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Pruning an Acer

please please can someone advise me on how to prune an Acer so that it resembles the trees you typically see in a Japanese garden? 
My Acer is at least 20 years old and we have always pruned it hard so that it has resembled a small bush. 
Until this year! 
This year we allowed it to grow and it now has 12 inch shoots and I tried thinning them out. 
Result: disaster! It looks dreadful! 
Please can anyone help? 
Thank you in advance!


  • BijdezeeBijdezee Posts: 1,484
    edited November 2020
    Acers generally don't get pruned. They are left to form a natural shape. Your tree's natural shape has been thwarted by your pruning I'm afraid.
    Sometimes crossing branches or diseased branches are removed and a little light shaping can be helpful no no real pruning and certainly not every year.

    I'm wondering if you pruned it because it was getting too big?  If so then it's the wrong tree for the spot. If you wanted something more compact then there are plenty of smaller types that you could have planted.

    If it looks awful then maybe it's best to remove it and start again with a suitable variety. 😕

    * any chance of a photo? And also a pic of the type of look you wanted to achieve? 
  • Allotment BoyAllotment Boy Posts: 6,557
    edited November 2020
    There is a lot of mixed advice about Acers. The Japanese prune Acers in all 4 seasons except very early spring when the sap is rising. Unfortunately it takes years of patient study and practice to learn how to do this correctly as they do it.  There is very little advice written down & the methods are taught from Master to student. As mentioned there are many types & some of what you do will depend on that, is it a palmatum or dissectum for example?
    Long whipy shoots can be shortened to 2  pairs of buds cut straight across (not on an angle as you would a rose) keep stepping back and looking at the overall shape and balance of the tree, adjust what you prune in line with you overall aim. In late spring early summer (May-June) you can lightly trim any branches that are causing the tree to be out of shape.
    I have been learning some of this for 3-4 years now & I am very much a beginner.
    AB Still learning

  • Thank you both for your advice. 
    I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. Tomorrow I will try to add photos of what it looks like and then I can take photos of a couple of trees I’ve seen in the neighbourhood that I am envious of!
    Any advice is very welcome! Thanks again. 
  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,358
    Acers shouldn't really need pruning other than to remove damaged or dead stems and branches. Pruning  into a 'pudding' shape really isn't the right approach for these plants.
    They can be carefully pruned to give them a better shape, as @Allotment Boy describes [but that level is a huge skill]  but I'm afraid shaping  them in that mounded way does them a huge disservice.  :/

    I'd agree with @Bijdezee. It would be better to start again, because it's unlikely ever to be a thing of beauty.  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • Yes I am a volunteer at Capel Manor college in Enfield N London. I have been privileged to work with one of their senior gardeners who has worked & trained in Japan.  The style of pruning I am thinking of is one where you keep the tree within a certain space (so it doesn't take over the whole garden) but it still looks natural. The main advantage of Acers is they are fairly slow growing and many do not get to a very great size, that said some can  and do & as has been said trying to keep a tree that wants to be 12 M tall down to 2-3 M is always going to be a loosing battle unless you are going for a full Bonsai. @Fairygirl says too many people prune plants into pudding shapes or as I have heard it called a "lollipop on a stick"  it's not just Acers but I have seen other trees & shrubs in particular that look hideous as a result. There is a place for topiary of course but it has to be the right small leaved plant and in the right place. 
    AB Still learning

  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 54,358
    Indeed @Allotment Boy - I love topiary, but when people take hedge trimmers to every shrub, it's unpleasant at best! 
    There's a house near me, and I think the old bloke's just bored. He's out constantly trimming bits off everything, even after he's just done them. I do laugh sometimes, but it makes for a very odd appearance, and doesn't allow shrubs/trees to look their best. He was out last week on a dodgy ladder, attacking the lovely purple beech tree he'd already 'lollipopped' a couple of months ago. Apart from the obvious danger, it's doing the tree no favours at all. They're beautiful when allowed to grow in their natural shape, and it has plenty of room to do that.   :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • I always think something well pruned  looks almost like it has not been touched. Sometimes this takes a few years to achieve but it's worth it.
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