Advance techniques for Chinese Maples

Advance techniques for Chinese Maples

Before you start with this article take note that advance methods are no quick fix, but can actually take years to perform and finish.

Chinese Maples are one of the trees with which you can do basically anything you want.  By means of grafting, carving and pruning any Chinese Maple can be improved.  One of the good characteristics of a Maple is the fact that the bark will cover most wounds and that the tree tend to fuse easily.

They also grow very fast if you feed them regularly.

Making use of these characteristic, branches and roots can be placed where ever necessary and because of the fact that the roots fuse easily the nebari or base of the tree can be dramatically increased.


Remember the reason for pruning is to:

Keep the tree in shape

Remove unwanted growth

Styling the tree

Letting sunlight in between the branches so that leafs closer to the center of the tree can also get access to sunlight and stay healthy.

Maples only form new branches on existing buds, formed at the base of each leaf.  Should these inter nodal lengths (the distance between two sets of leafs) be long due to very fast growth, nothing can be done to shorten the inter nodal length except removing the branch and growing it again or wiring it placing a lot of s-bends in it to shorten it.

This can be controlled by understanding how Maples grow.  Next time you look at your Maples look for young new growth (2-6 leaves).  You will notice that the inter nodal length at the base of the branch is very short, increasing with each set of leaves moving further away from the trunk.

Note how the inter nodal distance increase as the tree develops

Note how the inter nodal distance increase as the tree develops

Now look at an older longer branch that grew without being pruned.  You will notice that the inter nodal lengths are much longer, even close to the trunk.  The inter nodal lengths will increase as the branch develops due to hormones being formed by the growing tip.

By stopping the development of the new growth/branch at an early stage the inter nodal lengths can be controlled.  This is done by removing the new growth end (second set of leafs) that form after the first set of leafs appear.  Remove it by pinching it with tweezers, small cutter or you nails.

Already showing third set of leafs on Chinese Maple

Pinch out the growing tip with tweezers or your finger nails

Growing tip of Chinese Maple removed

The negative effect of this type of pruning is the fact that development of the tree will be very slow, taking years to finish the lower branches on your tree, but your tree will form beautiful short inter nodal lengths and secondary branch structure.

Maples leaves/buds grow with a 90⁰ angle between each.  In other words one set will be horizontal while the next set vertical.  When you start to prune your tree to improve the inter nodal length you will find that some of the leaves/buds will be vertical and the set of new branches developing from them will grow up and down.  This can be rectified by wiring the branch in the right direction or by pruning it back to the same place/cut.  The tree will then form four new buds instead of two and these buds will be horizontal.  Do remove one pair (you can choose top or bottom) or you will start forming a double branch, one on top of the other.

New buds after winter pruning

When you prune Maples back hard they tend to rather form new growth on the trunk at the base of the branch, than growing from the buds that you left.  You need to remove this new growth to force the tree to develop at your buds, but before you remove this growth, check and see if the new growth direction and position aren’t better than your existing branch, and if so rather remove your branch, keeping the better placed branch.

Replacing old growth

Pruning can also be used to improve existing growth.  Should you find that the inter nodal lengths on your tree needs to be improved you can start by selectively removing the old growth developing new branches closer to the trunk with the above mentioned method.  Don’t remove the whole branch at once.  You can keep the existing shape of the tree by rather remove selective secondary branches.  While you grow these new secondary branches you will be able to maintain the overall shape of your tree.  When the newly developed secondary branches are more developed, the old secondary branches can be removed and slowly replaced.

Sacrifice branch

When a branch appears to be weaker than the rest of the branches or needs to be thickened a sacrifice branch can be grown.  On a weak branch or one that needs to be thickening up, a shoot can be left to grow unchecked.  This shoot need to be wired so that it does not interfere with the development of the rest of the tree and branch.  Because of its unchecked growth it will thicken up not only the branch but also the part of the trunk under it.  It will also demand a lot of food and water and you need to keep an eye on the development so that it does not harm the growth on the rest of the tree.  When the branch is at the desired thickness the sacrifice branch can be removed and the tree developed normally.


Defoliation can only be done on a healthy tree.  It’s done in the summer after the first growth has hardened of.  The leaves are cut off between the leave and the branch leaving a small piece of the leaf stem that will fall off after a week before the new leafs start to form.

Defoliation – Cut the leafs off half way between the branch and the leaf

There are several reasons to defoliate a tree:

To reduce the size of the leafs

To replace damaged leafs (leafs normally damage in Cape Town during the spring and early summer winds)

To control the development of the tree.


Reducing the leaf size

Removing the leaves on a tree is like removing the kitchen from a home.  No food can be produced due to the fact that there is no chlorophyll (found in leafs) to produce food for the plant from elements collected by the roots.  As a result the tree need to make use of its stored energy in its trunk to start developing new leafs.  The result is that smaller leafs are formed by the tree.

