How to grow Japanese maples
Find out how to grow gorgeous Japanese maples, or acers, in this step-by-step Grow Guide.
Japanese maples are well loved for their attractive, filigree leaves and dramatic autumn colour. The leaves of some species turn wonderful shades of orange, yellow, red and even purple, before falling. Japanese maples are among the best trees for small gardens and some make very good trees for pots.
Japanese maples grow to different heights. Gauging the eventual height of a Japanese maple can be tricky. They are very slow growing and take many years to reach their maximum height. When choosing your Japanese maple, ask the nursery for its 'mature height details', as this will give you a better picture of how it will look in 20-50 years' time.
How to grow Japanese maples
Grow Japanese maples in moist but well-drained soil, ideally slightly sandy, acidic soil, in a sheltered spot out of the way of prevailing winds. Most Japanese maples tolerate full sun or shade, but variegated types do best in partial shade.
Japanese maples: jump links
- Where to grow Japanese maples
- How to care for Japanese maples
- How to propagate Japanese maples
- Japanese maple problem-solving
- Types of Japanese maple to grow
- Where to buy Japanese maples
More on growing Japanese maples
Where to plant Japanese maples
Although hardy, Japanese maples do best in a sheltered position. In a windy spot, your acer's delicate, finely divided leaves may be damaged throughout the year, and then blown off the tree in autumn before its colourful display is finished.
Japanese maples grow in nearly any soil apart from a waterlogged one. For best results grow in a sandy, slightly acidic soil.
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Full sun to partial shade is ideal for most Japanese maples, but variegated types do best in light shade. If growing Japanese maples in pots, you may need to wrap the pot with fleece or bubblewrap to protect the rootball from frost.
How to plant Japanese maples
As with all trees and shrubs, the best time to plant Japanese maples is autumn or spring. Dig a generous planting hole and incorporate some well-rotted organic matter. Position the plant ensuring it's planted at the same depth it was in the pot, backfill and firm in. Water in well. Stake larger specimens for support.
When growing Japanese maples in pots, choose a tree or shrub compost or a loam-based compost such as John Innes No. 2. Ensure your pot has drainage holes. Firm your Japanese maple in well. Water well and, if planting in spring, feed with a slow-release fertiliser.
How to care for Japanese maples
Japanese maples are easy to care for. They don’t require any pruning unless you want to improve its shape or need to remove dead or dying stems. Prune only in the dormant season (after it has shed its leaves) as at any other time of year the plant will bleed sap, which can be unsightly.
Japanese maples are shallow rooted so avoid growing plants around its immediate growing area, as these can compete with your acer for water and nutrients.
Repot potted Japanese maples every two to three years. Apply a slow-release fertiliser every spring. In cooler regions in autumn, you may need to wrap your pot in fleece or bubble wrap to protect it from frost.
Find out more on when and how to repot your Japanese maple, in our Quick Tips video:
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.
Growing Japanese maples: problem solving
Japanese maples in pots can be susceptible to vine weevil attack. Repot using loam-based compost, ensureing no grubs remain around the rootball when replanting. Add a thick layer of pebbles over the surface of the compost, to help prevent the female vine weevils from laying their eggs.
Japanese maples may also be susceptible to horse chestnut scale insect, which does very little damage but looks unsightly.
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 pot-grown acers to a more sheltered spot. 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.
Advice for buying Japanese maples
- There's an enormous range of Japanese maples to buy – spend time working out which one is right for you and your garden
- Make sure you can give your Japanese maple the right growing conditions, including good soil and a sheltered, partially sunny spot
Where to buy Japanese maples online
Japanese maples to grow
- 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
Frequently asked questions
What can I feed to my acer?
Acers in pots require regular feeding, such as a monthly dose of liquid seaweed feed or a feed designed for ericaceous plants. Some proprietry fertilisers are activated by temperature and moisture so release fertiliser only when the growing conditions are just right. Always read the instructions on the label before using.
How do I transplant my Japanese acer?
Wait until autumn to transplant your Japanese acer, when the plant becomes dormant. Water the rootball thoroughly the day before to avoid root damage when you dig it out of the soil or pot. Dig carefully around the rootball and replant immediately, either in the soil or in a larger pot of soil-based peat-free compost such as John Innes Number 3.
What are these black bugs devouring my acer?
Tiny black bugs clustered around the budding leaves of Japanese acers are most likely aphids. These suck the sap from plants and can distort growth if present in large enough numbers. Most of the time birds and other insects will take care of the problem for you – house sparrows feed aphids to their young and ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies all lay eggs around aphid colonies so their larvae have plenty to eat. However, if you're really worried, you can blast them off your acer with a jet of your hose, or pinch them between your fingers.
What can I underplant around my acer?
Try low-growing plants that flower in early spring such as Narcissus Tête-à-Tête, crocuses, Cyclamen coum, epimediums, primulas, pulmonarias, cowslips and oxslips. If you like a greener vista try ferns, hostas and heucheras.