Acers have long been admired for their stunning foliage that offers almost unbeatable autumn colour. They’re often referred to by their common name, Japanese maple.
Japanese maples are either grown as shrubs or trees and are a popular choice for a small garden. Some are praised for their attractive stems but all are valued for their attractive dissected foliage.
Here’s our full guide to growing Japanese maples.
Where to plant Japanese maples
Although hardy, Japanese maples prefer a sheltered position. In a windy spot autumn foliage displays will be shortened and foliage can be damaged. They’ll grow in nearly any soil apart from a waterlogged one. For best results grow in a sandy, slightly acidic soil.
A position of full sun or partial shade is ideal but variegated types prefer light shade. If growing in containers the plant roots can be open to frost damage in winter. In frost pockets wrap the base of the pot with fleece or bubblewrap to offer protection.
How to plant Japanese maples
As with all trees and shrubs, Japanese maples are best planted in autumn or spring. Dig a generous planting hole and incorporate some well-rotted organic matter. Position the plant ensuring that it is planted at the same depth as it was in the pot, backfill and firm in. Water in well. Larger specimens that are to be grown as trees should be planted with a tree stake to offer support.
When growing in containers choose a compost that will offer supports, such as a tree or shrub compost or a John Innes no 2. It is vital that pots have drainage holes. Firm plants in well and ensure you haven’t planted them too deep. Water well and feed with a slow-release fertiliser if planting in spring.
How to propagate Japanese maples
Japanese maples can be grown from seed but this is a lengthy process. Seed should be sown fresh in autumn. Place the seed in a pot of seed compost and cover with a sprinkling of soil. Place in a cold frame and wait for signs of growth.
Japanese maples: problem solving
Japanese maples in pots can be susceptible to vine weevil attack.
A more common problem is damage to the foliage from wind. Plants in pots have a higher risk of suffering from this. To resolve this, move container-grown plants to a more sheltered spot and ensure the container has plenty of drainage. The ideal windbreak is a hedge as it will filter the wind. Solid walls and fences can cause gusts of winds to be stronger and more damaging.
How to look after Japanese maples
Japanese maples are easy to care for. They don’t require any pruning unless you are keen to improve the shape of your plant or need to remove dead or dying stems. Only prune in the dormant season (when the plant has shed its leaves) as at any other time of year the plant will bleed sap. The sap can be unsightly.
Japanese maples are shallow rooted so will appreciate not having to compete with other plants in the immediate growing area.
Those grown in containers will need potting on every two or three years. Apply a slow-release fertiliser every spring.
Giving the eventual height of a Japanese maple can be tricky. They are very slow growing and take many years to reach their maximum height. Ask for mature height details when selecting your plants from a specialist nursery.
Japanese maples to try
- Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ – deep maroon foliage with tiny flowers in spring, often followed by winged fruits. Reaches height of 4m
- Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ – deeply cut foliage that turns crimson in autumn. Reaches 6m after many years
- Acer campestre – of all the acers this will tolerate a damper position. Commonly known as the field maple and is often used as hedging plant. Can reach 12m in height
- Acer capillipes – the snake bark maple if praised for its attractive bark. Three lobed leaves that turn from green to orange in autumn. Height 5m
- Acer conspicuum ‘Red Flamingo’ – more often grown as a shrub. Pink, green and white variegated foliage with deep maroon bark. Height 8m
- Acer griseum – known as the paperbark maple, chestnut-coloured bark peels away to reveal smooth, orange-red bark. Can reach 10m in height