Maples as Bonsai Part 2

By Marius Greeff


Because the soil used for Maples is somewhat sandy, a slow releasing fertiliser is preferable. This should be given as soon as the buds start to appear and should be continued on a regular monthly basis until late in autumn. In the case of liquid fertilizers, one high in Nitrogen should be given to the tree as soon as new growth appears, until November, after which fertilise twice a month with one lower in Nitrogen but higher in Phosphorus and Potassium.

When considering frequency of feeding, remember that it is usually better to underfeed than overfeed. Furthermore, it is always safer to fertilise more frequently with a weaker solution than to administer a strong solution less often.

To improve the red and gold colouring of the Autumn foliage, cover the surface soil with ash obtained by burning weeds and grasses. During summer if the leaves are not the heal thy green colour normally expected, a solution made of a heaped teaspoon of Epsom salts added to a small bucket of water will promote a better colour when sprayed onto the foliage.

During long periods of rainy weather or during winter, all feeding should be stopped as it could result in serious root rot. Therefore from mid-Autumn onwards, with the tree entering its dormant period reduce the normal fertiliser dosages by at least half. It is necessary however, to continue to feed with a weak solution once or twice after the leaves have fallen, to thicken up the trunk and generally to prepare the tree for winter.


To obtain beautiful thick branches with soft delicate tips, remove all shoots before they grow too big, often and at regular intervals.

Creating short internodes

Bud-trimming in Spring is essential if one is to create short internodes. Immediately after the bud starts to open, open it further with a pair of tweezers and pinch off the centre of the new undeveloped leaves.

Since too much shade in summer can cause long internodes, place the tree in enough sunshine to ensure small twigs developing, and ignore the bit of leaf-scorch which may result.maples-as-bonsai-2

Creating tender twigs

Because the beauty of maples lies not only in the summer foliage, but also in a winter branch and twig structure, care should be taken to create a fine twig system right from the start.

Begin by pruning back the previous year's growth to one or two nodes. New growth should be pinched right back to one node. (fig 3) Where internodes have become too long, cut back to the stipule near the stem or just before the long section. (fig.4) The secondary growth should also be cut back to one node. Figures 3 & 4.

Creating side branches

Maples have a tendency to form irregular buds at the fork bases of shoots or where leaves have been trimmed. These irregular buds should be picked off to prevent rough thickening or a radiating shape in a branch. Without these precautions branches will thicken roughly instead of achieving fork shaped shoots on a horizontal level. (sideways). Constant utilization of downward pointing buds on shoots will result in much finer, tender twigs. Figure 5.

maples-as-bonsai-3When a weak branch needs some development during the sorting out of these irregular buds on new shoots, utilise an upward one and let it grow 'wild' to strengthen that specific branch. When the desired thickness has been achieved on the main branch, cut the 'wild' shoot off. Under normal circumstances all strong shoots are usually removed in the dormant season leaving the weaker ones for frame building and shape. These strong shoots, if not cut back will result in the tree having a coarse appearance.

Heavy pruning and restyling

Although most deciduous species are restyled throughout the winter, in the case of Maples, heavy pruning should be done straight after leaf drop and dormancy have set in, making sure the resultant scars are sealed in the usual way. This must be done because maples have difficulty in recovering from setbacks caused by the removal of branches during the growing season. Apparently the tree loses too much sap and has trouble existing on what remains. Sometimes the tree loses some of the other branches or in extreme cases the tree may die. Therefore major pruning is done only after the sap movement has receded or just prior to the opening of new leaves in early spring. Remember to remove all heavy branches on the upper section of your tree to ensure that it has a delicate appearance.


This is one of the methods of tree shaping which is peculiar to Maples and Elms. About two months after spring growth or repotting, all the leaves are cut off at the centre of their stalks. Figure 6.

The remaining portion of the stalk will soon wither and fall, thus artificially creating an Autumn season when trees usually shed their leaves. Two or three weeks later, new leaves will emerge from buds. This means that defoliating your tree will cause it to experience two autumns in one year, thus encouraging growth of its branches to a degree that would normally take two years. In the case of very healthy trees, this process may be repeated two or three times during the same season.

maples-as-bonsai-4It should be remembered that by defoliating a tree during its normal growing season, food which is normally used to develop the tree as a whole, is now mainly limited to the new leaves which are being formed. For this reason sufficient fertilizer, high in Nitrogen should be given to the tree well in advance of any planned leaf-cutting.

After leaf cutting, water the tree thoroughly and place it in a position where it is protected from strong sunshine and wind. Water should be sprayed over the tree daily in order to expedite the sprouting of new leaves. As soon as new shoots begin to appear, move the bonsai into the open and continue to spray it daily. Feed it with a weak solution of fertiliser so that it can regain its strength as quickly as possible.

In general, defoliating encourages a better autumn display. It is also advisable to defoliate only when young growth on the tree has hardened. Never defoliate a tree which is not in a healthy condition. This also applies in the case of individual branches. If the branch does not look strong, rather leave it along.


Converting rough maple material into bonsai often results in huge cutting scars on the tree. Hollow these scars out so that new cambium development will cause a flush look. Apply some bonsai sealer to these scars shortly after hollowing out, to prevent disease. Never feed your maple straight after any heavy pruning with the idea of supporting the healing process. This will only cause the new bark to become convex at the points where heavy branches were removed, resulting in an ugly looking scar. Only once the tree has naturally recovered through the usual aftercare, should fertiliser be applied once again.

maples-as-bonsai-5WINTER CARE

During the winter months, thoroughly check your maples for any insects or pests. Maples are prone to mildew and should be sprayed two to three times during this dormant period with a lime sulphur solution. This will kill all mildew spores and will ensure an unblemished crop of fresh leaves in the following spring.

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Random Bonsai Tip

To thicken thin branches make a cut just below the branch or a bud on the branch. The sugars produced in the leaves of the tree move down to the roots through the phloem, this flow of sap is interrupted by the cut and the accumulation of sugars above the cut increases the vigour as it is used by the bud, forcing it into action. As soon as the wound heals the normal sap flow resumes.