Maple trees offer some of the best fall color you’ll ever find, putting on a showy display as the weather turns cold. They are also one of the easiest trees to grow and will stay standing for generations.
There are over 100 different species of maple, ranging in size from small specimens to large shade trees. Most gardeners in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9 can find a maple to suit their needs.
If you’re looking to add one of these beautiful trees to your landscape, here’s what you need to know about how to plant a maple tree to ensure its health for years to come.
Ways to Grow Maple Trees
The easiest and fastest way to grow a maple tree is to buy a good quality sapling from your local nursery or garden center. These trees will already be a few years old and will give you the best start for growing your own larger tree.
However, if you’re feeling adventurous, there are two other ways to grow a maple tree.
If you have existing maple trees on your property and want more of the same, you can take a cutting to grow more trees for free.
To take a cutting, look for healthy trees that have young and flexible new shoots. These shoots should be green and will grow out of woodier, brown stems. Try to take a cutting in early to midsummer.
Using sanitized garden pruners, cut a shoot 4-8” long and remove the leaves from the lower half, keeping at least 2-3 leaves at the top. Then, use a clean knife to scrape off the bottom 1-2” of bark from the shoot.
Maple trees are known for their colorful fall foliage. To grow one, you can buy a sapling from your local nursery or try starting your own from a cutting or from seed.
Prepare small pots with a rooting medium that’s been moistened until it just clumps together when you squeeze it with your hand.
Dip the section you just scraped into rooting hormone powder and stick it about 2” down into the soil of the prepared pots. Firm the soil with your hands to make sure the cutting won’t fall over.
Water each potted cutting and place them each in a plastic bag, making sure that you don’t bend the stem at all. Keep them in a warm spot out of direct sunlight until they root. Once they are rooted, remove the plastic and keep them in a sunny spot until planting time.
Growing maple trees from seed will take even longer than by cuttings, but it can be done. All you need to do is collect the seeds from the trees you want to grow.
Maple seeds will be ready anytime from spring to fall depending on the variety. The most familiar type of maple seed is the “helicopters” children love to play with. These seeds will be mature and ready to plant in the fall.
Most seeds can be started right away but some will need cold stratification first to mimic the winter season. Look up the variety you’re planting to find out for sure.
To start the seeds, prepare small pots with a moistened growing medium like peat moss or a seed starter mix. Push each seed into the soil ¾-1” deep. Place all of the pots into plastic bags to keep the moisture at a good level.
If you need to do cold stratification, put the pots into the refrigerator for 2-4 months. When it’s time for them to sprout, put them in a warm area until they germinate.
“Helicopters” are the most familiar maple seed to many. Once they turn brown and start falling off, the seeds are mature and can be collected for planting.
Once your maple seeds have germinated, water them as needed and place them in a sunny location until you’re ready to plant.
Varieties of Maple Trees
Before getting into how to plant a maple tree, the first step is to pick the variety you want.
You’ll want to consider different factors like how large of a tree you want, what shape you want the leaves to be, and what varieties are available in your region. Though there are over a hundred kinds of maple, here are some of the most popular choices:
Sugar maples are likely the most iconic and can grow up to 120’ tall and 50’ wide. These trees need a large space to grow in, make wonderful shade trees, and can eventually give you maple syrup.
Red maples are native to parts of the eastern U.S. and are known for their stunning red leaves in the fall. They reach up to 75’ tall.
Norway maples are very hardy and can withstand poor growing conditions better than other maples. They have a majestic look and grow up to 50’ tall. These trees are so hardy that they’re considered invasive in certain areas, so check before you buy.
Paperbark maples are very unique because they develop bark that peels away from the trunk and is a beautiful coppery color underneath. They make perfect specimen trees and are also smaller, reaching only 25’ in height.
Japanese maples are in a class all of their own. They are a much showier tree with finely serrated foliage and can be grown in the ground or in containers. There are many cultivars to choose from with some reaching 25’ tall and others staying shrub-sized.
Japanese maples have more decorative leaves and are smaller than other varieties. You can find red- or green-leafed cultivars that grow in many different shapes and sizes.
Japanese maples are often the best choice for smaller garden spaces, but they do require a slightly different planting method than other maples (which we’ll cover later).
How to Plant a Maple Tree
When you have your variety selected, you’re all set to start planting.
The best time of year to plant trees, maples included, is in the fall when the weather is cooler. This gives your sapling a chance to establish its root system through late fall and winter before it tries to grow new leaves in the spring.
You’ll need a sturdy garden shovel, your sapling, a watering can or hose, and some mulch.
Selecting the Right Location
One of the most important parts of planting your tree comes before you even put your shovel in the dirt. Choosing the right location will ensure that your maple will grow and thrive.
Most maples will adapt to many soil types (although Japanese maples can be pickier), but they don’t like soil that drains poorly and may struggle in heavy clay.
If you aren’t sure how well your soil drains, dig a 12” square hole 12” deep in the same area where you want to plant. Fill the hole with water and time how long it takes to drain out. The water level should go down at least 1” per hour for good drainage.
