024–Japanese Maples: A Passion and Profession with Matt & Tim Nichols

| Grow, Podcast

Who knew a childhood introduction to Japanese maples would turn into a thriving business for two young brothers? Matt and Tim Nichols of Hendersonville, NC never doubted that someday they would turn that passion into a thriving Japanese maple nursery business.

 

MrMaple brothers Matt and Tim Nichols flank Joe Lamp'l

Brothers Matt and Tim Nichols (L-R) standing with podcast host, Joe Lamp’l. In a few short years, they’ve turned their passion for Japanese maples into MrMaple, a thriving mail-order nursery in Hendersonville, NC.

 

Fueled by their grandmother’s Japanese maple-filled yard, and their dad’s weekend ritual was selling those seedlings at the local flea market were all these brothers needed to grow their childhood hobby into a full-time profession. Now as part of their work, they travel the world looking for the next great maple introduction.

 

Younger Tim and Matt Nichols helping sell maples for their dad's hobby nursery business

Tim and Matt Nichols (L-R) grew up loving and working with Japanese maples. Their grandmother’s seedlings would become the plants they helped their dad sell at weekend flea markets to support his hobby nursery business.

 

MrMaple, their mostly mail order Japanese maple nursery carries about 1000 cultivars, along with several other unrelated sections of plants including Hamamelis (witch hazel), Metasequoia (dawn redwood), Ginkgo and more.

The brothers, now widely respected across the globe for their expertise, credit their success to a pure passion for their craft, an insatiable thirst for learning, and an always humble attitude with everyone they meet.

 

Matt and Tim Nichols standing in front of Japan's most revered Japanese maple.

Brothers Tim and Matt have traveled the world for their love of Japanese maples. Here, they stand before Japan’s most revered specimen. At over 650 years old, it is closely guarded.

 

What is it about Japanese Maples that make them so desirable to so many people? Matt and Tim offered the following reasons for their universal appeal.

  • Ever-changing beauty. Japanese maples are truly a four-season tree, providing beauty in color and texture in spring, summer, and fall. And their sculptural branching offers unmatched beauty in the winter landscape.
  • A shallow, non-invasive root system. Their forgiving root system makes Japanese maples great candidates for containers or when planted near foundations or sidewalks.
  • The tree for any situation. Pick a planting location or desired trait, and there’s a Japanese maple variety that works. Tall and narrow, wide and weeping, a large shade or street tree, container plant, bonsai, finely textured leaves, and more. No tree works as well in so many places or conditions.
  • Hardiness. From the northern United States, down to central Florida and across the lower border to California, some maples can take brutal cold or heat while still offering all the best of what Japanese maples have to offer.

What to Know When Buying Japanese Maples

Look for grafted trees. Grafted trees, such as the ones the Nichols’ brothers propagate ensure a known set of traits that will remain stable for the life of the tree. Such qualities as mature height and width, hardiness, color, and sun or shade tolerance can be known in advance with grafted trees. While growing Japanese maples from seed can produce very fine specimens, there are no assurances as to how they will mature.

 

a grafted japanese maple

MrMaple nursery grafts all their cultivars to ensure a quality root system while preserving the desirable traits of the top growth. Note the scion cuttings (lower left) that are grafted to the hardy understock – descendants of their grandmother’s original tree.

 

Seek mail order nurseries for greater variety. While local nurseries and box stores may offer fine selections, generally their space constraints and generic customer base limit the quantity and varietal choices they can offer. Specialized mail order nurseries usually offer higher quality trees and a much greater selection, especially for specialty or hard-to-find plants.

Don’t fear smaller plants and trees from mail order. Shipping cost and quantity of offerings can dictate the practicality of tree sizes being offered through mail order. But don’t let the smaller size dissuade you from buying online. Smaller root systems can provide a better chance of establishment and with proper care, will quickly fill out when planted in the landscape. Once established, they can quickly catch up with larger trees in just a few years.

Did You Know…

  • A grafted three-gallon Japanese maple is likely in production for five-six years before before it becomes available for sale? Growing out understock from seed takes two-years. Once grafted, two more years in a one-gallon container and two more years in a three-gallon pot.
  • A healthy root system is critical for the health and durability of whatever is being grafted to it. Hence a hardy rootstock is paramount to growing out a thriving cultivar. MrMaple nursery uses rootstocks from their grandmother’s trees, proven to be consistently hardy and disease resistant. A great root system has a good motor to push growth and nutrients up through the top growth.
  • The next great Japanese maple cultivar often comes from a genetic variation or anomaly growing from its host. Witch’s broom or sports are terms often given to such genetic variations. The unique growth is removed from the host and vegetatively propagated.
  • The stories behind the trees play an important role in what attracts Tim and Matt to which trees they offer. Knowing the history of the tree, who, what, why, where, and when…those factors enhance the appeal and importance of the tree. It connects the past to the future.
  • Fertilizing Japanese maples too much too soon pushes the growth through fall and winter which can lead to weaker cambium and the tree being more vulnerable to damage from exposure to cold. Keeping the nitrogen under 15% by volume and not fertilizing past mid-summer helps reduce risks.
  • Japanese maples are like potato chips. You can’t have just one. We’re living testament to that. We filled our car beyond capacity with the addition of a few more maples to our Atlanta gardens.

 

trees being loaded into our SUV

It’s true about never having enough Japanese maples. This was just the start of many new plants and trees making the trip back to Atlanta with us. Director of Photography, Carl Pennington is not thrilled with the extra company.

 

Matt & Tim’s 5 Must-Have Japanese Maples

‘Moonfire’ (Acer palmatum ‘Moonfire’). A favorite upright red Japanese maple.

Weeping red Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Tamukeyama’). Nice cascading red, lace leaf maple.

Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’. Tightly shingled layered look. Dwarf, compact, dense habit, tightly layered compact green with amazing red fall color. It’s a common favorite variety among Japanese maple experts. It’s a great tree for any condition.

 Acer palmatum ‘Summer Gold’. A 6-8-foot tree with yellow foliage in summer. It can handle sun and heat. The yellow foliage makes other trees and foliage really pop.

Acer palmatum ‘Purple Ghost’. A fun, variegated variety. Each leaf has a very defined set of etchings. Color seems almost unreal. Most popular variegated upright. Zone 5-9.

Links & Resources

MrMaple Nursery – Matt and Tim Nichols’ nursery in Hendersonville, NC.

Japanese Maples: The Complete Guide to Selection and Cultivation, Fourth Edition, by J.D Vertrees (This is the go-to guide for Japanese maples).

Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery

Milorganite: Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joe gardener®

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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently in production of its ninth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm, just north of Atlanta, GA.

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