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While mowing the lawn yesterday, my husband stumbled across this tiny plant. It's barely two inches tall. Some people down the street have a beautiful large tree that looks like a Bloodgood maple, and I've always wanted one! Could this be a little sapling, or perhaps a different variety of red maple?

We gently pulled it up, planted it in a clay pot with regular dirt from the yard, set the pot on a saucer, watered it thouroughly and put it in the sun. This morning it was very dry so I watered it again.

If it's a tree, or even if it's something else, what's the proper care for it at this fragile stage?

click on pictures for full size

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    "We gently pulled it up" - that was a bad plan. What you should have done was dug up a plant-pot-sized lump of earth around the roots, and put that in the pot with as little disturbance as possible. That way, the tree doesn't "know" it has been moved. Pulling the plant up will probably break off the ends of the roots, and strip off most of the tiny root hairs (often too small to be easily visible to the naked eye) which are what actually take up water from the soil. You just turned your tree into a cutting, which will have to start again growing a root system! – alephzero Nov 1 '18 at 15:09
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This looks a lot like a tiny maple seedling in it's first year, note the cotyledons - the seed leaves, the (in this case long & tongue-shaped) leaves that appear before the true leaves - which are still present. The pictures are a bit blurry, so I can't be absolutely sure but I've seen dozens of these under my Granny's Japanese Maple.

Potting up temporarily in potting soil instead of garden soil would have been my choice, but don't disturb it again. Get it out of the direct sun asap1: It will loose too much water and the roots are not established yet to "drink" enough. Water consistently, but don't keep it wet - humid will do. Water from the top, at least until it's established, because you can better control where the water goes. If you water from below, there is a chance that the water doesn't reach the roots as intended and you can't look into the pot... It should perk up soon. Acers can be a bit fussy when transplanted as small seedlings, but generally speaking they are robust little things.

Choose a final place for it and plant it there either in a few weeks when you see it's stable again (preferably during an overcast, rainy phase, avoid summer heat) or next few years. But remember that if you keep it in a pot longer, it will need constant care like watering. But it's perfectly doable, I know a Japanese maple that's been in its pot for at least ten or fifteen years now - doesn't grow too much, but appears quite happy. If you want it to grow to its full height, it needs to go in the garden, though.

If it's really a baby-maple, it may look like this in two years:

maple, 3rd year


1 This is a good rule of thumb for all transplanted plants: When you root them up, they need time to establish a good contact between roots and soil again, which means water supply will be hampered for a while. You want to minimize water loss, so put pots in a shady place for a few days or choose overcast days with potential rainfall for digging up and planting plants in the garden. Those hot sunny days are meant to water the garden, smell the roses and enjoy the results of your hard work from a lawn chair ;-)

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