Japanese maples can boost the autumnal palette of your garden, with burnt orange, zingy yellow, scarlet red and deep burgundy colours.
These spectacular deciduous trees, also known as acers – some of which can be grown in a pot, while others need a wider space to branch out – add warmth, colour and architecture to your garden, whatever the size.
They prefer dappled shade, and many are slow-growing so will suit urban gardens tight on space and short of direct sunlight. Grow them in compost-rich, free-draining soil out of direct sunlight and sheltered from wind and frost, which will scorch the leaves.
Before you start, check the type of growth you want – whether you’re looking for a fairly upright specimen, one that spreads out wider, or something that cascades from the main trunk. Leaf shape can also make a difference. Some leaves look delicate and lacy, others have foliage marked with cream or pink. If you have a small garden, you may opt for a pot, where slow-growing types are unlikely to reach more than two metres in height.
The way you display your Japanese maples can have a bearing on their impact, says garden designer Mark Lane, a presenter on BBC Gardeners’ World and Stannah (stannah.co.uk) gardening expert.
“The ones that create a really lovely domed shape, like Acer dissectum, look brilliant in any shaped pot,” he says.
“Give acers pride of place, but not in an exposed spot. A lot of the time, acers work brilliantly in a sheltered spot by the back door or front door. If you have a porch which gets light but not bright sunlight, that should be fine – as long as it’s outside, so it still gets the rain.
“I would also upturn a large terracotta pot and put your pot on it so it’s a bit higher. That way you can put smaller acers around the bottom, or even azaleas or rhododendrons, which go really well with acers. That way, you are creating a mini natural Japanese woodland.
“Alternatively, you could get some large stones with sand or gravel to create a zen-type garden. Dome-shaped acers also look great planted in the centre of circular paving, to mimic the round pattern of the paving.”
Lane also suggests using uplighters under your acers at night.
“If you underlight the lovely, fern-like dissected leaves with an uplighter, they look superb at nighttime – because then you are really showing off the colour and form in the evening. They will cast beautiful shadows.”
Here are a few types to try…
Acer palmatum ‘Garnet’
“It’s gorgeous, almost pale red verging into pink, and the leaves are really dissected,” says Lane.
He recommends pairing it with the Acer palmatum dissectum – it has the same shaped leaves that are green in summer, but turn rich shades of yellow in autumn.
Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’
“It has these incredible orange/red/yellow edges on it, and come autumn it just gets better,” Lane explains.
Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’
“As the name implies, this acer really comes to life as the season changes, with its lime green leaves in the spring turning yellow and bright orange during the end of summer and autumn,” says Matt Jordan, gardening expert for The Greenhouse People (greenhousepeople.co.uk).
Its multicoloured leaves create a striking sunburst effect, keeping a yellow centre while the edges turn burnt orange and red. Grown both in and outside of pots, these maples love a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade, and grow best in acidic or neutral soil types. The soil also needs to be moist but well-draining, so be sure to use a layer of mulch to help maintain moisture, Jordan advises.
Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’
This larger variety can reach up to 25 feet, with deep purple and red leaves during the spring and summer turning a vibrant crimson in autumn.
“These trees favour partial shade, though full sun can be tolerated,” says Jordan. “However, sun scorching can occur if the plant does not get enough moisture during summer, so be sure to keep it well-watered during dry periods. Acidic or neutral soil will work best for these trees.”
Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’
Similar to ‘Bloodgood’, ‘Crimson Queen’ offers burgundy tones throughout spring and summer, but bursts into a brilliant red during autumn. However, unlike ‘Bloodgood’ – which has five to seven lobed leaves – ‘Crimson Queen’ offers more texture with its lacy, feathered-style foliage, says Jordan.
“‘Crimson Queen’ will best suit a small to medium-sized garden. And since they love full sun or partial shade, it’s best to avoid planting in a north-facing direction,” he adds.
Acer palmatum ‘Little Princess’
“For an adorable dwarf variety, ‘Little Princess’ offers gardeners a feast of colour all year round, with bright green leaves with red-tipped edges in the spring and summer, turning yellow and orange in the autumn,” Jordan says.
“They are ideal for growing in containers on your patio, with their compact and dense canopy of delicate leaves.”
Make sure to use slightly acidic potting soil that is well-draining – adding a pumice mix or perlite to your compost can help improve drainage and slow-release moisture, he adds.