How To Keep Japanese Maple Trees Small

Keeping Japanese maple trees small is essential when you have limited garden space.

In this article I’ll show you how to choose the right maple tree for a small garden as well as how to prune and care for Japanese maples to keep them small and compact.

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small japanese maple tree

Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) are beautiful trees with spectacular colorful leaves in fall.

They grow well in full sun or partial shade but the leaves tend to be brighter in color when they receive full sun.

Japanese Maples are hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8 but in warm areas young trees will do best in a spot with some afternoon shade to avoid leaf scorch.

They need a period of cool winter temperatures to stimulate the buds to grow so they’re not suited to tropical or subtropical areas.

Dwarf maple varieties

Dwarf Japanese maples are slow-growing compact trees that are ideal for containers, shrub borders and even bonsai.

Most dwarf Japanese maples grow to around 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 metres) tall so they’re perfect for small gardens.

Acer palmatum ‘Coonara Pygmy’ – grows to about 6.5 feet (2 metres) tall and has green foliage that turns orange and red in fall.

Acer cirinatum ‘Little Gem’ grows 3 feet (1 metre) tall to form a rounded shrub. The green foliage turns red and purple in fall.

Acer palmatum ‘Garnet’ is a small weeping Japanese maple that grows 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 metres) tall, but spreads out 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.6 metres) wide.

It has beautiful red leaves that turn a darker shade of red in the fall.

small red japanese maple

Growing Japanese maples trees in pots

Potted Japanese maples are ideal for patios, courtyards, decks and balconies.

Choose a large pot that is twice the size of the rootball and has plenty of drainage holes in the bottom.

Use a good quality potting mix that is easily draining.

Caring for potted Japanese maples is fairly easy, you just make sure the pot is situated in a spot that receives full or partial sun during the day.

I recommend getting a pot stand with wheels which will make it a lot easier to move it around to catch the sun.

Water regularly during spring and summer to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.

Apply a liquid fertilizer in late spring and early summer to give your potted maple the nutrients it needs to thrive.

Pruning maple trees

Japanese maple trees can grow 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 cm) per year, reaching 10 to 25 feet (3 to 7.6 metres) after 15 years but you can keep them to a smaller, manageable size with yearly pruning.

The best time to prune Japanese maples is during winter when the trees are dormant.

Remove any diseased branches and cut back the small branches from the lower part of the tree.

Trimming the top of the tree helps to limit the height of the tree and encourages new branches to grow at the sides of the tree to give it a fuller shape.

You may need to hire an arborist or tree surgeon if you have a large maple that needs heavy pruning to reduce its size.

Potted Japanese maples grow much more slowly than trees planted in the garden but they’ll also benefit from regular pruning to keep them to a small size. [1]

dwarf japanese maple trees

So there are my tips for keeping Japanese maple trees small and compact.

Small maple trees look stunning in fall with their beautiful colors and with the right care you can grow a small maple even if you have limited garden space.


Have you tried growing a Japanese maple tree in a small garden? Let me know in the comments below.

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keeping japanese maple trees small

Kelly Martin

Hi, I'm Kelly Martin, a landscape gardener and designer with over 10 years experience. I have a passion for small space gardening and I love designing and creating beautiful outdoor spaces that maximize the potential of small urban gardens. Read more

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. marko

    Hi Kelly, Can an acer palmatum, a tree with a potential to reach 6 metres in height by 4 metres wide be kept to a desired height of say 2 metres with regular pruning to form an umbrella shape? Thanks Marko

    1. Kelly Martin

      Hi Marko, yes you can definitely keep it to a smaller shape with regular pruning.

  2. Michael allhands

    What is the best way to keep the acer palmatum as a bonsai? Preferably under 24″. Pot size, depth. Any tips and tricks. This is my first bonsai I’m starting from a seedling and I really want this to be a perfect tree lol

  3. Mary

    I had a Japanese maple tree, and to my disappointment it died after a year. What did I do wrong? Any advice please.

    1. Kelly Taylor

      Hi Mary, was it growing in a pot or out in the garden? It could be overwatering or underwatering, temperature or not enough sunlight.

  4. The Flat

    This blog was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that helped me. Cheers!

  5. N Lewis

    Hi, can I grow a potted dwarf Japanese Maple in Southern California? It is in an atrium and receives partial shade. Thanks!

    1. Kelly Taylor

      Yes, that sounds like a lovely spot for a small maple

  6. izzi

    I have a Dragon Tears weeping maple in a container that is placed in my garden. It is perfectly lovely, healthy and growing well but I am concerned that some of the branches have grown so long the are hanging on the ground. Should I just leave them alone or prune the branch back so it is not touching the ground?

    1. Kelly Taylor

      Hi Izzi, yes you can prune the branches back so that they’re not touching the ground.

  7. Jordan

    Hi Kelly,

    Thanks so much for this article! We just purchased an emperor one Japanese maple which has the potential to reach 15 feet in height with a spread of 15 feet, according to what we’ve seen online. We’re now worried this is too large for our space. Would it be possible to keep the height down to 10 feet and width to 6-8 feet by pruning regularly? And do we need someone who specializes in pruning Japanese maples to do so (and would this be very expensive?)

    Thanks so much again!

    1. Kelly Taylor

      Hi Jordan, yes you can keep it to a smaller size by pruning it regularly. I don’t think you need a professional gardener.

  8. Irene Reeb

    My tree is called Acer Maple Wpg. It gets direct sun, shade only in the evening. I want to keep it at 10ft tall, umbrella shape.
    I don’t know it’s complete name. Can you tell me what it might be called?

  9. Margo K

    My puppy chewed my Japanese maple may years ago and I thought it was dead, but it wasn’t!! It grew another tree from the same root system. My question is, how do I make it look like a tree again? It is growing straight up!! Its just tall and skinny and I would like to fix it, but I didn’t want to hurt the tree any more than the puppy did…HELP!!!

  10. Amanda

    Hi Margo:

    Most Japanese maples cultivars are grafted onto a more vigorous root stock (i.e. the top part of the tree is different from the base/roots. Generally there is a “V” visible where this was done. The good likelihood is that the grafted part was destroyed and you are getting growth from the root stock. Generally these are not super attractive, but you could let it grow for a bit and see if you like how it looks and prune the growth as you would a regular Japanese maple. Otherwise I would get another Japanese maple and as there are thousands of cultivars, you have a lot to choose from! Life is too short to not have the Japanese maple of your dreams!

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