How to plant, grow and care for Japanese maple trees

Japanese Maples are small, deciduous trees best known for their elegant, architectural form and stunning autumn foliage colours. They are generally slow growing and come in varying forms such as weeping, upright and spreading. Like all maple trees, Japanese Acers have lobed foliage with veins spreading out like the fingers of a hand. However, the leaves are smaller than traditional maples and many varieties have deeply dissected, almost feathery leaves that might not be immediately recognised as a maple tree. Japanese Acers are native to the hills and forest fringes of Japan, Korea and Mongolia where they grow in the shade of larger trees on woodland fringes, which makes them more shade-tolerant than other deciduous trees. Their natural habitat is out of strong winds, with some light shade and normally a neutral to acidic, moist but free-draining soil.

 

Japanese Maple red palmatum leaf

 

Best position for Japanese Maples

  • Above all, Japanese Acers require a sheltered position away from strong northerly winds and frost pockets. Acer palmatum dissectum cultivars in particular have a low tolerance to windy conditions.
  • They will grow in most soils except very dry, waterlogged or alkaline conditions. A moist yet well-drained, slightly acidic loam rich in organic matter is ideal. Other soils can be enriched with ericaceous compost when planting.

 

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  • Partial or dappled shade is required for variegated varieties to prevent the leaves from being scorched by the strong afternoon sun. Purple and red leaved trees require a decent amount of sunlight to develop their rich, dark complexion, whilst green-leaved Acers tolerate full sun but do best with light shade at the hottest part of the day.
  • Avoid planting Japanese maples too close together as their shallow, spreading fibrous root system doesn't cope well with nearby competition.
  • If your Japanese Maple doesn't seem to be succeeding after a couple of years, don't be afraid to dig it up and try moving it somewhere else. Location is probably the most important factor in the success of your tree, so don't be afraid of a bit of trial and error. The best time to move a Japanese maple tree is late summer or early autumn, at least one month before the first frost. They are reasonably forgiving of disruption providing you cut a wide and deep hole and leave as much soil clinging to the roots as possible when you dig them up.

 

Soil in hands

 

Planting Japanese Maple Trees

  • Japanese Maples have a reputation for being hard to grow, but this is largely undeserved. Getting the location right is key but they are not susceptible to pests and diseases and with some basic care they will thrive.
  • Japanese Acers can live to over 100 years, so it's worth taking extra care in selecting and planting your tree as it will hopefully be a lifetime investment.


Planting in the garden

  • Containerised trees can be planted at any time of year providing your ground is not icy, snow-covered or water-logged. It's also best to avoid excessively windy days to avoid the risk of your plant being damaged if it accidentally topples over. If you have the choice, plant in the autumn at least one month before the first frost.
  • Dig an area a little deeper and 2-3 times the diameter of the root system in the shape or a square or rectangle. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and mix in a 2 inch (5cm) layer of compost and grit mixed equally.
  • Holding the base of the trunk, carefully remove your tree from its container. If you've got a heavy clay soil, incorporate about one-quarter by volume of ericaceous compost and grit mixed equally into the backfill.
  • Planting depth is important. Backfill the soil around your tree so the sides are not exposed but only a thin sprinkling on top of the root ball. This will allow oxygen to reach the roots in the upper surface of soil.

 

Checking depth of planting hole with a cane

 

  • Give your tree a good thorough watering. We find it's best to construct a 3-4 inch (10cm) high ridge of soil around the edge of your planting hole to create a watering basin. This will hold irrigation water and concentrate it over the roots. Water the basin and allow the water to sink into the ground, repeating several times to ensure even the lower parts of the root system are fully watered.
  • Mulch with bark or well rotted garden compost after planting and every year thereafter to help retain moisture, suppress weeds and protect your Japanese Acers from winter frost and snow. Take care to ensure the mulch doesn't come into contact with the trunk to avoid rotting and disease. There is no need to fertilise your tree after planting as Japanese Acers do well on low nutrient levels.
  • Japanese maples don't normally require staking, but if you're growing a cascading form and want a taller tree it's possible to stake a few branches upright, keeping them staked until they are firm and support themselves. This will create an impressive, eye-catching, multi-tiered tree.

