How to Make a Japanese Maple Bonsai Tree

Four Methods:Choosing the Maple CuttingPreparing the CuttingEstablishing Roots on the Maple BonsaiPlanting the Bonsai Maple Tree

Turning a Japanese maple (Acer Palmatum) into a bonsai tree is a wonderful project; they are trees that lend themselves particularly well to bonsai growing. The small maple tree will grow just like its normal larger version, including changing into the gorgeous fall (autumn) colors as the season arrives. You only need a few things to complete this project and an interest in growing bonsai.

Method 1
Choosing the Maple Cutting

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    Take a softwood cutting of your chosen cultivar of maple in early summer. Maple trees are easy to grow from cuttings. Select a maple tree branch that is appealing in shape. The size of the branch can be up to the diameter of your little finger.
    • There are many possible cultivars of Japanese maple. Select according to what you're wanting––some will grow larger than others, some have rough bark and some require grafting.
    • It's a good idea to take several cuttings; that way, you will be assured that one will take well (sometimes the roots are weak, rot or simply don't form).
    • Note that red-leafed cultivars of the Japanese maple tend to have weak root systems and are usually grafted onto other rootstock. Unless you know how to graft, or have someone knowledgeable to help you, it might be a good idea to avoid the red-leafed cultivars until you are more experienced.

Method 2
Preparing the Cutting

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    Cut around the base of the branch where the roots will sprout. Make a circular cut through the bark and into the hardwood underneath.
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    Make a duplicate cut about two branch widths below the first cut.
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    Make a straight cut to connect the first two cuts.
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    Peel off the bark between the first two cuts. The bark should peel off fairly easily. Make sure none of the cambium layer (the green layer under the bark) is left.

Method 3
Establishing Roots on the Maple Bonsai

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    Dust the top cut with rooting hormone or wipe with a rooting gel. Wrap the area with the wet sphagnum moss, then wrap it with plastic and tie in place.
    • Keep the moss wet. After several weeks, you should see roots through the plastic.
    • Alternatively, stick the branches into a gritty compost of good quality. Keep this compost medium moist.
    • Expect roots to form within 2 to 3 weeks if the stock taken is healthy and the conditions are warm and moist.

Method 4
Planting the Bonsai Maple Tree

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    Separate the tree. When the roots start to thicken and turn brown, separate your new tree by cutting it off below the new roots.
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    Place small pebbles for drainage in the bottom of a pot. Partially fill the container with good quality topsoil (a good mix consists of about 80 percent bark and 20 percent peat, as this tends to promote fine fibrous feeder roots and gives good drainage[1]. Unwrap the plastic and without disturbing the roots, plant your new tree, adding additional soil as needed to firmly set the tree in place.
    • The addition of sphagnum moss is helpful in hard water areas.[2]
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    Insert a small stake. A stake will help to keep the tree from moving; while it is establishing itself, any movement can damage its delicate roots.
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    Enjoy your new tree! Find a suitable outdoor area to keep your bonsai, such as a porch, garden bed area or patio. Bonsai are not meant to be indoor plants;[1] if brought indoors, only keep them inside for a one to two days before returning them outdoors again; only bring them in when in leaf, or only for an hour during winter.[2]
    • Keep the bonsai maple tree sheltered for the first few years. Don't leave it outside where frost can get to it for the first 2 to 3 years, as this can kill it. Avoid placing the plant anywhere windy and do not let it sit in direct sunlight for the whole day.
    • Feed a balanced feed after the buds form until late summer. During winter, feed with a low- or zero-nitrogen feed.[2]
    • Never let a bonsai tree dry out. It needs to be kept slightly moist at all times.[1] Wherever possible, use rainwater rather than tap water; it's healthier for the tree. Regular spraying with water is helpful for healthy growth.
    • Learn to "style" the tree as it gets established. This is where you learn to reproduce what nature normally does, to give the tree the look of a real tree.[1] It consists of careful pruning and wiring. Getting this aspect right can take a lot of practice but that's all part of the fun of growing your own bonsai.


  • Air layering Japanese maples are best done in mid to late spring, after the leaves have sprouted.
  • For the descriptions of the many cultivars of Japanese maples, see Japanese Maples: The Complete Guide to Selection and Cultivation, Fourth Edition, by Peter Gregory and J. D. Vertrees (ISBN 978-0881929324). This will also help you to understand its growing habits, as in general, bonsai trees grow much the same as they would in the ground.
  • Japanese maples for bonsai can be grown from seed if wished; it will obviously take longer but may be ideal if you don't wish to take a cutting from your tree. Acer palmatum grows easily from seed; when grown from seed, the maple's appearance can vary greatly, which is one of its charms.
  • Soft aluminum or copper gauze wire can be used to train the tree in any particular direction of your choice.[1] Wind in place starting from the thickest area of the tree's trunk and coil around the trunk lightly. Don't pull the wire tightly or you can harm the tree and it'll leave marks. Simply touch the bark, not dig in.
  • Repot your bonsai tree every two to three years for optimal growth, in the springtime.[1][2] Cut the roots back about 20 percent at both edges and base. Water a repotted bonsai thoroughly.
  • Pinch the tips of new shoots after two to four complete leaves have formed, throughout the year.[2]
  • In hard water areas, it is recommended that you add a soil acidifier to the potting soil twice a year.[2]


  • Aphids love the new shoots of the Japanese maple. Remove quickly or they will cause deformed leaf formation.
  • If the leaves stay green and fail to turn into colored foliage, this suggests that light levels are too low and need to be increased.
  • Do not remove or disturb the sphagnum moss during the process.
  • If wiring the tree when styling it, do not pull tightly. This can damage the tree and scars can take years to grow out or may deform the shape as the tree continues to grow.
  • The new roots are very delicate and can be easily damaged. Use care when unwrapping the plastic and potting the tree.
  • Root decay caused by overwatering or a waterlogged soil is the main enemy of a bonsai plant. Ensure that the soil has good drainage and don't overwater. If you see water lying on the surface, the drainage quality of the soil is poor and needs replacing.[2]

Things You'll Need

  • A maple tree
  • Sharp (and clean) knife or scissors
  • Sphagnum moss - soak it in water for at least 15 minutes
  • A small sheet of heavy plastic
  • String
  • Rooting hormone, available at any garden center
  • Container with good drainage holes for growing (there are many bonsai container options available at local nurseries and garden centers)
  • Small pebbles for water drainage at base of container
  • Suitable soil medium (such as a mix of bark and peat)
  • Small stake, such as a split bamboo canes
  • Grass or anything for decoration (optional)
  • Wire for styling or training, along with wire cutters

Sources and Citations

  1. McMahon, Return to Lilliput, in Growing Today, pp. 30-34, (January 1995)
  2. Lewis, Bonsai Basics, p. 73, (1997), ISBN 978-0-600-61213-1
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Categories: Indoor and Patio Plants