You also need to consider how much sunlight your tree needs. Most maples can adapt to shaded areas but will have more branching and foliage in sunny areas. Japanese maples are more likely to do well with afternoon shade, especially as saplings.
Select a spot for your sapling where it will be able to grow to its full size. Maples can adapt to both sun and shade, but they need a spot with good drainage.
Keep in mind how large your tree will be full-grown, and pick a planting spot that is far enough away from other trees, power lines, sidewalks, and your house.
Planting Your Tree
Once you have your spot selected, dig a hole that’s 2-3 times as wide as the root ball of your tree and as deep as the root ball is tall.
Set your tree gently in the hole to make sure it’s the right size. Always handle your maple tree by picking up the burlap bag or container it’s growing in. Lifting it by the trunk can cause damage to the roots.
When you’re ready to plant, you’ll first want to cut away the plastic container or burlap surrounding the root ball. If the root ball is very tight, you can gently loosen the roots with your hands.
Now that the container is gone, you can lift your sapling by grabbing the very base of the trunk, right above the root ball. Lower it into the hole and make sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil.
Hold the sapling straight while you fill the hole back in with native soil. Do not add any amendments. Tamp down the soil as you go to get rid of any air pockets and continue to fill in until the hole is ½-¾ full.
At this point, soak the partially filled hole with water. Wait for it all to drain out then fill up the hole completely with soil. Make sure the entire root ball is covered, and push firmly all around the tree with your hands or a tamping tool.
Planting in poorly drained soil: If you have heavy clay or something else that causes poor drainage, you can plant your maple tree in a raised mound rather than at ground level.
To do this, dig a shallower hole so that ½-¾ of the root ball is above soil level.
Fill the hole back in and use native soil to cover the sides of the roots in a mound shape. Don’t cover the top of the root ball with soil. You can cover it later with mulch.
Water and Mulch
One your maple tree is planted and the hole is filled back in, you need to water it again. Deeply water the entire planting area and make sure the soil hasn’t sunk any to expose roots.
Then, apply a 2” deep layer of mulch around the base of your tree to help retain moisture and suppress weed growth.
Stop the mulch about 1” away from the base of the tree. Mulching right up to the trunk can cause the wood to start rotting.
Optional: Stake and Protect Your Sapling
Not all maple saplings will need staking, but it can help them grow straight for their first year. If your sapling is tall and thin or you live someplace with high winds, you may wish to consider staking.
There are a few methods for staking trees, but one of the most used is to drive in three evenly spaced stakes around the tree at a 45° angle into the ground. Tie wire or nylon string from each stake to the tree.
Mature maples are sturdy and will stand for decades, but you may need to stake your sapling until it gets firmly enough rooted to be strong on its own.
Use rubber coverings where the string will be rubbing on your maple tree to prevent any damage. Don’t leave the sapling staked for more than a year.
You can also get a reusable staking kit if you don’t have these supplies at home.
If you live in an area where deer are frequent visitors, it’s a good idea to put plastic protective covers around your newly planted saplings. These are designed to keep deer from grazing at the bark.
In fact, your tree may have come with these protectors already on. If not, you can easily buy and attach them yourself.
Planting Japanese Maples
As mentioned before, Japanese maples need a slightly different planting technique. They are even less tolerant than other maples of heavy clay and poorly drained soils and prefer slightly acidic soil.
You’ll need to use the mound method to create a planting that is largely above ground level. Start by digging a shallow hole that’s 2-3 times as wide as the root ball.
If your soil drains well, you only need to put the top of the root ball an inch or two above ground level. For medium to poorly drained soil, you’ll want it to be at least 4-8” above the soil.
Build up the soil around the root ball, but don’t put any on top. Water thoroughly and cover the top with a good layer of mulch.
Japanese maples are highly decorative and can be grown in containers. If grown in the ground, make sure to plant them in a raised mound if your soil doesn’t have good drainage.
You can also grow Japanese maples in containers where they will grow quite happily and stay smaller than ones planted in the ground.
Tips for Fertilizing and Plant Care
There’s a temptation to fertilize your newly planted maple tree in the hopes that it will grow faster.
However, you should not fertilize it when you plant it or in the coming spring season. Wait until the second spring after planting to fertilize with a 10-10-10 fertilizer, but only if needed.
Maple trees often do well in native soil with no fertilizing. If your tree continues to grow and looks healthy, skip the fertilizer altogether.
Here are a few other tips to keep your maple tree happy and strong:
- Grass roots are one of the worst enemies of newly planted saplings. They are stronger than you might think and can steal nutrients away from your maple tree. Make sure the grass is kept away in a wide circle around the planting area. A good mulch layer should help with this.
- While your tree is getting established, it will need watered during dry spells. Always water deeply so that the bottom of the root ball will get enough moisture. If you water shallowly, the roots won’t be encouraged to go deep to seek more water.
- At some point, you might want to prune your maple tree to shape it or to get rid of branches that are weak or going the wrong way. While most trees are pruned in fall or winter, maple trees have sap that will ooze out at this time of year, which can open young trees up to infection. To avoid this, do your pruning in summer, especially when your trees are still small.
If you follow this planting guide, you’ll be enjoying your maple tree for many years to come, no matter which variety you choose.