Imagine the archetypal Japanese garden, characterised by simplicity, refinement and calm. The garden is an idealised representation of nature arranged to create a sense of well-being and to serve as a refuge from the stresses of the world. An Acer throws gentle shade onto the house, helping to keep it comfortable through the heat of the day and provides delightful colour effects through spring summer and autumn. A decorative bridge crosses running water and bamboo screens provide sympathetic divisions between the different sections of the garden. Don’t you just wish you were there? With the right plants you could achieve a similar feel in many British gardens.
Perhaps your most important ally in achieving this is the Japanese maple or Acer palmatum. A deciduous tree with a history of cultivation well in excess of 300 years, Japanese maples have been grown in temperate areas outside Japan since the 1800’s. They are well suited to garden conditions because of their compact root systems which are unlikely to undermine paths, structures or compete with other plants. Many Acers have characteristics that are striking through the different seasons, including intense autumn colour, brightly coloured winter bark and fresh new growth in spring. Their style and compactness makes them ideally suited to courtyard gardens, so much so that Acer palmatum ‘Red Pygmy’ ranks second on Channel 4’s ‘10 plants for courtyard gardens’.
Garden centres offer an exciting selection, with many having dedicated shade houses to show off Acers to their best advantage and protect them from too-strong sun which may scorch leaves. Some Acers will grow into small-medium sized trees at maturity. ‘Osakazuki’ (brilliant red autumn colours), for example, may reach a height and spread of 6m. ‘Bloodgood’ (height and spread up to 5m) is always popular and the dark red-purple leaves take on a fantastic vivid red in autumn. For very finely cut leaves as well as colour, look to ‘Garnet’, ‘Burgundy Lace’ or ‘Dissectum’ (leaves turn gold in autumn). These are also on the bigger side for Acers. For very confined spaces or containers, look out for ‘Red Pygmy’, ‘Corallinum’ or ‘Crimson Queen’.
Acers are adaptable plants, but are unhappy in wet or dry conditions and find very alkaline soils difficult to cope with. Some shade is an advantage for green-leaved or variegated varieties, but red leaves do need sun to develop deep reds to their full.
As we move into September, the next event in the natural calendar is the turning of the leaves, prior to their fall. This selection of Acers, plus many others that can be found at retail outlets, can provide a wonderful reflection of autumn right by your doorstep. Couple this will some Far Eastern flavour and you can create some garden magic to come home to!