my ‘secret’ to overwintering japanese maples

japanese maple in fallNOT YET, BUT SOON. That’s when my Japanese maples will go back into hiding for the winter, to protect their tender twigs and beautiful bark from winter winds and ice and sunburn (and mice and voles and who knows what else rampages around outside here on the coldest days). It’s the most common question I am asked during garden tours here in spring and summer: What do you do with all those huge pots of Japanese maples come winter? This is what I do:

Once they have dropped their leaves and gone dormant, after a good hard freeze or so, I get out the hand cart and engage a brave friend. We say our prayers, then wheel them one by one over my hilly garden, down to the unheated barn.

I will certainly meet my end someday under one of these big pots, when I am manning the downhill side of this hauling operation.

I make sure that they are well-watered during the fall, so that they go into storage well-hydrated—and therefore less prone to dessication while in there.  No water is offered in the coldest months, when the soil and the trees inside the building are mostly frozen, but I start checking around February, once the slightly longer days are starting to nudge plants to awaken, when they may need a little—especially in March and April.

My barn has windows that let in a little light, but that’s not needed, or even wanted; darkness is perfectly fine for dormant things, and late in the winter or early in spring, too much light will just make them want to awaken faster than you desire.

japanese maples out of the storage barnI keep the pots inside as long as I can—sometimes right up until the end of April—and I don’t move them into their season-long spots (which are far from any easy cover, should nights get frosty) until the weather really settles. I simply wheel them out and set them near the barn, just in case of a “fire drill.”

Some gardeners root-prune lightly every couple or few years when potting up gradually to a larger container, to tell the tree to stay small–almost as if making bonsai.

Yes, many species and varieties of Japanese maples would be perfectly hardy here in the ground in Zone 5B (including some in the link at the first bullet below), but between cracks in the bark from sunburn and broken branches from ice storms and–on the other end of winter–fried fresh foliage from late frosts and wind, I’d rather not bother. And besides, they make such beautiful subjects for pots.

Which is why everyone always asks about them.

  1. Donna says:

    My Japanese maple is a tiny seedling, just 3” tall in a 4” pot. I live in middle Alabama. It has dropped all its leaves and I’m wondering how to care for it over the winter. It will obviously dry out quickly if it’s not watered every 3 days or so.

    1. margaret says:

      I suspect it would fare better in the ground, Donna, for the insulation of the roots that the soil provides. Sometimes with small things like that I “plunge” them – that is, “plant” them with their pots still on. Next spring you could unearth the pot and plant and transplant it to a larger pot perhaps.

  2. Steve M says:

    Have you had problems with them putting on winter growth? Mine is potted and placed in my garage because they wouldn’t survive winters here and it started putting on leaves. Not sure how to avoid this. That and I guess now I just take it outside once the frosts are gone but I can’t imagine it’s not confused.


    1. margaret says:

      I haven’t, but my barn is unheated and fairly dark inside, and I do not water them, so they stay pretty sleepy. With the early bouts of spring weather we have started to have in March lately, I fear they might wake up and so I have been bringing the pots out earlier than I used to — like early April, even though there will be various frosts still to come.

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