Beautiful throughout the year, red sunset maples are an underutilized tree that has stunning color in both spring and fall. After the rosy flowers appear in spring, young leaves mature to a cheerful green in summer before turning a blazing red with the first frosts. The autumn color can remain for weeks, and shuffling through piles of bright red leaves in fall while playing with the helicopter-like seeds is a child's wonderland. The tree takes to many soils and, although it prefers moist locations, can tolerate brief drought once it is established. Correctly planting a red sunset maple will ensure a strong, healthy tree for many years.
Choose the maple carefully. Young red sunset maples have bark that is easily injured during transport or in the general bustle of the nursery. Look for a balanced branch structure and evenly green leaves. Light green to yellow leaves with dark green veins are symptoms of a nutrient deficiency. Avoid trees with roots circling close to the trunk or pushing through the drainage holes of the container they're in; these are signs of possible trouble ahead.
Select the planting site. Sunset red maples enjoy full sun to partial shade and do well in most soils. Give a maple room to grow; according to the USDA Forest Service, sunset maples can reach 50 feet high and up to 35 feet wide. In Southern or drier regions, they may stay smaller, but place them where their four-season beauty will be appreciated. Sunset red maples also send out many surface roots and can lift sidewalks. Choosing the right location will prevent issues later.
Dig the planting hole twice as wide but no deeper than the container and place the removed dirt on the tarp or in the wheelbarrow. If the soil is extremely poor or very sandy, work compost or another soil amendment into the surrounding dirt. M. A. Powell of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension does not recommend amending average soil; the tree is not encouraged to root outside of the enriched planting area and will suffer over time.
Tip the tree gently sideways and ease it out of the container. Never pull on branches or lift it straight up by the trunk. Examine the root ball and loosen circling, matted or otherwise problematic roots, cutting them if necessary. A circling root will continue to circle until it girds the tree, and matted roots will establish very slowly and limit the growth of the maple.
Set the tree in the planting hole and level it until the soil surface of the tree is slightly above the surrounding area. Backfill around the tree until the hole is two-thirds full, then straighten and re-level. Continue to firmly pack the soil until the hole is filled and use the excess dirt to form a wide, circular watering basin at least the size of the tree's widest branches. Water well and mulch deeply.