The sumo wrestler

In a recent Sunday edition of Pacific NW Magazine (part of The Seattle Times), local master gardener Ciscoe Morris  wrote a column about pruning laceleaf Japanese maples. I leapt on this article because I am desperate to learn how to properly prune a laceleaf. I’ve tried before with iffy results, and I simply gave up the past few years. We procrastinators excel at deferred maintenance.

If you don’t prune laceleafs, Ciscoe cautions, they grow into oversized blobs that look like sumo wrestlers. Say what? I’ve never pictured my laceleaf this way:

Sumo wrestler with white costume

I’ll never look at my lace leaf the same way again.

But you know what? It’s bigger than that guy!

Large Japanese laceleaf maple in winter

Bigger than a sumo wrestler!

From another angle …

Boxer stands next to Japanese laceleaf maple in winter

Duke is dwarfed by the laceleaf. (Love the textures in this photo!)

Close up, this tree is an impenetrable thicket of branches. In summer, the tree’s dense canopy forms The Clubhouse, exclusive seasonal hangout of our eight cats and their neighborhood buddies. I know the cats won’t be happy if their privacy is breached or the rain is let in, but I’d like to be able to admire the tree’s branch structure as if it were a specimen in a park. Like this one at the Seattle Flower and Garden Show:

Large Japanese maple in winter.

What a beauty!

Where do I start? “Simply clean out the unsightly dead branches and twigs,” advises Ciscoe. Okay … there are approximately 397,564 dead twigs. I’d already raked some of the thatch of dead leaves out of the branches, but there’s plenty more.

First task: Buy a new, sharp pair of pruners at our neighborhood Ace Hardware. I need all the help I can get because my grip strength isn’t what it used to be.

Fiskars pruning shears

These pruners promise three times more cutting power.

Closeup of laceleaf maple in winter

Looking through the branches to the mossy ground.

I tentatively started at the portion that borders the corner of the deck, where the tree needs to be pruned back and shaped so that it doesn’t take over the space occupied by our patio table. I felt confused by the wild tangle of branches that curved every which way.

A yellow line traces a branch in a Japanese maple

This branch loops around back toward its source.

Here’s one of the small branches that doubled back on itself:

Curved Japanese maple branch.

A branch that changed its mind.


Sumo wreslters in awkward position.

Ciscoe, I get it now.

After an hour of snipping, this is what I wound up with. It’s a little more open … er, bare … than I’d intended. But, it will look a lot less bare when it leafs out. Where is the sinuous trunk that I’m supposed to be exposing? This tree has the horticultural equivalent of thick ankles.

Pruned section of Japanese laceleaf maple

The once-secret entry to the Clubhouse is now wide open.

To be fair, I bought the laceleaf 30-some years ago as an injured 5-gallon sapling on sale. Its top looked like it had been whacked, and the branches have not grown the way I expect a laceleaf would look. It’s a little quirky, but I think it’s safe to say it has flourished. It is the focal point of the backyard.

Japanese laceleaf with odd branching pattern.

A very confused top branching pattern.

Crosby and Tara came by to help. All of our cats love gardening.

Tuxedo cat on top of Japanese laceleaf maple

Crosby goes sumo surfin’.

Tabby cat in a winter garden with dragon statue

Tara and Carmen Dragon watch from nearby.

Interlude: Four weeks of rain

Back at it on February 10! Finally, a dry weekend. I moved to the garage-side of the maple because I could sit in the sun. I decided to concentrate on just those dead twigs. The long tendril branches have bilateral buds that produce more branches. Often, it’s the middle branch that dies. By removing the dead end, I am effectively pruning one-third of the plant … but I need to remove more than the “split ends.”

Pruning guidelines suggest making larger but fewer cuts, the idea being to create gaps between branches for a layered look. I need to work on that.

Getting cold, I began to grab at the masses of dead branches in the tree’s undercoat, and many of them simply snapped off in my hands. I wondered if this was hurting the tree, but no—it’s actually recommended! So much deadwood came out that the east side soon looked like this after just a few pruning cuts. I was pleased that its density sort of matches the inner corner.

Japanese maple being pruned.

The east side opened up.

Tabby cat under a Japanese maple.

Tara came by to oil a branch.

The next day, the icy wind made me regret venturing outside. I snapped dead branches off as fast as I could, but I just couldn’t handle the cold. (While our Seattle winter is nothing compared to the east coast, I am a weather wimp for both hot and cold extremes. Eric claims I have a two-degree comfort range.) Even though I didn’t use the pruners much, the tree is becoming diaphanous.

Japanese aceleaf maple in midst of pruning.

Becoming more transparent!

I’m wondering when I’ll get my next opportunity to spend time outside without getting soaked or frozen. It had better be soon, because Tara and I want to practice making bigger cuts and creating layers before the leaves pop out. We want to turn this sumo wrestler into a lacy lady.

I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

17 thoughts on “The sumo wrestler

  1. Barbara H.

    You are on the right track! Starting is always the hard part. I don’t know why but all this time I thought you were a Portlander! I hope your weather improves soon so you can continue the pruning.

  2. Cathy Lee

    Looks like you cleaned out at least 300,000 branches! Your bravery will be rewarded come spring. Remember to revisit with pictures of the now-grand old lady😊

  3. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    The laceleaf is going to look beautiful once the leaves come out. Pruning is always scary, but it produces good results. Your cats are adorable. I couldn’t share this post with mine because they would get jealous. It’s bad enough that the neighbor cat was sleeping on our porch this afternoon. Ponche and Crème told me I’m the meanest mom in the world for not letting them outside to defend their territory.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Going outside it THE most important thing to our cats. I know they shouldn’t be out there, but with a dog door, we can’t keep them in. They know the gardens are for them and that’s where they spend most of their time! I love having them around when I’m working in the yard. They’re so “helpful.”

  4. Donna O.

    Wow! Your laceleaf maple looks so shapely now after all the pruning. Unlike the sumo wrestlers shown, whose pics I also enjoyed. LOL! Your house is looking great, too, after all the TLC it is receiving.

  5. Lynne Skidmore

    If you want our assistance, we would be glad to help.
    Start to finish branch removal:

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks for the offer, Lynne and John! I feel special to have my own personal master gardener team! 🙂 That’s the order I’m approaching it, just like pruning roses (or anything else). It’s the shear mass of the tree that intimidates me. Soooo many branches!

  6. Alison Ferguson

    Wow, great job! That first picture of your tree right under the sumo wrestler literally made me LOL!!! love the cats helping too 🙂 that is a LOT more work than i’d ever have imagined, but it’s looking great.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I know, that photo of the two entwined wrestlers cracked me up! Still waiting for a decent weekend to finish the job, but we’re to have a storm today, and maybe snow! Good grief …

  7. Africadayz

    Loved this post! Especially the wrestlers! Just how tall is that tree, D’Arcy? I couldn’t quite figure it out from the photos.

  8. Jo

    I look forward to a laceleaf maple some day. We have a lot of mature ones at work which are quite the blobs. Good luck on the challenge of pruning. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music


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