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General Care of Conifers

Caring for Your Conifer

In this episode of the MrMaple Show, Matt and Tim talk about conifer trees and give general care advice as well as tips and tricks. 

About Conifers

Here at Mr. Maple, you know us for our Japanese Maples, but what you may not know is that we do a wide range of conifers as well. Just in the last 3 years, we have added close to over 300 different varieties of conifers, so it's something that we are passionate about as well. 

Conifers provide some really unique interest in the landscape, especially in the winter, and there are both deciduous and evergreen conifers. There are some different variations for each sort of species and each different cultivar. Since there is such a wide range of conifers, that means that there is a large range of settings, so we are going to give you some different general care information that we hope will give you confidence in your conifer gardening. 

Lighting for Conifers

Light is one of the most important things when it comes to conifers, and with that, there are different conifers for different light conditions. One thing you should keep in mind is that most pine trees and spruces are going to need more sunlight, and for example, if you were to put a Leland Cypress in the shade, it would be very sparse and often fall over once it gets bigger. 

Most conifers need approximately 4 hours of sunlight per day, depending on the type. Make sure to look at the specific cultivar of the plant you own and look at its light requirements for that species as well. Certain species, such as the Thujopsis Dolobrata Variegata and the Thujopsis Dolobrata Nana are more shade tolerant, but in general, conifers are going to want more sunlight. A lot of times, when people have issues with their conifers, it is due to lack of sun exposure. 

When you are going towards more sunlight for your conifers, keep in mind that your sunlight may be different from someone else's sunlight. If you're growing a conifer in full sun in the deep South of the United States, it can be very different from someone growing it in full sun in Oregon. The sunlight will be much harsher and you may have to give your conifer a little protection from the hot afternoon sun. 

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

Light requirements can be a factor in your area, so you will want to look at your individual area and factor that into the equation. We list many different zones for conifers, and plant zones are based on hot cold the region gets, not how hot it gets. We do some generalizations on the upper end of our zones because we are talking about how cold resistant those roots in the overall plant are to how cold a zone is, not how hot. Check your USDA hardiness zone (video linked here) for a great way to know what plants are going to acclimate to your winters. 

With these zones, you will want to keep in mind the heat and humidity. Even though you are rated for the cold tolerance of a conifer, you might be a little too hot and/or humid for the conifer to do well in your landscape and garden. 

Watering Your Conifer

Another factor to be conscious of when you are conifer gardening is the water amounts. This can vary depending on which climate you are in, so if you are in a hotter region, it may require more water than in a colder zone. One of the biggest mistakes we see made in conifer gardening is over-watering. This is a generalization, as we have deciduous conifers (such as the bald cypress) that can grow in water, but especially with pines and a lot of our popular evergreen conifers, the issue is that they are too wet. 

Good drainage is the key for a lot of evergreen conifers. If you over-water a lot of conifers, what will end up happening is you'll get some needle drop on those plants and eventually it can kill the plant, and by making sure that you're watering them just enough and letting them dry out, conifers will remain really happy. They can be a little tricky to understand sometimes on a conifer what went wrong and when, because a conifer will look very beautiful and then a month later will be dropping its needles, and it's hard to figure out and pinpoint exactly when and what occurred to cause that needle drop. 

Container Gardening

We always talk about container gardening, but it's one of the most popular ways to grow Japanese Maples and conifers, so be very conscious of the amount of water in your container and the drainage on that container. You definitely want to make sure you don't put that saucer around the bottom, that can prevent the water from coming out of there. You want to have drainage on the container and you do not want anything stopping it, and that oftentimes can be the reason why a plant didn't succeed. You will have to check the water a little bit more in a planter too, especially if it's a lot of sun.

Fertilizing Your Conifers

What should I fertilize my conifers with? This varies per conifer, just like it varies for Japanese Maples. Dwarf conifers prefer having a light fertilizer, much like many of the Japanese Maples, but a large pine tree will prefer to have a fertilizer with higher Nitrogen. 

Oftentimes, when fertilizing conifers, less is more. You want your Nitrogen number to be lower, especially with variegated and miniature conifers because you will have a greater success rate if they are grown at a more moderate page and not over-pushed. If you have a tree that has a smaller overall growth rate, it is going to be a more healthy and developed tree, especially in the winter months if it has not been forced to over-push new growth. 

We only ship Japanese maples within the continental United States of America.

When you buy a Japanese maple from, due to the high volume during the COVID-19 situation, your order of Japanese maple trees will be shipped out within 2 weeks. We greatly appreciate your understanding during these times.

We have custom boxes that extra thick and allow for the safest shipment of your Japanese maples. Our new custom boxes allow us to ship your Japanese maple trees in their container, making the smoothest transition from our nursery to your garden. These boxes can fit two Japanese maples easily inside each box. You will simply need a pair of scissors to cut the tape around the box and pull your Japanese maple out.

Location is something that should be considered. Nearly all Japanese maples can handle growing in the shade or getting morning sun and afternoon shade. For planting trees in the sun it is important to make sure you are getting a selection that can handle full sun in your area. We have plenty of Japanese maples that grow and do well in full sun in Zone 8. When you get to zone 9, many of the Japanese maples should be planted with protection from the hot afternoon sun. There are a few maples we carry that can handle full sun in zone 9.

One of the most important things to remember is that Japanese maples do not like wet feet. This means that heavily boggy areas will need raised beds that allow drainage for the Japanese maple roots. This can simply be done by raising the area where you will be planting the Japanese maple with more soil.

