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:
But you know what? It’s bigger than that guy!
From another angle …
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:
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.
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.
Here’s one of the small branches that doubled back on itself:
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.
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.
Crosby and Tara came by to help. All of our cats love gardening.
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.
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.
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.