Japanese Maple trees are foliage beauties, especially the rich deep red or orange colors in autumn. But did you know you can plant them in pots and bring them indoors too? Yes, it is actually possible!
However, it does take a lot of work to ensure the tree keeps thriving, specifically the following:
- Allowing the Japanese Maple to undergo its yearly winter dormancy period.
- Pruning the tree’s branches and roots to stunt its growth.
If you can get these 2 factors right, everything else is a piece of cake. Here’s how you can get started:
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Table of contents
- 1. Choose a Dwarf Variety of Japanese Maple Trees
- 2. Plant Japanese Maple Tree in a 3 Gallon Pot with Well-Draining Soil
- 3. Place Japanese Maple Tree in a Room with Dappled Light
- 4. Water Japanese Maple Tree Twice in a Week with Rainwater or Filtered Water
- 5. Overwinter the Tree for its Annual Winter Dormancy to Recover
- 6. Trim the Japanese Maple’s Roots to Maintain its Small Shape
- 7. Check Under the Leaves and Branches for Any Pest & Disease Signs Weekly
- Final Words
1. Choose a Dwarf Variety of Japanese Maple Trees
Most Japanese maple trees can range anywhere from 2-20 feet tall at their mature height. Ideally, 2-3 feet tall is the perfect indoor tree size – kind of like a bonsai tree. Fun fact: Japanese Maple is often used as a beginner-friendly bonsai specimen to start with.
It is technically possible to take care of a 5-10 feet tall tree indoors. However, it requires in-depth knowledge and dedication to keep it small and continuously happy. But if you’re up for the challenge, go for it!
Here are a few dwarf Japanese maple trees for you to choose from:
- Yuri Him
- Akita Yatsubusa
- Baby Lace
- Caperci Dwarf
- Hanami Nishiki
- Hupp’s Dwarf
I recommend looking up Mendocino Maples Nursery if you’re unsure where to source your tree from. They have a wide selection of Japanese Maples to select from, so you can explore your options.
2. Plant Japanese Maple Tree in a 3 Gallon Pot with Well-Draining Soil
When potting Japanese Maples, a general rule of thumb is that the container has to be no larger than twice the size of the tree’s rootball. In that sense, it’s better to have it planted in a small pot rather than a large one. The latter is likely to promote root rot due to a dead zone of very wet soil in the container.
You can also opt to use a shallow bonsai dish (Amazon link) instead. This alternative helps control the tree’s growth by encouraging the roots to spread horizontally. After all, if you want an indoor tree the bonsai form is pretty accommodating.
As for the soil, Japanese Maples don’t have a preference, provided it is fertile, well-draining, and slightly acidic (3.7 – 6.8 pH). However, the soil type may affect the watering frequency. Here’s an easy way to remember: clay retains (longer), sand drains (faster), and loam sustains (just right).
Important note on fertilizers: It’s best to not give your Japanese Maple any type of fertilizer, especially if you’re trying to restrict its growth. It also is likely to cause more damage to the tree as well. However, you can add 10-20% organic matter into the soil mix, such as compost, vermicompost, or aged manure. This is not only relatively safer but also improves the soil structure overall. I like vermicompost myself because of the beneficial microbes from the worms and the slowly released nutrients that plants can pick up as they need it.
3. Place Japanese Maple Tree in a Room with Dappled Light
Dappled shade/light is another way of referring to consistently indirect light, away from the sun’s direct rays. You need to remember that this tree is a temperate plant, and they much prefer receiving sun under the shade. Otherwise, they end up with scorched leaves.
This doesn’t mean you should put it in a low-light area. Ideally, Japanese Maple should receive warm morning and evening sunlight. For the afternoon sun, ensure they are heavily shaded from harsh heat by covering the window with curtains that still allow some light to pass through. Suppose you’re noticing the leaves shriveling even with indirect sunlight. In that case, it’s best to move the tree somewhere far less sunny to recover and see how they fare in their new spot.
You can also put your potted Japanese Maple outside under the porch or on a balcony. Again, shade is vital here, so bring the tree back inside if it gets too hot. This is crucial if you live in hardiness zones 7-9 in particular.
