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I have three Japanese maple trees with a problem. The ends of the leaves turn brown and draw up and eventually fall off. All we have now is bald trees with bushy leaves at the trunk. There are leaves near the trunk but none on the branches of the trees. This problem is also showing up on the ferns which are located below the trees. I live in Boones Mill, VA 24065 area.
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If the upper branches didn't leaf out at all this spring, this could be winter injury from the extended very cold weather we had this winter. There was winter injury on many of the Japanese maples in our area.
If they did leaf out fully and then the leaves began to slowly die and fall off later, then it could be a fungal disease. Verticillium wilt is a possibility. To check for this, remove one of the dead branches and strip the bark at the base. Look for dark streaking or discoloration in/on the wood. This would indicate verticillium. There is nothing you can spray to control this. The fungus is found in the soil and enters the tree or shrub through the roots.
Be sure that you are not over watering (or under watering) the trees. Do you have an underground sprinkling system? This type of damage may also indicate a root problem which could come from soggy soil or overly dry soil.
Another possibility is herbicide damage if you used a weed and feed product on your lawn or garden. The herbicide can be taken up by the roots and can damage trees and shrubs in the area if these products are not carefully applied. Always read and follow the label when applying any herbicides.
The best thing you can do at this point is to remove all the dead wood (scratch the bark first to make sure it isn't green underneath which would indicate live wood) and then fertilize the trees with Espoma Holly-tone. You want to try to keep the trees as healthy and vigorous as possible. They look as if they are putting out new growth along the lower branches.
I think the problem with the ferns may be a separate issue - possibly sunburn due to the lack of shade from the maples. In fact, the browning of some of the maple leaves may be leaf scorch due to more sun exposure than they are used to.