 

Diagram of how to plant a Japanese maple

 

Planting in a Container

  • Japanese Acers' attractive foliage, interesting forms, autumn colour and slow growth rate makes them well suited to patio containers. With the correct care they'll live happily in a container for many years.
  • Use a container no more than double the size of the pot your tree is growing in. Any type of container is fine but it's essential it has good drainage. If necessary, drill a number of holes in the centre of the base. Holes can be drilled in most containers – for ceramic ones use a slow-speed drill and a masonry bit, making a small hole first and then enlarging it with larger bits.
  • Plant in a loam-based or ericaceous compost with a high portion of organic matter and good drainage.
  • Once planted, take the container to your desired location and position on pot 'feet' to support drainage.

 

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Caring for Japanese Maples in the Garden

  • Water your tree regularly during dry weather for the first 2 seasons. As a rough guide water once a week from spring to autumn if there has been no rainfall and twice a week during particularly hot weather.
  • Japanese maples that have been planted out into the garden don't require heavy fertilisation so feed sparingly ideally using a fertiliser with a 3:1 ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus in spring. Avoid using nitrogen lawn feed in the immediate vicinity as excessive nitrogen can cause overly vigorous growth that's more vulnerable to disease.
  • Apply a fresh mulch of bark, straw or well rotted garden compost in April, making sure it doesn't come into contact with the trunk to avoid the risk of rotting and disease.
  • Japanese maples are most prone to damage in the spring because they leaf out early at the first sign of warm weather. However, in many parts of the UK there may still be further frosts in store which can be damaging, especially for young trees. Protect your tree using horticultural fleece when the forecast suggests a further frost.
  • If there has been a heavy snowfall, carefully brush off any accumulation of snow that may cause the branches to snap, being careful not to be too rough with the branches. Any ice frozen to the branches is best left alone.

 

Frost on Japanese maple leaf

 

Caring for Japanese Maples in a Container

  • Water to keep the compost evenly moist whenever the first inch of soil becomes dry. Always water thoroughly until a little water starts to come through the drainage holes.
  • Whenever you move a containerised tree, remember to put it back on pot feet in its new location. Don't rely on rainwater whilst your Acer is in leaf as most of the water will be deflected away from the pot by the tree's canopy. Young trees in particular are prone to die during periods of drought and prefer consistent water conditions.
  • Apply a slow-release multi-purpose granular feed to container-grown trees in April and early August each year. Top up the pot each spring with fresh soil and transplant into a larger container every 2 years to maintain vigour. Do not fertilize a dormant tree as this may stimulate sudden new growth which could be damaged by frost.
  • Protect containerised specimens from frost over the winter by wrapping the containers in a few layers or horticultural fleece, secured with garden twine; a couple of sheets of bubble wrap as a good alternative.

 

Clay pot on pot feet

 

Pruning Japanese Maple Trees

  • Formative pruning is not required because Japanese Acers naturally form an elegant shape over time. Keep pruning to a minimum, removing only crossed, damaged and badly placed stems to create an open framework.
  • Allow low-growing varieties the space to spread naturally for best effect, but if they must be contained control the spread by pruning lateral branches back to a side branch. Japanese maple trees naturally self-prune foliage that doesn't receive enough light, such as internal branches which are overly shaded by its own canopy.
  • Some growers prefer to shape their trees artistically or to thin out interior branches to better expose the graceful main branches. Leave the branches you want to have as major limbs but space them out so the tree looks more open and sparse. Looking at pictures of mature trees of your variety may help as a guide.
  • Any required pruning should be done between January and February during the dormancy phase to prevent sap bleeding from the cuts and weakening the tree. Always cut just above a pair of buds.

