Japanese maples

Japanese maples make elegant focal points in a garden and seen in their full glory of autumn colour are absolutely breathtaking. They mix well with brilliant autumn berries, picking up reds and oranges all around the garden. Although many species of maples originate from Japan, it is only the Acer palmatum and A. japonicum varieties we feature here. These varieties are renowned for their elegant form, delicately divided foliage and stunning autumn colours. Japanese maples range from small weeping varieties which are suitable for pots and small gardens up to modest trees like A. palmatum 'Atropurpureum' which can eventually reach 8m. This diversity of form also means there is a Japanese maple to suite almost any position.

Japanese maples make excellent specimen plants either at the edge of a border, beside a patio or as a focal point at the edge of a border or in a rockery. Their finely divided foliage and weeping habit also mean they look good besides steps or alongside a pond or water course where their graceful form can be appreciated to the full. If you choose varieties with contrasting foliage colours, Japanese maples also look fabulous planted in groups.

Some Japanese maples also make a contribution to the winter garden. A. palmatum 'Sango-kaku', for example, has bright coral-red stems that practically lights up the dullest of days with their luminescent display. Even varieties that are not so colourful maintain a presence in the garden especially in the watery light of a winter's morning when their hunched-up cascade of fine twiggy branches from an eerie silhouette.

Japanese maples, however, are a bit fussy about their environment and will not thrive if your garden is windy, suffers from late frosts, has alkaline soil, or is prone to waterlogging in winter or drying out in summer. In these circumstances we suggest you choose a more enduring shrub such as Sambucus which has equally attractive foliage (though without the autumn brilliance) but a far more tolerant attitude.

Variety guide

Japanese maples are exceptionally beautiful in a mixed border. Although their main season of interest is in the autumn when the leaves turn fantastical reds, oranges and yellows, the trees have year-round interest. Even when the leaves have fallen the branches provide striking, bold silhouettes against the pale winter skies. In spring and summer the fine leaves cast a subtle, dappled light on the ground and plants below. As a rule, Japanese maples like a shaded spot and will suffer in a glaringly sunny spot. If you are looking for a variety for a sunny situation opt for the more tolerant Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium', although even this will suffer in unrelenting midday sun.

In a Japanese border

Japanese maples can be planted in Japanese garden schemes which place the emphasis on texture and form, both of the surrounding plants and the corresponding 'hard' elements like stones, fencing and gravel. There are some really beautiful pebbles and stones now available which make stunning and maintenance-free additions to a garden. Brown or red stones, which are richly coloured will highlight the reds and russets of the autumn Acers, such as that of the variety A. palmatum 'Osakazuki' which is notorious for having the brightest autumn colouring. Alternatively, the blueish hue of crushed slate offsets the darker crimson leaves of A. palmatum 'Bloodgood'. Another good choice for this type of garden is the green leaved A. palmatum var. dissectum with an upright shape. In the simplicity of a Japanese garden, it is important to plant just a few, striking plants. There are some great grasses that fit the bill, like ground-covering Hackonechloa macra, which forms gracefully arching hummocks. For heright, Stipa gigantea reaches 2.5m and is a deservedly sought-after plant.

Edge of the pond

Japanese maples look great beside the edge of the pond or pool, mixing well with other waterside treasures. The delicate leaves can be offset by those that are more robust. For example, Fatsia japonica, the false caster oil plant, has large leathery green leaves which jut out like knarled knuckles. Ferns too are perfect for this position: Polypodium vulgare is an evergreen which only grows to 30cm which making it ideal for under planting; while Polystichum munitum reaches a mighty 90cm! There are also effective flowering plants that make good neighbours to Japanese maples. Astilbes, for example, are excellent waterside or bog garden plants with tall plumes of flowers which range from white through pinks to dark magentas. They are produced reliably from early through to late summer and stand upright without ever needing to be staked. For real bold brilliance there are Trollius, the globe flowers, with their large goblet blooms in vivid yellows and oranges. They like a darkish damp spot where the flowers shine.

In containers

Japanese maples make excellent container plants and are perfect feature plants for the patio. There are small varieties like A. palmatum 'Crimson Queen' or 'Butterfly' with its unusual variegated leaves. These Japanese maples have an almost bonsai quality, looking like fully formed trees in miniature. The season of interest of the containers can be lengthened by under-planting the Japanese maples. Spring-flowering bulbs make a good addition, dwarf daffodils such as 'Tete-a-Tete' and the wood anemone, Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades' which are the most beautiful colour. Smaller herbaceous plants can also be added to containers. The low-growing Sedum 'Ruby Glow' with its purplish leaves and magenta flowers kind of tumbles over the side of containers are really complements the purple-leaved Japanese maples like 'Garnet'.

Growing guide

Japanese maples are quite hardy plants although sensitive if not planted in the right position. They need a slightly shaded and sheltered site. The leaves are very delicate and are easily damaged by late spring frosts, cold winds and too much sun, when they will shrivel, frazzle and fall off at the slightest provocation. However, put an Acer where it's happy and it will be hardy, trouble-free and delightful.

Acers like a moist soil although not one that is waterlogged. The best way to achieve this is to improve the richness and fertility of the soil by digging in lots of organic matter, such as well-rotted farmyard manure, before planting. Also, make sure you water well and regularly for at least the first two years while the roots establish. In addition, it is well worth mulching in autumn and spring when the soil is wet. Use well-rotted organic material such as should be strulch or bark chips, which will help to keep the soil moist through the season.

Japanese maples don't really need any pruning except to remove any dead or diseased branches. They are best left to define their own individual shape as this is really what gives them their charm. Be judicious when wielding the secateurs because Japanese maples are extremely slow growing and a five-minute prune can take five years to regrow!

Propagation

Japanese maples are quite difficult to propagate and this combined with their slow rate of growth means they are expensive to buy as semi-mature specimens. As a rule they are grafted by commercial nurseries, but also can be grown from seed. However, the resulting seedlings will be a bit variable so you may need to go through a long selection process to get a reasonable plant. Collect seeds, clean and dry them before sowing. Acer seeds should be sown as soon as possible they do not store well.

Pest and disease

Acers are usually trouble-free if they are well situated. A stressed and weak tree will be prone to honey fungus and aphids.

Crocus Tip

If you have never grown a Japanese maple before, start with either Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ for its spectacular autumn colour or the purple leaved ‘Bloodgood’ which are both fairly vigorous and so relatively easy to grow.