Versatile and long-lived, no plants give better fiery autumnal colours than acers.
A long-held gardening myth confidently states that acers require shade and acid soil. In fact, many varieties are unfussy about soil type and enjoy a brightly-lit spot.
All acers require two fundamental things to thrive; nutritious, moisture-retentive soil and wind shelter, so if you can provide that environment, there are varieties that will suit your garden. As a general rule, red/dark-leaved types are tougher and require more sunlight than their paler/variegated-leaved relatives.
When planted in shade, red-leaved acers often produce dull mahogany brown leaves instead of the dramatic fiery foliage they are so famous for.
Dark leaf pigmentation is Mother Nature’s sunscreen (that’s why juvenile leaves of many plants have red/pink colouration), so if you have a dark-leaved acer that’s sulking in shade, try moving it to a sunnier location and you may be pleasantly surprised next year.
Fallen in love with a particular acer variety? Think before you reach for your credit card – acers aren’t cheap! Can you provide the right conditions? Is it a sun-lover or a shady character? Also, consider its eventual height/spread.
Acers do not respond well to pruning – a bad haircut on a mature acer that’s outgrown its allotted space is a sorry sight. A solo-planted specimen makes a dramatic ‘eye-catcher’, but acers are equally at home in a mixed border – their foliage compliments any flower.
They also look splendid when grouped together in pots. In a shady location, potted acers, ferns and violas make classic planting partners, while in springtime, a patio pot display incorporating acers and the vivid blooms of tulips, primulas and cyclamen coum is hard to beat.
A young acer should be moved into a slightly larger pot every couple of years, preferably in early spring. Carefully choose the right container. ‘Ali Baba’ style pots (where the rim is a smaller diameter than the body of the pot) are best avoided as the restricted top makes it virtually impossible to remove a plant with a substantial root system - sadly, smashing the pot is often the only solution.
When the maximum practical pot size has been attained, refresh the soil by ‘top-dressing’ every spring. Gently remove the top few centimetres of soil and replace with a fresh soil-based compost that has leaf mould and multi-purpose fertiliser added to the mix.
Potted acers will enjoy a fortnightly feed throughout spring and summer. Seaweed tonic is marvellous stuff and can be applied to the roots or used as a foliar feed; dilute the recommended amount into a watering can and sprinkle over the foliage or water directly onto the soil.
Acers are long-lived plants that become more characterful as they age. Given a little care, they will continue to add interest to your garden for many years.