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Japanese acer tree pruning



I have been asked to prune this Japanese acer. It's magnificent but is spreading over a large area of the front garden and in summer seems all consuming to the client. I did lightly prune it in summer, but they are asking for a much more drastic prune. Can experts in tree pruning, and especially this type of acer which I know don't normally get heavily pruned let me know how best to tackle it? When it's in full leaf it's a mat of green but I don't know how easy it would be to remove areas of growth to create the space between branches that I know is a desirable shape in a Japanese acer. I just envisage it'll be really tricky and quite hard to achieve a good result.

My current instinct is to prune to joints to reduce the width by some margin and try and take off a little of the height but more than that is daunting. I know about the rule of thirds so wouldn't be thinking of taking so much off it looks pollarded like a London plane. I know this approach could ruin the shape. The framework is old and complex and whilst the plant seems healthy overall, every year there's some inevitable die back on some branches. I don't want to make this worse which is why I know about pruning to joints.

Any other advice much appreciated, and if possible photographic examples of your own work if it'll help me! I have to start/do this job on Monday 28th Nov


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  • I would start by removing a lot of that lower growth on the right hand side, then working around the tree ensuring a balanced shape to match what you did there. Then get stuck into thinning out the middle/top standing on a small work platform. Rather than shortening, often better to completely remove some of the more unruly branches back to their base on a larger sub-branch. As this doesn't leave visually cut ends. Also by crouching under the tree if you can stand up inside its canopy can give a good perspective of what branches can be sacrificed

    • PRO

      Ok thanks. I'll look at that when I'm in situ

  • PRO

    Personally tell the client these small acers don't mind being pruned regular as they are cut endlessly as bonsai, but large scale cut back pruning will no doubt result in irregular random or vertical growth not in  keeping with the Japanese tree shape 

    therefore your view to prune one side more than the other won't help as it may react more adversely to the side cut hardest 

    I'd lopper into thick wood and hard shape and leave the secateurs. The results may not be pretty but then u can bonsai and shape thereafter 

    apply a manure and mulch after pruning and await new growth 

  • PRO

    Alternatively ü could raise the canopy up 2-3 feet off the floor and create a cloud like tree 

    • PRO

      Ok thanks for those two ideas. It sounds like I would be better removing a few whole branches rather than titivating with the ends too much, but you also think it's growing too low, so I'll have a  closer look when I'm there.

      • PRO

        I personally think it looks great but I'm not paying to reduce it 

  • PRO

    Thin the growth and reduce the canpoy and keep it as natural looking as possible.

    I think that the art of pruning is to make somethig look like it hasn't been pruned....

  • PRO

    What a beautiful tree.

    Your client needs to be aware that it will be like a Magnolia or Apple - as soon as it is pruned it will start putting out multiple twigs/ branches from the cut areas... so they are entering into a cycle of annual expence - paying you to trim it back to maintain the shape

    • PRO

      Yes it is a lovely tree. My heart sank when they said they wanted it pruned, but when in full leaf it is a mass of green so can look solid and over-dominant. So far I've taken off very low branches to raise its skirts a little which will help visually make it look a little less dominant, and trimmed the sides for the same effect, and reduced the amount of branches that cross over. Plus I've taken branches off the top where they're really sticking up to improve the shape. It's a twisted network of branches in the centre too so it's always had a tendency to grow in the way it does now. It always has a lot of die back each year, but nevertheless so far has continued to look healthy once in leaf. With this slightly more drastic prune I'll have to see what it does. They're stuck with me doing a cycle of the same sort of jobs every year anyway, as most of my gardening clients are when things grow back of course! I guess it's what keeps us in work, but I agree hard pruning a tree like this is not a desirable thing to do. I will aim to introduce space between branches a little more next time I go I think. The top is very dense too, which may be why it gets so much die back as the under branches are almost in the dark......! I noticed a mould on some larger cut dead wood (from years ago, nothing I've done) so I guess I should take that off? It may be spreading to the rest of the branch...

      • PRO

        In my experience they are as tough as boots... as you say its maintaining the shape that needs to be considered... especially after a few major branches are cut back, its all too easy to be a wee bit too enthusiastic and cut a branch you didnt really want to!! (Speaking from personal experience there :) )

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