You would think that it would be difficult for an avid gardener and someone who has worked with plants since he was a little kid to pick his favorite plant. I asked Paul Mahoney, my dad, to do just that, and he came up with an answer pretty quickly. He replied almost immediately, “Japanese maple, because there are so many different kinds that can fit into so many different environments. They are versatile, and can enhance any atmosphere in a garden.”
From red to green, upright to sprawling, a thick dense canopy to a very open and translucent appearance, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) really can be used in many different ways. I love when the late afternoon sun shines through the tree’s canopy and really shows the colors of the leaves, more so with the reds than the greens. I have designed quite a few gardens, and have incorporated Japanese maples to complement the other plants in the landscape. For example, I like using the more upright varieties, like the ‘Seiryu’ (green) or ‘Emperor I/Bloodgood’ (red), to soften the corner of a house. Another benefit to including these trees in landscapes is that because they tend to have a more open canopy, you can underplant them very nicely without taking away from the beauty of the tree. The lower-growing, sprawling varieties can make a nice addition to the foreground of a bed, or even hanging over and down a retaining wall. I really like how the bold red foliage looks against a light stone wall. Japanese maples truly are a very versatile plant.
Japanese maples like fertile but well-drained soil, and can tolerate part-shade to sun. Usually when planting, I recommend amending the soil with a compost mix. I often use Mahoney’s Compost Planting Mix, which has Bio-tone, great for helping plants to get established. I also like the Coast of Maine Compost and Peat and Coast of Maine Lobster Compost, which are both certified organic. Japanese maples tend to be low-maintenance, and require little pruning. They should be fertilized heavily in the spring and more lightly in the fall for overall plant health. I like using Espoma Tree-tone, but if you don’t want to buy a whole bag for one tree, the Espoma Plant-tone is a great all-purpose fertilizer, and works just as well. I remember when I was probably about 5 or 6; we had a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple planted right outside our kitchen window. One day my dad took me fishing, and we saved all the leftover remains after filleting them, and buried them around the tree. I was so excited that we were feeding this tree with something else from nature. That tree soon became the focal point of our foundation planting. It’s funny the things you remember doing when you were little; now I’m out there in my own garden doing the same thing 20-odd years later. Now that I have a son of my own, I am looking forward to teaching him all the things that my dad has taught me about plants and gardening.