 

Our Recommendation - the best Japanese Acer Trees

  • Acer palmatum 'Asahi Zuru' - a beautifully variegated semi-dwarf tree producing a combination of pink and white to deep green leaves (may be entirely white or pink depending on growing conditions). Produces a stunning blend of fiery oranges and reds before the leaves fall.
  • Acer palmatum 'Atropurpureum' - a beautiful, small deciduous cultivar, bearing the most attractive, deep burgundy maple shaped leaves. In winter the foliage turns a really bright scarlet. Tiny purple flowers appear in spring time on mature specimens, often followed by winged, purple fruits. 'Atropurpureum' can be grown in a large tub, or in the back of the border to form a large shrub or small tree that won't overgrow the garden. Leaf colouring is best in partial shade. Can tolerate full sun but leaves may get a little scorched.
  • Acer palmatum 'Beni-Maiko' - a dwarf variety of deciduous Japanese Maple with brilliant fire red colours. Foliage has a crinkled appearance, opening bright red in spring time, fading to reddish-pink, then green in the summer, followed by blazing red in the autumn. Grows well in a large tub or planter, and is ideal for creating a Japanese theme anywhere in your garden.
  • Acer palmatum 'Beni-shichihenge' - a beautiful, very unusual upright Japanese deciduous Acer. Leaves are green in the centre, with contrasting shrimp pink and orange margins. A superb dwarf compact tree ideal for the edge of patios and to add structure without taking over smaller gardens.

 

Acer Beni Shichihenge

Acer palmatum 'Beni Shichihenge'

 

  • Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' - a wonderful, small deciduous tree with great ornamental value and refined beauty. It has palmate, deep purple leaves and produces long-lasting, red-purple fruits in clusters in the autumn, just as the foliage is starting to take on brilliant shades of crimson. It has an erect growth habit that is set off well against a deeply coloured backdrop and produces small, dark red flowers in the spring. Makes a perfect specimen tree for a sunny, sheltered position in a small garden.
  • Acer palmatum 'Burgundy Lace' - a medium sized, spreading deciduous Acer with young, finely cut light red-purple leaves in the spring, later darkening to a deep green with fantastic fiery purple and scarlet autumn hues. 'Burgundy Lace' makes an ideal small tree to grow in a tub or for creating a Japanese feel in borders and rockeries. Prefers partial shade. Can tolerate full sun but leaves may get a little scorched.
  • Acer palmatum 'Butterfly' - an upright shrub bearing 5-7 lobed leaves irregulary margined with creamy-white leaves that can sometimes be tinged pink.
  • Acer palmatum 'Fireglow' - one of the best deciduous Japanese Acers for colour and all-round interest. Brilliant red leaves through summer, turning deep rich scarlet and crimson in autumn. Beautiful and striking on its own in the border, as part of a rockery feature, or in a large tub on the patio. Perfect for creating a Japanese feel in any garden.

 

Acer Butterfly

Acer palmatum 'Butterfly'

 

  • Acer palmatum 'Kagiri-nishiki' - a strong but slow growing, variegated acer with beautiful bluish-green leaves which are margined in light pink tones and streaked with white. It has a dainty appearance and will make a lovely addition to any autumn garden as it adds interest in the cooler months.
  • Acer palmatum 'Katsura' - a truly spectacular Japanese Acer, with foliage interest throughout the seasons. New spring foliage of pale orange, turning then to warm yellows edged with pinky-orange hues before changing yet again to a bright green colour in summer. Autumn brings another change as the leaves then turn back to rich orange colours. A stunning small deciduous tree or large shrub that would make an eye-catching centre piece in your garden.
  • Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' - a slow growing deciduous Acer with beautiful golden yellow-orange spring growth turning limey-green for the summer then a stunning orange gold in the autumn. Suitable for all but the hottest parts of the garden, where the foliage is liable to scorch in the strong midsummer sun. Ideal for small gardens or large containers. Perfect in semi-shade in good, rich soil where it will make an impressive specimen plant. Water well until established to ensure a strong, healthy plant.
  • Acer palmatum 'Sango-Kaku' - a large, slow-growing deciduous Acer, with coral-red young branches bearing lobed leaves which open pinkish-yellow, maturing to bright green in the summer, and golden yellow in the autumn. Small red flowers often appear in spring/summer. Excellent for providing year round interest. Leaf colour is best in partial shade, with dappled sunlight. No routine pruning required.

