Japanese maples are considered as the most special focal points in landscapes where they will grow. Few plants equal the beauty and provide the graceful forms, textures and color throughout the seasons as Japanese maples. One Japanese maple can make a landscape. 

As you may know, Japanese maples aren't the lowest cost plants on the market, so you want to make sure to plant and care for them properly. Contrary to popular belief, when planted right and in the right spot, Japanese maples are surprisingly easy to grow and maintain. 

Here's a breakdown of what you need to know regarding feeding and watering Japanese maple trees...

Evaluate Soil Conditions 

Though not absolutely necessary to do, before fertilizing your Japanese maple, the best starting point is a soil test. Soil tests are done to determine soil pH and essential nutrient levels. Your local Extension Service might provide soil testing services or you can test soil yourself with a soil testing kit or soil pH testing probe.  

TIP:  Keep in mind that construction and many other factors often result in soils that differ from one landscape to the next, and even from one area or spot to another in a landscape. In other words, the soil in your front yard may be much different than the soil in your backyard. So, when growing such a magnificent, long-lived tree as Japanese maple, it's always a good idea to test the soil in the area you intend to plant one.

Soil pH is Important!

Soil pH is a measurement of the alkalinity or acidity of soil and is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. Any measurement below 7 indicates acid soil conditions, and anything above 7 indicates alkaline. 

Japanese maples prefer a moderately acid to neutral soil ranging from 6.0 to 7.0 on the pH scale.  Once you know the soil pH, if necessary, you can adjust the pH to meet the needs of your Japanese maple.

Testing Soil pH

If you're unsure about the pH of your soil, and whether or not it's suitable for growing Japanese maples, it's a good idea to test the soil pH in the planting area. You can quickly test soil pH with a inexpensive soil test kit or pH tester probe

To raise the pH (make more alkaline) you can add pelletized limestone to the soil. To lower the pH (make more acid) you can apply Soil SulfurAluminum Sulfate, or Chelated Iron. Adding organic compost to the soil or using compost as mulch can also help to increase acidity and maintain acid soil conditions.

Feeding A Japanese Maple Tree

Note:  Do not fertilizer a Japanese maple at planting time. Wait until the following spring after planting to begin feeding, and only if necessary.

When to fertilize a Japanese maple?

I fertilize my Japanese maples in spring, after new leaves have begun to emerge, but only if they were looking a little dingy during the previous growing season. If they were healthy looking, I usually skip it. That said, to conserve moisture throughout the growing season and suppress weed growth, I always apply a 1 to 2" layer of cured, shredded or chipped wood mulch or pine straw around the tree in spring. As the mulch decomposes it will add vital nutrients to the soil that your Japanese maples will appreciate.

Note:  Avoid the use of freshly chipped wood for mulch until it has cured in a pile for at least 6 months, a year is better. Avoid placing or piling mulch directly against the base of your plant as this could cause the bark to rot. 

What type of fertilizer?

When feeding a Japanese maple, you can apply a slow-release shrub and tree fertilizer at half the recommended rate for other types of trees. That said, I usually go with and recommend a mild, organic plant food.  Avoid the use of 10-10-10 and other similar quick-release fertilizers. 

As mentioned above, I always spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of cured, shredded wood mulch or pine straw around my Japanese maples every spring. As these organic mulches decompose they will add nutrients to the soil your Japanese maple will appreciate.

How much fertilizer? 

This will depend of course on the size of the tree you are fertilizing and the type of fertilizer. Regarding slow-release shrub and tree fertilizers, you'll find application instructions on the package. I would suggest applying half the recommended dosage for other types of trees. If you choose a mild organic plant food, as I highly recommend, you don't have to worry as much about burning the roots of your tree, even if you over-apply. 

Note:  Avoid the use of raw manures around your Japanese maple tree. 

Where to spread the fertilizer? 

The root system of a Japanese maple tree may extend 4 feet deep into the soil, but the majority of the feeder roots responsible for absorbing nutrients are in the top 12 inches of soil. Spreading fertilizer on the soil surface is sufficient to reach these feeder roots. Spread fertilizer evenly around each tree, beginning at least 1 foot from its trunk and beyond the drip line (branch perimeter) of the canopy. For every 5 feet in height of your tree spread the fertilizer or compost 1 foot beyond the drip line. 

Note:  If the soil is compacted or subject to excessive water runoff, the fertilizer can be applied in a series of holes 6 to 8 inches deep in the same area with about five holes per 1 inch of trunk diameter.

Watering Japanese Maples

Japanese maples prefer a moist but well-drained soil. More Japanese die from too much water than from too little water. Proper watering is especially crucial during the first year or two as the trees are working to establish themselves in the landscape.

Here's some watering tips:

Summer Watering

At planting time

Water deeply at planting time, making sure the soil around the root ball is moist all the way down to its base. Then, each day thereafter, check the soil moisture and only provide water if the soil has dried out somewhat or is just lightly damp. After several days of checking soil moisture you should establish how many days you can wait between waterings. Now you'll have a watering schedule. If there's a good soaking rain you can count this as a watering.

During the first growing season

After planting a new Japanese maple in the ground, especially during the hotter summer months, the tendency is to think it has to be watered every day in order to grow roots and become established in its new home. However, in average garden soil you should not have to water your newly planted Japanese maple every day. More often than not, this causes soggy soil conditions that can lead to root rot. In the absence of sufficient rainfall, water only as needed to keep the rootball and surrounding soil damp to moist. Keep in mind that deep soaking less frequently is much better than splashing just a little water around the tree every day. Deep soaking promotes deep root growth and can reduce water loss by evaporation. 

Note:  If the leaves of your Japanese maple are browning on the tips, or wilting, this can be the effect of either dry or over-saturated soil. So, before watering, make sure to check soil moisture using the finger test or a moisture meter. If the soil is moist wait to water.


When well-established, which is usually a period of two years, Japanese maples won't require as much attention to soil moisture and watering. That said, in the absence of rainfall, especially during the warm season when trees are actively growing, Japanese maples may need supplemental water. During a drought, wilting leaves are usually a sign that your tree could use a good deep soaking. To be on the safe side, always use the finger test or a moisture meter to check soil moisture before watering.

Winter Watering

Japanese maples planted during the cooler winter months won't require as much attention to watering. Provide water only if necessary to keep the soil damp. Be extra careful not to overwater.

At planting time

When planted during the winter, maple trees are dormant and without leaves. Still, at planting time you'll want to soak the soil deeply after planting. Then check the soil moisture every few days until you've determined how many days or weeks go by until the soil has dried and water is needed. With average rainfall you may not need to water trees again until spring.

Note:  If you have an automated irrigation system it's best to cut it off during the winter, only running it manually on occasion and only when and if necessary. Provide water during the winter only if there's been a prolonged period of dry weather.

Other Helpful Watering Tips

  • Water Japanese maples in the early morning. Watering  in the late evening or at night can cause fungus and diseases to develop.

  • To avoid scalding of leaves, when watering a Japanese maple, avoid splashing water on the foliage, especially in the hotter parts of the day. If you have an irrigation system, run it early in the morning, just before or after sunrise. 

  • During winter, if the weather has been dry and forecasters are calling for a deep freeze, deep soak the ground around your tree. Doing so will help to insulate the roots from the colder temperatures.

  • Mulching around your trees can reduce the frequency of watering and suppress weed growth. Avoid placing mulch at a thickness greater than 2 inches and keep it away from the trunk of the plant or tree.

  • Control weeds as these will rob water and nutrients from your plants, not to mention steal the show!

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