4. Water Japanese Maple Tree Twice in a Week with Rainwater or Filtered Water
The watering frequency of your Japanese Maple may vary depending on weather, tree size, soil type, and more. But twice a week is a good start as any for your tree. When in doubt, do the knuckle test before you water every time. This tree is sensitive to dry periods so ensure the soil is consistently moist but be careful not to overwater.
Also, try to avoid using tap water if you can. Due to its high mineral content, it tends to be alkaline. Since Japanese Maples are planted in slightly acidic soil, you want to avoid any chemical reactions (acid+alkali = neutral) that will lessen the nutrients in the soil. Using rainwater or filtered water is a better alternative instead.
5. Overwinter the Tree for its Annual Winter Dormancy to Recover
This is the most significant factor in ensuring your Japanese Maple tree continually thrives indoors. As a temperate plant, it goes into a yearly dormancy in winter. Essentially, it sheds its leaves and sleeps to recover before coming back in spring with new growth.
For those living in hardiness zone 5, you may need extra protection to protect your tree’s roots from the freeze. Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Adding mulch around it indoors. This involves placing a chicken wire around the pot and filling the space inside with mulch.
- Alternatively, you can plant it in the ground with its pot outdoors and cover the top with a stake and burlap.
- Keep it in an unheated garage or basement.
For those in living hardiness zone 6-8, you can typically just keep them in a cool place indoors to let it have its winter dormancy period. This could be anything from a cold basement to a fridge (yes, really). But hey, whatever works to ensure your Japanese Maple gets its winter beauty rest.
There are also several things you need to ensure while your tree is dormant:
- Give it a deep watering before winter. This will help it go through the cold months with reserved water in its soil.
- Knuckle-test the soil once a week. You may need to do a bit of light watering if the soil dries out. It may be unlikely, but it’s better to err on the side of caution and keep an eye on your tree.
- Keep the temperature consistently down but not at a freezing point. This is where the earlier mulching comes in handy. If the temperature rises, it may prompt the tree to start sprouting new leaves too early, which will damage the plant later on. I recommend using a temperature meter (Amazon link) to keep track just in case.
- Once the tree grows new leaves in spring, you can use a grow light (Amazon link) to support its development. This will help it ease into receiving more indirect sunlight when you finally move it back to its usual place.
If you can get this part right, congratulations! Your Japanese Maple tree has a fighting chance of having a wonderful indoor life with you.
6. Trim the Japanese Maple’s Roots to Maintain its Small Shape
Japanese Maples grow pretty slowly over the years, some only reaching their total 4 feet after 10 years. This is why you need to let it get established in its new home for the first few years. Once it has been 2-3 years, you can start trimming and pruning as needed in early fall.
For trimming its roots, here’s how you can do it easily:
- Sterilize a long sharp knife with alcohol wipes.
- Insert the knife an inch away from the pot’s rim and run it around the plant. This will cut off any long roots that have grown in the pot.
- Alternatively, you can take the tree out of its pot and trim off the long, thin roots at the edges. Ensure to leave the thick ones as is.
Important note on repotting: It’s possible to keep your Japanese Maple in the same container for years, provided you continuously trim its roots to prevent rootbound. Repotting is more of a preferential thing than a necessary one.
Aim to do heavy pruning every 2-3 years in early autumn. This is when you’re cutting off branches and plucking leaves to maintain or create the tree’s shape to your liking. But generally, you can do minimal pruning every year. This involves removing dead leaves and branches as it develops, but nothing too drastic.
7. Check Under the Leaves and Branches for Any Pest & Disease Signs Weekly
As indoor plants, Japanese Maples are more susceptible to pest and disease problems. But these can be easily prevented and caught early on by establishing a weekly check under its leaves and branches.
Pests-wise, it tends to get infested by aphids and scales. You can find out more about these in this article and how to get rid of them.
As for diseases, Verticillium Wilt is the usual suspect. This is due to using contaminated tools where pathogens transfer onto open wounds or recently trimmed tree sections. The easiest way to prevent this is to always ensure to sterilize your cutting tools before trimming or pruning.
All in all, Japanese Maples are not impossible to take care of indoors. With a bit of perseverance and a winter’s rest, they can easily be your next best plant friend. Happy gardening!
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