How to grow acers: follow our tips and add year-round interest to your garden

Find out how to grow acers – also known as Japanese maples – for flamboyant foliage in your garden all year round

how to grow acers
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Learn how to grow acers and you'll be rewarded with vibrant, year-round colour in your garden. Acers are so easy to grow and give big returns. They come in every colour you desire from burnished shades of crimson, bronze and gold, to vivid sherbet lemon and fuchsia pink. 

There's a great choice of leaf style too. Choose from the archetypal maple-shaped leaf or fancy, lacy-cut ones. You also get winter interest from the stems and bark. Adding an acer to your garden is a great way to get gorgeous, bold colour in autumn, and dramatic foliage all year round. 

When it comes to choosing an acer there are three main things to think about. How big do you want your tree to grow? Some reach 4.5 metres while others stay around a metre, so factor in the size of your space. They come in two different shapes too, so do you want an upright tree, or a low growing one? And finally what colour and shape of leaf do you want? 

For help with these questions and any others you might have, read on for our top tips for growing acers, then check out our guide to the best trees for small gardens for more ideas on choosing the right plants for your space. 

WHERE TO BUY ACERS

Acers are widely sold as small container-grown trees and are often also available from specialist nurseries as bare root trees from late autumn into winter. You can buy acers from most larger garden centres, but there is more choice if you visit specialist nurseries or browse online. Choose a symmetrical looking tree with well balanced branches if you're shopping for them in person. 

Shop acers at the below suppliers or keep scrolling for some of our favourite picks at the end of the article.

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WHEN TO PLANT ACERS

how to grow acers: acer plant with red foliage

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Growing acers from seed can be difficult and slow, so you might want to go for the easier option. You can buy young acers from your local garden centre and online that can go straight into the ground to give your garden an instant lift. 

The best time to plant them is in early spring or autumn. This is because the weather is still cool, so it won't dry out but also because the ground isn't too hard from the frosts. It'll be a real struggle to dig a hole big enough in midwinter!

What type of soil is best for acers? 

how to grow acers: acer in a pot on patio

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Acers are happy in all soils, even chalky ones. Heavy clay can be a problem as they dislike waterlogged roots, so be sure to incorporate some organic matter into the hole at planting time. And don’t overdo the watering. 

They’re fairly easy to grow but you do need to put a little thought into where you position them. A sheltered spot out of strong wind is best.

What are the different types of acers? 

how to grow acers: potted acer on deck

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Japanese maples will delight throughout the year – and can be grown in large pots as well as beds. They come in a vast array of colours that won't fail to impress.

Dwarf varieties will thrive in pots and are perfect for small outdoor spaces, such as patios and even balconies. As long as you keep it in a spot out of cold winds, dwarf acers will grow happily in pots for many years. We recommend repotting with fresh loam-based compost every couple of years to help keep them healthy.

You can choose upright varieties for a more compact look or more sprawling, weeping-shaped branches. It really depends on what your taste is and what overall effect you want to create. Go for taller varieties if you're looking to add some height to your garden.

We love 'Bloodgood', with leaves that turn scarlet in autumn, which holds the Royal Horticultural Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit.

How to plant acers in the ground

how to grow acers

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Acers are easy to grow. Prepare your planting site by digging a hole that is big enough to accommodate your plant. Add feed and plenty of water to the hole. When you're ready to plant, unwrap the root ball (it’s best if the root is also damp so soak it in water beforehand) and lift the plant into the new hole. 

Before filling in the hole, check that the plant is upright and positioned exactly where you want it. Firm the plant into position, treading the soil down evenly around the root ball. Once well firmed, level the soil and water again.

Head over to our guide on planting bare root trees for more advice. 

HOW TO CARE FOR ACERS

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Once planted in their spot, keep roots cool and moist but never waterlogged. Choose a sheltered site away from cold winds. 

Water during droughts while the tree establishes itself. Feed every spring with a fertiliser that is meant for trees and shrubs. Mulch over roots with well-rotted compost or soil conditioner.