The hole should be dug 1.5 times bigger than than container the Japanese maple is in. This extra size is primarily to losen the soil for the roots of your Japanese maple which will allow for it to get established quicker. Take the Japanese maple out of the container and place it in the hole. The main thing to remember when planting a Japanese maple is that it should be planted level with where the soil level was in the container. This is important as Japanese maples planted too deeply do not perform well in the landscape. This means that you will have to put part of the soil that you already dug back into the hole before planting.

People often ask where or not they should condition their soil for the Japanese maple. For the most part, you shouldn't. Japanese maples can do well in both sandy soils and clay soils. When you ammend the soil they have to get established in your ammendments and then get established in the exterior soil.

Japanese maples have a non-invasive root system that makes them ideal for container growing and bonsai culture. This will allow you to bring the ornamental appeal of Japanese maple to your deck, patio, poolside, and driveway expanding your garden. The concept of how big a Japanese maple will get in a container is similar to that of how big a goldfish will get inside a bowl. A Japanese maple will grow the size container it is put in. A small container will dwarf the size of the tree from the size the tree would naturally be in the landscape. Dwarf Japanese maples are often used in containers because they get fairly close to full-size in most containers. The best tip for container growing is a well-drained pot.


1. Choose your Japanese maple based on the location you plan on growing your container grown maple (ex. Sun or shade?).

2. Select the container you would like to use. The primary thing to look for is good drainage. You may be able to drill extra holes in non-ceramic containers. At least one drain hole is necessary. For containers with only one drain hole, you may consider lining the bottom of the container with 1-2 inches of medium sized gravel to increase drainage.

3. Soil should be selected based on how frequently you plan on watering the plant. For Japanese maples that will be regularly watered by an irrigation system, a soil with more perlite is ideal. An example of this would be a regular bag of miracle grow mix. For maples that will not be on a regular irrigation system, make sure to add more peat moss to the mixture. This will allow for the maple itself to retain a higher amount of moisture. When adding the soil to the container make sure to keep the root collar and trunk of the Maple at the same level it was in it’s previous container. It is also good to leave at least 1/2 inch to 2 inches of the top lip of the container free from soil. This allows for the maple to be watered effectively.

4. Select a companion plant such as small sedums that can cover the soil-surface to reduce heat and moisture loss for the roots of the maple. When choosing a companion plant it is essential to use only plants with extremely shallow and tiny root systems that will not grow into the roots of the maple.

5. Water frequently based on the finger test. If the soil around your Japanese maple feels dry, water.

6. For small containers (smaller than a nursery 3 gallon) check the root system of your Japanese maple during the winter every 3 years. If the root ball is getting very thick, trim the root system leaving 3/4 of the root system. Add soil as necessary. For larger containers, you can go much longer without root pruning the roots of your Japanese maple. We suggest checking every 7-8 years. For those that do not want to root prune, you can always upgrade your Japanese maple to a larger pot size or put the tree in the landscape, however, with a few minutes of root pruning every few years a Japanese maple can stay in any pot for its entire life.

*Japanese maples that have been stressed should be given Super Thrive at recommended doses from the bottle. This can often be purchased at Wal-Mart or your local garden center or department store. This simply gives Japanese maples the proper nutrients and hormones that will help it heal and recover and help it get back into a growing mode.

Japanese maples are extremely easy to care for. The less you do the better. Japanese maples do not like a lot of nitrogen so fertilizers are not necessary. Fertilizers with low amounts of nitrogen can be used in the early spring and mid-summer, however it is not necessary.

Trimming your Japanese maple can actually make your tree grow faster. If you trim the smaller branches back leaving larger and thicker branching with buds, your tree will often grow very quickly. This is because you get a cleaner flow or nutrients from Japanese maples that have been trimmed. It is like excersing your Japanese maples. It is best to do this in the early spring right before your Japanese maple leafs out. This is typically around the late February to early March time period for us in North Carolina. The main trick for trimming is to never trim more than 45% of your tree off. Yes, that means you can trim a Japanese maple heavily. Remember to clean your pruning tools with rubbing alcohol. This helps keep your pruning tools sanitized which helps your Japanese maple stay healthy.

Steps for Pruning:

1. Start out by pruning out branches you don't like on your Japanese maple. If the branch is larger than 3/4 of an inch in diameter we recommend using a saw. Large branches you don't like only get bigger so it is best to prune them out early in the tree's life.

2. Prune out the twiggier smaller branching. Smaller branching only makes smaller branching. This means these will make the tree grow slower. By pruning your Japanese maple and leaving the large branching you will get a larger tree quicker.

3. Trim out conflicting branching on your Japanese maple. This means if two limbs are touching are are too close, one of them should be trimmed out. A lot of pruning is judgement calls. Picking which one stays and which one goes will be a judgement call that only the owner or the pruner can make.

4. If you are trimming an upright selection, make sure to keep one branch as a central leader. This is typically the tallest part of the tree on most upright Japanese maples. If you are trimming a dwarf or a laceleaf Japanese maple, you can trim the Japanese maple to accentuate the natural shape of the tree. This can be done with laceleaf types by trimming your Japanese maple to create different levels of branching.

5. Trim out the fishtails. When there are three small branches coming out of the terminal buds on the end of a branch, it is often good to trim out the middle branch. This gives room for the other two branches and allows them have more energy.

While trimming is not necessary, if you follow these steps, your Japanese maple should grow much quicker for you.

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