 

Acer Katsura

Acer palmatum 'Katsura'

 

  • Acer palmatum 'Shaina' - a medium sized compact deciduous Acer, with an upright growth habit. Fantastic bright red spring leaves turn a brilliant dark red in summer, followed by bright crimson in autumn. It will grow to form a dense and compact globe of small red foliage - a slow growing Japanese maple that is an ideal selection for containers or small gardens. Prefers partial shade, but can tolerate full sun, as long as the plant is shaded for a small part of the day.
  • Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira' - an upright palmatum producing think bunched-up curled leaves giving the acer a unique 'Lions Head' appearance.
  • Acer palmatum 'Sumi nagashi' - a large leaved, fast growing maple with serrated leaves and an upright growth habit. Vivid red leaf colour in spring, turning bronze-green in summer, followed by bright crimson in the autumn. Lovely deciduous tree with upright habit, and as a real bonus the crimson leaves in autumn/winter are outstanding.
  • Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo' - a beautiful mottled variegated deciduous foliage of white and green gives this Acer an appearance of light and fluffy and therefore is known as the ‘Floating Cloud’ maple.  It is an ideal Acer to use in a tranquil setting or sensory garden. 

 

Acer Sumi nagashi

Acer palmatum 'Sumi nagashi'

 

  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Baldsmith' - a handsome acer with a mounded form, with lacy leaves which emerge bright orange/red and develop into shades of green, pink and orange through the summer months. The combination of old and new leaves adorning the branches throughout summer makes for a beautiful rainbow of colour, adding spectacular interest to any garden.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Princess' - a deciduous Acer has an upright weeping habit, creating a mushroom like display. Finely cut, fabulous deep purple-red leaves emerge from red buds turning bronze in the summer, followed by brilliant crimson-scarlet in autumn.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen' - a deciduous Acer has an upright weeping habit, creating a mushroom like display. Finely cut, fabulous deep purple-red leaves emerge from red buds followed by brilliant scarlet and orange hues in autumn.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Garnet' - a beautiful eye-catching mound-forming deciduous shrub with red-purple foliage turning fiery red in autumn. 'Garnet' has arching shoots, and bears purple flowers in spring and red fruits in summer. It is a slow growing variety, making it a good choice for small gardens or large containers. Leaf colour is best in partial shade, but it can tolerate full sun, however, leaf scorch may occur.

 

Acer Crimson Queen

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen'

 

  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Inaba-Shidare' - small, decidous trees grown for their graceful habit, beautiful coloured foliage that is often deeply dissected the Acer is a perfect addition to any garden especially if you're looking to add some autumn interest. Many cultivars are extreemly slow growing, making them perfect for small gardens or grown in pots.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Orangeola' - a beautiful, mound-forming deciduous Acer has blazing orange red lace leaves throughout spring, turning bronze red in summer, then deep and fiery orange in autumn. Small, pendent clusters of tiny, reddish-purple flowers in spring are followed by red-flushed, green, winged fruit in summer. A beautiful Japanese Acer, eye catching and weeping - a stunning small architectural tree, ideal as a centre piece for your garden.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Stella Rossa' - slow growing deciduous Acer with lacy, pink-red foliage in the spring, which darkens to a rich purple in the summer, finally changing to bright flame-red in the autumn. Weeping habit, ideal for growing in containers, or for in a small garden.
  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Tamukeyama' - a truly eye catching deciduous Acer with a mound-forming, weeping habit, and spreading nature. Slow growing, new spring growth is deep crimson, turning a vibrant purple-red in the summer, followed by fiery scarlet in the autumn. Perfect for planters or containers, or for creating a focal point in a border. More tolerant of full sun than some other Acers.

 

Acer Orangeola

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Orangeola'

 

  • Acer palmatum dissectum 'Viridis' - a beautiful low growing weeping deciduous Acer that forms a mound habit. The feathery foliage is a bright lime green throughout the spring and summer before turning shades of red, orange and gold in the autumn. Acid soil will ensure the best autumn colour although lime can be tolerated. Prefers partial shade, but can tolerate full sun. Ideal for planters, or for creating a focal point in a border.

 

Acer Viridis

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Viridis'

 

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Comments

Thank you. A very helpful article. Have never had an acer to repot.
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