aren’t in the right place?
How to tell if a Japanese maple needs moving
Japanese maples will grow away happily in a range of soils, but they do need ample moisture, and they are prone to leaf scorch if they are grown in dry conditions and intense sunlight. They might also struggle to thrive if they are planted in an exposed spot with high winds. This is because they were originally understorey plants, which grew under the dappled shade and protection of larger, sturdier trees like beech. So, you might be forced to consider moving an acer if the soil conditions are too dry, or the sunlight is too intense.
Other reasons for moving acers are:
- So you can plant something else in its spot.
- To make way for something like a water feature, patio, shed, or summer house.
- To give it more prominence, if other plants around it have grown faster than it has.
- Or to take it with you when you move house.
How to move a Japanese maple without killing it
Moving established plants is no mean feat. If you know that you’re likely to want to relocate your acer when it’s bigger, the best thing you can do is grow it in a pot – either permanently, or as a temporary home until it is mature enough for its final spot.
Growing Japanese maples in containers
Japanese maples are ideal for pots. One of the first outdoor plants I ever owned was a Japanese maple my parents gave me after I moved into my first home with its own yard. I put it in an empty planter the vendor had left behind, and it’s still in that pot 10 years later, at my new house! ‘Low maintenance’ barely does justice to how tolerant of neglect it has been. And at both of my houses, there has been a lot of shuffling its pot around, when I realised it was getting too hot, or I couldn’t see it from the kitchen window. Not to mention putting it in a removal truck when we relocated!
Bear in mind though that moving large containers can be a challenge in its own right. Clay pots are heavy, and clay pots full of damp soil even more so! So you might still need specialist lifting equipment and several extra pairs of hands to move your potted acer. To save your back, have a look at purpose-made plant trolleys and rolling plant caddies.
The best Japanese maples for growing in containers
Here are some of the best examples of acers suitable for growing in containers:
- Osakazuki. Osakazuki produces zingy lime green leaves, and contrasting red fruit and seeds. It will grow up to 12ft tall in the ground, but stay comfortably under 6ft tall in a container.
- Ariadne. Named for the Princess Ariadne in Greek mythology, this cultivar has pinky orange leaves with green veins. The stem often divides multiple times near the base, giving it a sculptural quality.
- Trompenburg. Trompenburg’s leaves start out purple in spring, turn green by midsummer, and transition to orange in fall. Perfect if you only have space for one!
- Orangeola. Orangeola is a truly dinky acer, which rarely grows taller than 10ft tall in any location. Its orange foliage grows in distinctive feathery fronds.
- Sango-kaku. Sango-kaku acers, also known as Cinnibarinum or coral-bark acers, have vivid red branches and bright green leaves which turn citrusy yellow in fall. In open ground they will grow larger than the other varieties in this list (up to 24ft), but they are still tolerant of being grown in a generously sized container.
- Elegans. Finally, an acer which is unlikely to ever exceed 8ft, no matter where you plant it. Elegans lives up to its name in every respect, from its graceful stems to its deeply-divided leaves that turn bright orange and red in fall.
How to move a Japanese maple growing in the ground
What if your acer is already in the ground? Moving established trees is a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. But if your options are ‘move it or lose it’ then its worth at least giving it a shot in a new location. Here are 8 steps to moving it without killing it:
Moving your tree
- First, if your acer has a lot of sentimental value, ask a professional gardener to help you assess the odds of moving you tree successfully, and to oversee the moving process. Even better, ask them to help you propagate a new sapling from a cutting the year before, as an insurance policy in case the original tree doesn’t survive the move.
- Move the tree when it is dormant and not actively growing, usually early spring or late fall. This gives it the best chance to recover from the stress of being moved and get established in its new location.
- Prepare your target location beforehand. Dig a square hole at least twice as wide as you anticipate your acer’s root ball being, and loosen the soil at the bottom to facilitate good drainage.
- Acers usually require little or no pruning besides taking out damaged or diseased limbs. However, if you’ve been considering thinning out any stems in order to showcase others, now is a good time to do it. The plant will recover from being moved quicker if it has a smaller canopy to sustain.
- Dig up the tree as far from its base as possible – at least 12 inches. Loosen the soil beyond that as well, to release the roots.
- Plant it in its new location as quickly as possible. Place the tree in the hole, check it’s at the same depth as in its old location, then fill the space around it with water from a hose. When the water has drained away, backfill the hole with the soil you dug out earlier.
- Water the base of the tree every week for several months, to help it establish. Mulching around the base will help lock in moisture too, but leave a gap of three inches around the base of the trunk.
- Don’t feed a recently relocated tree – let it send out a deep root system in search of nutrients, and this will establish and anchor it in its new location more strongly.
Factors affecting the odds of success
- How established your tree is. The longer a tree becomes established in one spot, the wider its root network will spread and the more entwined its symbiotic relationship with microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi living in the soil gets. Which means uprooting it becomes more traumatic too.
- Its size. The bigger a tree, the larger the root system it relies on too, and the more likely you are to damage it during the transplant process.
- The ground you’re removing it from. Digging up a tree and keeping its root ball intact is much harder if there are other plants growing nearby, or the ground it’s growing in is full of builders’ rubble.
- The time of year that you move it. The best time of year to move a tree is early fall, after the driest summer months. This gives it time to establish in its new position before winter.
Alternatives to moving you Japanese maple
If the prospect of moving your acer successfully is slim, then one option is to propagate a new one instead. These trees rarely breed true from their seeds, so the best way to make sure your new tree looks the same again is to take a softwood cutting, or graft a young stem onto an established root stock from another plant. This is also a good insurance policy just in case a relocated plant does die. The main drawback is that these trees are slow growing, and it will be several years before your new new sapling takes on the grandeur of their predecessor.
How to move a Japanese maple without killing it – summary
The best way to move an acer without killing it is to grow it in a container in the first place. However if that ship has already sailed, there are some tried and true rules for moving an established tree with the best chance of success. If you decide to move a Japanese maple in your garden, let us know how you get on using the comments box down below!