Take care not to feed the tree before and a month after you defoliate the tree.  Should you feed the tree it will have enough food to produce big leafs again and you would have wasted your time.

Replacing damaged leafs

As above.  Take care that the tree is placed in a protected area when the new leafs start to appear.

Selective leaf pruning

By removing the leaves of the Maple selectively it’s possible to improve the development of the tree.

Maples tend to grow faster in the apex than at the bottom branches.  Weak areas, the result of new young branches, as well as the apex growth can be controlled to an extent by selective leaf removal.

When you remove the leaf on a Maple it takes up to two weeks for the new buds to start to grow.  In this time the leaf stalk, left after the leaf was removed, will fall off.  Removing the leaf activate the new bud to start growing.

By removing the leaves only at the bottom third of the tree or on the weaker branches the new buds will be activated and will start to develop within two weeks into new growth.

A week to ten days later the rest of the tree can be defoliated.  This will also activate the rest of the buds.  The buds formed/activated in the first step (first partial defoliation) will now be stronger than the second set of buds(second part defoliation) because they had the advantage of receiving food from the remaining leafs as well as the fact that they started to develop more than a week before the second defoliation.  The first set of buds will develop faster and grow stronger than the second set, giving you the opportunity to improve the imbalance or the weaker branches.




By means of grafting new roots or branches can be placed on basically any living part of the Chinese Maple.  The bark of the maple fuses easily, making bypass grafts as well as threat grafts easy to accomplice, even to the beginner.

Threat graft is when a branch of the same tree or another tree is passed through a small hole drilled through the trunk or branch of a maple.

The easiest method is to make use of a branch from the same tree, ensuring that the leaves of the branch are the same as that of the rest of the tree.  Let the branch grow without pruning it until it’s long enough to be bent back towards the tree and place where you want the new branch.

long branches on Chinese Maple for threat graft

Drill a small hole, a little bigger than the branch, through the trunk at the place where you want the new branch.  If you are going to use an electric drill, then put the drill on a slow speed so that the drill does not heat up and damage the bark.

Hole drilled through the trunk of Chinese Maple

Now use a piece of wire to keep the branch in place so that it can’t move and use seal paste to seal both wounds on both sides.  This is very important because if the bark will dry out it will die back and the graft will take much longer to heal.   Do not cut the branch of from the tree.  It will need the tree to keep it alive until the bark fused between the trunk and branch.

Use wire to keep the branch in place and seal the graft on the Chinese Maple

The same method can be used with the branch from a second tree or seedling, but make sure that both trees has the same characteristics, i.e. the leaf shape and color or you will find that you have different leafs on the same tree.

Depending on the growth rate and health of the new branch, the graft should fuse within three to six months.  A good sign that the graft fused will be when the part where the new branch exit from the graft becomes thicker than where the branch enter the graft.

Successful threat graft on Chinese Maple. The branch(going from right to left) is thicker on the left than on the right indicating that the graft fused.

A bypass graft work on the same principal but instead of drilling a hole through the tree, you cut a horizontal groove in the bark right down to the hardwood and then place the branch in this groove and attach the two so that they don’t move by means of grafting tape, wire, or by simply making use of a staple gun or small nail or even a pin.  Remember to seal the wound.  The only negative part of this bypass graft is that the new branch doesn’t come naturally out of the trunk.


Roots are grafted on the same way to the tree but the hole or groove will be vertical.  A maple cutting or seedling can be used.  The base/roots of this seedling will be grafted onto the trunk.  The new root/seedling needs to be planted on the right place next to the trunk.  Make sure that the roots on the new root/seedling start as close to the trunk as possible or it will develop into an unsightly long straight root.  Also make sure that the new root does not come out of the trunk directly in front of the trunk.

Make a groove vertically in the bark of the Maple

Young Chinese Maple seedling that will be used for the root graft. Remove the bark on the seedling where it must fuse with the main trunk

Several Chinese Maple seedlings kept in place with pins to form root grafts

Wire the top part of the seedling away from the trunk.

The small seedling can be left as a sacrifice branch long after the graft fused and only need to be removed when the grafted root is the desired thickness.  The sacrifice branch just needs to be grown away from the tree so that it does not interfere with the development of the rest of the tree.

Side grafts work best for roots.

Seedlings can be grown specifically for root grafts.



Bark damage

Another method of increasing the girth of a Maple is by damaging the trunk of the tree.  This can be done by making long vertical cuts (not horizontal, you will kill the tree) into the bark or making hundreds of small holes into the bark.  The tree will cover these wounds and at the same time thickening the trunk.

I won’t recommend it.  It looks unsightly and takes several years to heal properly.


Some photos of Chinese Maple Flowers

First sign of chinese maple flowers

The Maple flowers ready for polination


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