Maple Seedlings — it’s that time of year again!

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

One of the main reasons why I bought my current home in the centre of Lindsay was the majestic Maple and Walnut trees lining each side of the road. I was lucky enough to purchase a house with a Silver Maple and a red Norway Maple in the front yard. I now have the front yard of my dreams, partial- to full-shade, and full of hostas, cimicifugas, astilbes, and countless other shade perennials and bulbs.

Front Garden

However as I learned in the first spring, having two very large maple trees, especially a Norway maple, in the garden does come with some disadvantages. The first spring after I moved in, thousands of seedlings emerged in the front perennial bed. At that time I had not dug out my entire front garden; 50% of it was still lawn, so it was a little more manageable. The small seedlings in the perennial bed I pulled out and I mowed over the seedlings in the lawn. Once my entire front garden became perennial beds three years ago, the number of seedlings exploded. I probably should add, just to be fair to my two maple trees, that it is not entirely their fault. In the fall I leave most of the leaves on the soil, occasionally raking them up, mulching them and spreading them back down. I also collect bags of leaves from friends and neighbours and after mulching them up, I spread them liberally over both the front and back garden. Both these practices definitely increases the number of seedlings I get, but I tend to weigh the benefits of improving the soil against dealing with the seedlings.

many seedlings
The photo above shows approximately 10 maple seedlings in between spring bulbs

Norway maples, as most people are now aware, are considered an invasive species. They are fast growing, often out-competing native trees. There were widely planted in most cities due to their vigorous growth and tolerance of city conditions including soil compaction, pollution, and salt. They also produce huge numbers of seed, which can grow in very dense conditions and grow very quickly. Now, I have to add here that my other maple tree, the silver maple, also produces large numbers of seed. Whilst it is a native tree, it also grows very quickly and is widely planted in cities. It is also a tree that is disliked by many; you only have to do a search on the internet to find many articles similar to this one by the Globe and Mail.

So back to the main reason for writing this blog — how to deal with the thousands of maple seedlings that germinate every spring. Before you can begin to eradicate anything you need to be able to identify it.  I quickly learned how to identify a maple seedling; see picture below.

3 maple seedlings 1
Close up picture of maple seedlings

Once you have pulled out a few hundred or thousand of these, you will be able to spot one from at least a 20-30 foot distance. Beware, they like to hide under piles of leaves, or try to blend in with your other spring ephemerals, such as under the leaves of yellow wood poppies or hellebore. They germinate rapidly once the weather warms, making it difficult to pull them out without stepping on other bulbs or perennials that are just starting to emerge. They often stand there taunting you in the middle of your bloodroot, knowing that you won’t weed in between until after the plant has finished flowering, at which point the maple seedling has grown a few more inches. The following are some of the strategies that I have developed over the past three years for handling the maple seedlings that germinate in my garden each year:

  • Pull them out as early as you can. If you can pull them when they are only 1 or 2 inches tall they can easily be pulled by hand. When I say easily here I am referring to the strength needed to pull them, not the wear and tear on your back and knees, which I will attempt to address later. But beware as I mentioned earlier, the seeds grow quickly. If the seedling is more than a few inches in height you might want to use a pair of pliers allowing you to get a good grip on the seedling before pulling out. Unfortunately if the seedling is much bigger than that, you may have to dig it up.
  • The strategy that I use most often is to try and turn it into a game as this also stops you from tearing your hair out. Whenever I leave the house, I make myself pull out 10-50 seedlings. The amount often depends on how much of a rush I am in, but I never leave the house without pulling at least 10 out. I must admit that this has occasionally made me late for an appointment, but the knowledge that I have done something productive is well worth it. Now this game can also be played in reverse (I know, it’s sounding more fun all the time), meaning that you can play it when you return from whatever you were doing. If it’s dark you may have to grab a flashlight and if you’re carrying grocery bags, they can be left on the driveway, at least for a short while. Before you go into the house, pull up at least 10 seedlings. Trust me, this game will grow on you.
  • Enlist family and anyone else who (usually) routinely visits you to partake in this game also. Do not make them a cup of tea unless they can produce 10 pulled seedlings. I was able last year to persuade my husband on a couple of occasions to join me, although I’m not sure that he participated in it strictly for the enjoyment factor.
  • Pay your children or your neighbour’s children (when it’s safe to invite them over) to pull them out.  The only trouble with this is they will only be able to pull out the seedlings that can be reached via the path. But if you’re lucky, they may take cookies as part payment.

Do not, on any account leave any seedlings, thinking you will pull them out next year. When I moved into my current house, I had maple trees 3 to 4 feet tall growing next to the foundations of the house, the garage, and anywhere where it was almost impossible to get a spade in to dig them out. They grow very quickly; do not look away!

pile of maple seedlings

Photo above shows how many seedlings I collected in 5 minutes yesterday.  Unfortunately, this year looks like another bumper year for these volunteers in my garden.

3 thoughts on “Maple Seedlings — it’s that time of year again!”

  1. Great blog Suzanne! Just about every gardener can relate to trying to eradicate seedlings that we do not need, or want, in our garden. Tying to make an onerous task fun even works….sometimes!

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  2. The joys of spring; in the short window of sufficient warmth and no biting insects, how many maple seedlings can be harvested? C

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

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  3. Great article, Suzanne! Love your garden! I also fight with maple tree seedlings each year as I have sugar maples in my yard. They are easy to pull at the seedling stage.

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