Acer Aesthetics (or Lack Thereof)

One result of last December’s Massacre of the Not-So-Innocents was that a Japanese maple previously shouldered aside by a hefty oak is now fully exposed to view from all sides. To be honest I’d barely noticed it before, but now it’s visually unavoidable. And, of course, the poor thing never had a chance to grow even remotely straight – hence its immediate nickname of The Leaning Tower of Maple.

Given the significant asymmetry, I’m trying to decide what – if anything – I should do with or about it. The degree of awkwardness depends heavily on the angle of view.


This is how it looks from my front yard (looking south to north.) Overall not too terrible, from here. Apologies for the inclusion of the brush and the wall of lawn bags, neither of which are mine. Our township has a very casual schedule for yard waste pickup – “approximately” every two to three weeks, they claim – which means such things sit at the curb seemingly forever. I miss my previous neighborhood where they picked up yard waste every Thursday without fail, plus six dedicated pickup weekends in spring and fall for cleanup seasons!



This is the view if standing at the end of my driveway looking northwest. We’re getting a seriously ‘windswept’ vibe here.



Here’s the view as seen from directly across the street. And here’s the extra glitch: the property line between myself and my neighbor is apparently just to the right of that clump of hosta at the base of the maple; possibly right through the center of the hosta, actually. This means about 95% of the tree extends into my neighbor’s yard… a state of affairs (knowing this neighbor as I do) that undoubtedly is very unpopular with same.

Homeowners here are legally permitted to cut back any branches or limbs that extend into their property space at any time except if by doing so the health or life of the tree would be compromised. Clearly that’d be the case here, and if my neighbor were to cut off the ‘overhang’ there’d be no tree remaining! To be fair, though, if the situation was reversed I’d probably hate the sight of this tree perpetually leaning over my property like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

So I’ve got two choices: (a) leave the Leaning Tower of Maple as is and hope that the new access to sun from the south side may encourage new growth that may somewhat balance the crown shape; or (b) have the entire tree cut down. Partially trimming back these limbs would only make it look worse; I tried via my photo editing software and it was cringeworthy. Option B doesn’t much appeal to me, partly because of the cost and partly because I like the color/contrast of having such a tree in that spot. However, I can’t shake the feeling that aesthetically it looks….well, let’s be kind and just say “awkward.”

Discussing it with said neighbor isn’t an option: We haven’t been on speaking terms for two years. When I first moved in, they asked if I would agree to let them have a large Chinese Elm in my northwest corner cut down because it constantly dropped leaves and branches into their pool — a request that the former owners of my house had steadfastly refused. I am not a fan of Chinese Elms and there are two large conifers in that corner anyhow, so I said okay. But a couple of years later they pushed the envelope by telling (not asking, mind you: telling) me that I “have to keep cutting [my] shrubs and trees several times a year to prevent branches from extending over the fence, because it looks too sloppy on our side.” Excuuuse me?!? There is nothing preventing them from cutting any of that plant material back to the fence plane, and I’m certainly not about to (nor can I afford to) maintain their backyard property line for them in the manner to which they seem accustomed, which is clearly of the Not a Leaf Out of Place or Ever Falling on the Manicured Lawn school. They considered my clarification of the legal realities to be “mean and rude”, and so there we are. No dialogue happening any time soon!

But back to the asymmetric acer, a/k/a the Leaning Tower of Maple:  Considering the three vantage points above, what would you do with it? Most of the time I’m seeing the tree from the “best” possible viewpoint (from the south or southwest) and so the extreme trunk angle is not very obvious. So from a purely self-centered mindset, I could simply let the tree continue to merrily do its thing – realizing, of course, that an especially nasty ice storm might one day result in some drastic pruning by Mother Nature herself!

ADDED on MAY 22nd: Here are two photos of the Leaning Maple’s trunk, in connection with my response to Tony’s comment below.

  9 comments for “Acer Aesthetics (or Lack Thereof)

  1. Betty McCullough
    May 18, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    I think I would take it down and plant something that des not get too tall and blooms in the spring. There are many trees that do not get tall and you could manage it better.
    A Crepe Myrtle might be nice there also.

    • May 19, 2018 at 5:51 pm

      I probably should have mentioned that to have the tree guys come and cut down the maple would cost about $1000 😦 …. that’s the usual starting point for any tree job and these guys are actually less expensive than most. If I’d had the maple cut down while they were removing the oaks it would have cost only a few hundred extra but to have them come to cut down that one tree alone now, it would be top dollar. I don’t know anyone with a chainsaw even if I did want to risk someone getting hurt in the process (which, if it happened, would be a legal mess because although the roots are on my property the part of the tree they’d be working on is within the neighbor’s property space.) I do have a crape myrtle elsewhere in that section, also right along the shared property line.

