Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2007
Regional Report

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This Japanese maple came through the cold spell unscathed, unlike many in our region.

A Challenging Year for Japanese Maples

This spring's late freeze and the current drought have taken their toll on garden plants, and Japanese maples have been especially hard hit. All across the region, the tender new foliage was killed by temperatures in the teens and twenties during the Easter freeze of 2007, and, sadly, many trees died. Why were these trees so susceptible to the cold when they're supposed to be hardy to zone 5 or 6?

Hardiness ratings are based on the average minimum winter temperature; in zone 6 this ranges from 0 to minus 10 degrees F. If temperatures dropped this low in January, the trees would have fared well since they were still dormant. But the freeze came on the heels of an unseasonably warm March, so the trees had broken dormancy and were leafing out a week or two ahead of normal. It was this new growth that got zapped.

Like the flowers on many fruiting trees and shrubs, the new growth on Japanese maples is very sensitive to late spring frosts, and it's not unusual for the foliage to suffer some damage. However, the Easter freeze was just that -- a hard freeze -- with temperatures dropping into the teens in some places. Many other plants, such as butterfly bushes, hydrangeas, and crape myrtles, were also affected, but it seems like these have recovered better than the Japanese maples. The prolonged summer drought and record-breaking heat hasn't helped, either.

Renovating Your Japanese Maple
Hopefully your tree made a complete recovery, but if it didn't, prune back any dead wood if you haven't done so already. In many cases tree branches remained bare but leaves sprouted near the trunk. Time will tell whether that amount of foliage processed enough food to nourish the tree during the coming winter. If the tree looks terribly disfigured, you may be tempted to replace it this fall. However, large Japanese maples are very expensive. You may want to give it another growing season before replacing it.

Replacing the Tree
If you decide to replant, survey the planting site to make sure it's right for the tree. Japanese maples prefer dappled shade in the South; at the very least they need protection from hot afternoon sun to prevent leaf scorch. They're adaptable to a broad range of soil conditions, but good drainage is important. A thick mulch helps keep roots cool. Also, the trees' delicate leaves are easily damaged by strong winds, so choose a sheltered site.

Many Choices
There are more than 1,000 different named varieties of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), so it can be difficult to choose just one. In addition to green, foliage colors include deep burgundy, peach, chartreuse, and orange, with variegated types combining any or all of these. Some varieties sprout particularly colorful new spring growth, while others boast brilliant, scarlet fall foliage. Some are upright, others weeping. Most have more or less palm-shaped leaves (hence the species name), but they range from broad to bamboo-like to lacy with fine, wispy leaves. Heights range from 3 to 20 feet, so read plant descriptions or tags carefully.

Let's hope that the weather extremes are behind us and we can look forward to more normal growing conditions in the future. But it wouldn't hurt to have some old sheets and blankets on hand next spring, just in case.

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