“Jeff and Judy Childs have been cultivating Japanese Maples in Quilcene (Vinland Nursery) since 1989, participating in an longstanding tradition that began in Japan during the 1700s, spread to England in 1820, then quickly spread throughout the temperate world. Horticulturists everywhere were captivated by the species’ inherent beauty and its ability to take on a great multitude of colors, leaf shapes, and growing patterns. Over the centuries, hundreds of new varieties have been developed.
Similar to an apple tree, every Japanese Maple seed will grow a tree genetically distinct from its parent. If an individual tree turns out especially well, genetically identical “offspring” can be propagated through grafting a cutting onto a rootstock plant. Jeff and Judy propagate an astounding 250 varieties, which they sell to nurseries throughout Western Washington.
The Corner has selected a sampling, twenty of their most popular varieties.
Background: As is the circuitous story with so many of our farmers and producers in this area, Jeff didn’t start off in the nursery business but first got a degree in meteorology from the UW and worked as a Hanford weather forecaster. He loved the job, but not the hours. His brother Jerry was a firefighter and the “24 hr on/48 hr off” schedule definitely gave Jerry more time to hunt and fish than Jeff, so Jeff decided to switch careers and became a firefighter in Bremerton. Next brother Jerry learned how to propagate Maples from an accomplished nurseryman, Taki Nagasawa of Green River Nursery in Kent. Jerry shared what he learned with Jeff and the 2 of them decided to begin growing and selling maples on the side. Since the 80s, Jeff and Jerry have lived happily across the road from each other and run nearly identical Japanese Maple Nursery operations (Jerry’s nursery is called Liberty Bay), each having their own set of clients. Jeff enjoys the hands-on meditative nature of the work and it has given him a nice supplemental income.
Process: The maples for sale at the Corner may not look large at this point, but they are on average at least 5 years old each. The process required to bring a maple to this size is fascinating. It’s an ancient art unchanged over the years, requiring time, skill and patience. Jeff kindly walked us through the steps:
1) First, seed is collected from Vinland’s 30 year old “mother tree”, then planted and tended for 2 years which gives you the rootstock plants. (The hardy “mother tree” variety, Acer palmatum palmatum, is valued for its disease resistance, adaptation to our area, and willingness to accept grafts). Prior to grafting, the rootstock is warmed in a heated greenhouse to bring it out of dormancy.
2) Next comes the grafting. A cutting (scion) from the desired variety of maple being propagated is cut off and carefully sheared on 2 sides to expose the cambium layer. (Unlike the rootstock plant, the scion plant is still dormant at this time). An incision is made in the rootstock plant, the scion is inserted lining up the cambium layers, and the union is taped closed to keep out air gaps. Over the next 2 months the graft is carefully tended and the rootstock plant is gradually cut all the way back.
3) Finally, if the graft takes (some finicky varieties have very limited success rates), they are next moved to a greenhouse where they grow for another 2-4 years. During this time they are pruned and coaxed into the desired shape specific to the variety.
Caring for your maple: The maple you take home is best transplanted between March and October. Jeff stresses water management during the first 2 years (while they’re establishing roots) as the most important thing. They require well-drained soil (constant sogginess is bad) but need regular watering during the dry months to keep the root system from drying out. Once established, “weekly deeply” watering seems to work best. Drip irrigation works better than sprinkler systems. A small amount of balanced fertilizer encourages additional growth, but is not necessary in most soils. Many varieties are successfully grown in containers as long as the same care is followed.
Inspiration: Remember Taki Nagasawa, the nurseryman who first taught Jerry the Japanese Maple tradition? He is deceased, but if you google him, his name comes up most often in the bonsai literature. Turns out he provided maples that have since grown into some of our area’s most valued bonsai specimens, and through these he lives on. All the more reason to buy and plant your Japanese Maple today!
On that note, best of luck picking your variety!