Thanks to their unique, vibrant foliage, Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) are a popular pick for gardeners and landscapers in many different regions. These small trees, which can also be grown as shrubs, are typically chosen for their red leaves—but yours may also feature colors like orange, purple, pink, or even green depending on which variety of Japanese maple it is. Because they're such a unique addition to your outdoor space, it's important to take proper precautions before the growing season ends to ensure your maple tree survives the winter.
Depending on which plant hardiness zone you live in, there are a few different methods you can utilize to keep your tree growing healthy. Maple trees growing in southern regions will require fewer changes to their usual care routine than those growing further north, but it's fairly easy to overwinter this species in either environment.
Learn how to care for your Japanese maple in winter to keep it thriving until warm weather returns.
When to Overwinter Japanese Maple Trees
As a general rule of thumb, it's best to start preparing your maple trees for winter before the first frost of the season. Younger trees are more susceptible to freezing or being shocked by low temperatures, so depending on your tree's age, you may need to take additional steps to help it survive until maturity.
Japanese maple trees can live through typical winter weather in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8, which encompasses a large portion of the U.S. Learn the hardiness zone for your region before determining the best steps to take when caring for Japanese maples in winter.
How to Care for Japanese Maples in Winter
Winter protection for your Japanese maple begins when you first plant it. The tree's location in your outdoor space will have a significant effect on its ability to survive freezing temperatures. Choose a place close to your home to shelter it from harsh winter winds. It's also important to plant the tree in a location with southern exposure to provide it with plenty of sunlight to keep warm. Since this species thrives in full sun—and requires plenty of light to show off its bright colors—many gardeners have already chosen south-facing areas long before winter.
If your maple tree is still small, you can also build a shelter around it with other landscaping elements like bushes and other trees to add protection from wind, snow, and ice.
Water your Japanese maple tree consistently during the fall season (at least once a week). Once the ground freezes, trees are deprived of water, and they can suffer winter damage as a result. Young trees are especially susceptible—but trees of any age can benefit from a proper fall watering regimen.
In addition to regular weekly waterings, it's important to do a deep soak toward the end of the fall season. This allows your maple tree to soak up plenty of moisture throughout its root system before temperatures drop below freezing. Since these trees are susceptible to root rot during winter, cut back on watering during this time: Water only when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. Providing your tree with adequate water at the correct time in autumn will go a long way toward helping it survive winter in good shape.
Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch around your Japanese maple tree, but not right up against the trunk—this could invite pests like voles to gnaw at it. Instead, keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk and apply it out to the drip line (i.e., the edge of the canopy). Mulch insulates the root zone and helps retain moisture.
If your tree isn't too large, wrapping it with burlap is a simple way to protect it from frost, ice, and snow. This is an especially important step to take for young Japanese maples, which have thin branches that are more prone to breaking under the weight of snow and ice.
To do this, place three to four stakes around the tree, then drape a double layer of burlap over the stakes. Secure the burlap to the stakes with staples or rope. Remove the burlap once the weather evens out (allowing your tree to soak up sunlight), but leave the stakes in place for a quick fix next time the forecast looks icy.
The best time of the year to apply fertilizer is when a healthy portion of the growing season remains—namely, spring and early summer. By contrast, if you fertilize in late summer or fall, the resulting new growth does not have enough time to harden before cold temperatures set in. These branches are more susceptible to winter damage.
While many gardeners prune their Japanese maple trees in the winter, excessive pruning can damage your tree when temperatures are too cold. Trimming branches causes your tree to ooze sap, which can weaken it and lead to potential diseases. Prune lightly during early winter and wait until spring or summer to trim larger sections of stems and branches.