Acers, or Japanese maples are the perfect choice for any garden style or size.

I believe that there is a tree for any garden, no matter how big the plot is – or even if there’s only a small balcony space.

They have lovely colour and texture, making them the perfect focal point in a garden, brightening up a dark corner as a striking feature tree. They look elegant when draping over a path or overhanging a pool or water feature, giving a really calming effect.

Small Gardens

Japanese maples are more compact, suitable for the smallest of gardens and containers too. Their versatility means they are perfect in an oriental garden design as well as any other garden styles as there are many leaf shapes to choose from and colours too, in reds, browns, greens, oranges and purples. The foliage turns incredible rich tones in autumn, going through shades of fiery reds, oranges and gold.

The best acer varieties

Most Japanese maples are small and slow-growing, reaching heights of about 1-2m. Acer japonicum are smaller spreading trees, whilst Acer palmatum tend to be more shrub-like because they are wider than they are tall.


Once you’ve decided on the type you want, there are plenty of colour choices and leaf shapes to choose from.


Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is a striking purple-leaved variety, and Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ and Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ have rich red leaves.

Look out for Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, which is a bushy variety, with golden pointy leaves with red-tinged edges in spring and autumn.

Where to grow

Acers are usually slow-growing trees, making them perfect for small gardens as they remain a manageable size. They seldom need pruning and don’t cast too much shade.


Some varieties of Japanese maple can cope with full sun, especially those with green and purple leaves. Red-leaved trees need some sunlight to develop a rich colour. But hot, strong sunlight can scorch the delicate foliage of golden, variegated varieties.


Plant acers in a sheltered spot where the foliage is protected from the strongest midday sun and cold or drying winds that may damage the leaves. Young foliage can be susceptible to late frosts.

How to grow

Plant acers in well-drained soil that is moist and rich. Add plenty of compost to lock in moisture and make sure the ground doesn’t dry out.

Cover the ground with a deep mulch of compost or leaf mould. This retains moisture and prevents weeds from growing. Make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the tree’s stem or it may cause it to rot.


Take care

Acer trees can suffer from drying out because they have shallow root systems. This also means you should not plant too much else immediately around the tree.

Most Japanese maples should not need pruning at all. They develop into a balanced shape on their own. However, you can take out crossed branches that spoil the shape.

Acer palmatum should be pruned when fully dormant (November to March). This is because the trees can bleed sap when cut, which weakens them.

Container growing

Japanese maples will also thrive in pots. Choose a large, stable container with plenty of drainage holes. Terracotta pots should be lined with plastic to reduce water loss through the sides but remember to put drainage holes in the bottom.

The tree will only need repotting every few years, so plant in a loamy soil-based compost like John Innes No.2 or No.3. Its high nutrient content ensures there will be plenty of food for the acer. You should also add liquid feed or general purpose fertiliser in spring and autumn.


Lock in the moisture

Add a layer of pebbles or gravel over the top of the soil to lock in moisture. Water with collected rainwater where possible. You can also stand the pot in a tray and fill with water to create a reservoir during dry periods.

Container-grown acer tree roots can be susceptible to frost during harsh winters. Move pots into a more sheltered spot or wrap the pot with bubble wrap and tie with twine.

Repot the tree into a slightly larger container every few years. April or September are the best times to repot acers.

Planting companions

Acers are often planted alongside other Oriental foliage plants such as bamboo, ferns, Hostas, Japanese ilex and laurel.

They also shine alongside other trees like holly, pine and yew, as well as decorative trees like magnolias and flowering cherry and plum trees. Flowering plants like Camellia, Azalea, Wisteria, Hydrangea and Rhododendrons are all perfect partners for Japanese maples.


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