  2. May 19, 2018 at 7:40 am

    Ouch. You have quite a few things going on there, and few of them have anything to do with maple pruning!
    First I want to say that was extremely nice of you to let them take down the elm. Even if you didn’t need or really want it there in the first place. Second as I’m sure you already realize, you will never do enough to make your neighbors happy. Good choice to ignore them!
    Being of the lazy sort I would just leave the maple. Every tree doesn’t have to look the same and although it may take a year to adapt to the increase in sunshine I think it will be casting plenty of grass-killing shade onto your neighbor’s lawn in no time at all 😉

    • May 19, 2018 at 5:55 pm

      Good point about the neighbor. My usual philosophy is live and let live but I felt they were simply trying to take advantage of my former willingness to be accommodating about the elm. Classic “give ’em an inch and they’ll try to take a mile” scenario, LOL!

  3. Adine Gnekow
    May 19, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    I like it. It gives character to that area. If you take it down, that area will look too bland and plain and show the house too much. So……I would plant another Japanese Maple on your side next to it. Or maybe two on your side. That way when your neighbor decides to take their part down on their side, you will still have a couple growing on your side and hence still give the area a nice touch. And who knows, suckers may project out from the part on your side after your neighbor cuts their part down and grow along with your one or two others on your side. Add some pretty low ground shrubs around them, and presto, your corner is now anchored with a nice welcome feeling.

    • May 19, 2018 at 6:13 pm

      I do rather think it is somewhat of a “character” plant although like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder! I should explain that that area isn’t very wide; it’s perhaps 6 ft at most which is definitely not enough room to plant two new maple trees. I might be able to plant one VERY young fastigiate tree once I got far enough away from the roots of the four large oak tree stumps that are still there, but… to be honest… I just got rid of all the trees that were dropping tons of leaves on the driveway and so I’m not terribly inclined to deal with that mess again 😉 whereas the leaning maple dumps 80% or more of its leaves onto my neighbor’s property rather than mine. 😉 I did happen to notice two very tiny red maple seedlings in that bed the other day, and I may leave them there for a while to see how they grow. I can always pull them out if I change my mind. Also, sometime within the next year and a half, that entire driveway will be ripped up and replaced and so anything near that driveway edge will be put at risk. I would not chance planting anything “good” anywhere in that bed before that job is done.

  4. May 20, 2018 at 11:33 pm

    If I translate that picture facing northwest correctly, the tree is leaning to the north, which means that the bare and exposed trunk that was formerly obscured by the larger tree is facing straight south! That is serious problem! Maples are very susceptible to sun scald. Although the foliage is likely adapted to the new exposure, the bark will likely get roasted if not protected. Rather than paint it white, you could wrap it with something until it develops enough foliage to shade itself. You might also just put some brush on top of it and hope no one notices. I think I would wrap it and let a non clinging vine climb up onto it until it gets enough new foliage over there to shade itself. Honeysuckle, star jasmine, pink jasmine, really any of the well behaved vines would work. Remember, it is only temporary, so it would be nice to use a vine that could be cut from the tree and allowed to grow as ground cover later, such as star jasmine. I would also recommend pruning the neighbors side back rather aggressively to promote growth on the desirable but also overly exposed south side. It is still too early for that, but you can start when growth slows down in late summer. Winter is the best time for that of course. But of course, all this might be too much trouble for a tree that the neighbor dislikes anyway.

    • May 22, 2018 at 6:20 pm

      Tony, you’re correct about the exposure, it’s south/southwest. And worse yet, take a look at the two photos of the maple’s trunk that I just appended to my post. You can see from the oak stump that the maple and oak trunks were literally growing against each other, and when they cut down the oak this is what the maple’s looked like. When I saw it, I asked the tree service if the maple would even survive with a trunk in that condition and was told “Absolutely, maples are very tough, it’ll be fine.” But now based on what you say about maple bark and sun scald, I am wondering if the tree’s days are numbered anyway, just from the apparent lack of a developed cambium layer…because I’m assuming the white part is sapwood? But I know relatively little about tree biology and will defer to your thoughts. (p.s., As for a vine “coat”, honeysuckle is far from well-behaved here, in fact it’s considered an invasive, and sadly star jasmine is not hardy here in Zone 7.)

      • May 23, 2018 at 11:11 pm

        Actually, that is not as bad as it looks. The trunk appears to have already been damaged, perhaps from abrasion from the oak trunk, and has developed a good callus roll in an attempt to compartmentalize the damage. Although the shedding bark look bad, it is not as sensitive to sun scald as smooth undamaged bark is. That tree seems to want to recover from previous damage. If you decide to salvage the tree, I would still recommend shading the lower part of the trunk, which in additional pictures, does not seem to be much. The upper portion of the trunk seems to be partly shaded. You only need to shade the part that is exposed to direct sunlight for more than a few hours. You could even just lay a few juniper branches against it until something grows up around it.

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