Find out more about how to add mulch in our ultimate guide to mulching

HOW TO LOOK AFTER ACERS IN WINTER

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The single most important factor during the winter months is shelter. And the more delicate the leaf, the more shelter it needs. This means choosing a place that's protected from cold easterly and northerly winds and lingering late frosts, as these cause damage in spring after the delicate new foliage has emerged. 

Putting fleece over leaves if frost is forecast will help, as will providing shelter from overhanging trees, boundaries, walls or surrounding buildings. 

If your acer is in a pot, protect it in harsh winter weather with a sheet of bubble wrap or fleece tied around with garden twine. Pot feet or bricks offer another level of protection by lifting the container clear from the ground.

There's more advice on how to protect plants from frost in our guide. 

PROBLEMS TO LOOK OUT FOR WITH ACERS

Be sure to use the correct compost in order to ensure good growth. Fill your pots with a loam-based ericaceous compost – this will have the correct pH and won’t dry out as quickly as multi-purpose compost. Keep them well-watered and out of the wind.

Having too small a pot can cause problems if you’re planning to grow your plant in a container as opposed to the soil. Potting your acer into a container twice as big as the pot it is supplied in will give the roots ample room to spread out. 

Keep on the lookout for vine weevil and treat it with biological control in late summer, watering the nematodes onto the compost.

Is it easy to prune acers? 

how to grow acers

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With an elegant shape that requires little pruning, acers are a tree you can just leave to get on with it. Your tree will flourish and grow into an eye catching shape if you let it develop naturally on its own. 

As autumn comes to an end you might need to give it a quick tidy up by snipping off any dead twigs. If you feel it's growing too tall or spreading further than you’d like simply snip back any unwanted growth back to a side branch.  

Why are acers good for patios? 

how to grow acers: acers in pots on decking

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Japanese maples and patios are a match made in heaven. The palmatum variety is a great choice as they’re compact, slow growing and tolerate shade well, which can be a problem if your patio is overlooked. 

Acers also love growing in a container. Try ‘Shindeshojo’, which has red tints in spring and again in autumn. The lacy green leaves of ‘Seiryu’ are tinted glorious red in autumn, while ‘Deshojo’ turns from amber in spring, through green to red in autumn. 

HOW TO PLANT AN ACER IN A POT: STEP-BY-STEP-GUIDE

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1. Start to add a good layer of soil to the pot forming a slight well in the centre, as acers prefer their roots to be quite shallow. Use a loam-based ericaceous compost, adding a scattering of sharp sand to the mix.

2. Use the largest pot you can find and add a layer of crocks (broken terracotta or similar) in the bottom to improve drainage. Put your container into position as it will be too heavy to move once the tree is planted. 

3. If the compost feels dry to the touch immerse the plastic pot in a bucket of water to ensure your new tree is refreshed before planting. Gently ease it out of the pot and loosen the roots so they're not compressed. 

4. Position the tree in the well. Fill in the gaps around the roots with soil, pressing down as you go. Make sure the surface is level and the tree is well anchored. The smoothed surface of the soil should be a couple of centimetres below the top of the pot. This means that the soil won’t flood out when you water it.

5. Water the tree well, then keep it watered during any dry spells for the first year until it’s fully established. Your acer will need repotting into a slightly bigger container every couple of years. Do this in April, and always use fresh potting compost to refill the container.

BEAUTIFUL ACERS TO TRY IN YOUR GARDEN

Here are some of our favourite varieties of Japanese maple which will look fabulous in your garden.

ACER PALMATUM ‘OSAKAZUKI'

Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'

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Acer Palmatum ‘Osakazuki' from Waitrose Garden  
Hailed as the best Japanese maple for autumn colour, this tree reaches 4.5m. Leaves turn a brilliant striking red in early autumn.View Deal

ACER PALMATUM 'KATSURA'

Acer palmatum 'Katsura'

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Acer palmatum 'Katsura' from Waitrose Garden
Lobed leaves open to gold orange tones, mature to green with orange margins, then turn bonfire red and yellow before falling off in October.


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ACER PALMATUM 'BUTTERFLY'

Acer palmatum 'Butterfly'

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Acer palmatum 'Butterfly' from Van Meuwen'
Five-lobed, serrated leaves are grey-green, irregularly edged with cream and suffused with pink. Grows to 2.5m in 20 years.


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