Acers fire up for autumn

Winter bedding and bulb-buying aside, autumn can be a quiet time for nurseries. There’s a sense of winding down, taking stock and starting to prepare for the next season. Yet for one independent nursery, October is the pinnacle of the year.

Howle Hill Nursery specialises in acers and autumn sees it explode into colour. Butter yellow, crimson, scarlet and orange are beginning to work their way across the nursery, near Ross-on-Wye, culminating in a fiery show.

‘Chitose-yama’ is turning a rich, dark red that glows in the sun, ‘Sango-kaku’, the coral-bark maple, is golden with pink tips, ‘Aoyagi’ is a pure yellow, while one of the best reds is ‘Osakazuki’.

The nursery was started by landscaper and designer Peter Dowle, who began growing the autumn stars when tracking them down for his garden projects proved difficult.

‘Sango-kaku’ is a fiery mix of red and gold

“I could never find trees of any size,” he explains. “It started out being driven by what we wanted to use in schemes but couldn’t get. Now other people in that situation come to us.”

The choice at the nursery is huge – the firm prides itself on having the widest selection in the South West with many hard-to-find varieties.

They range from dainty dwarf trees suitable for containers to others so big that they will make an immediate impact on a garden; some of the trees are up to 40 years old.

Acers were a key part of Peter’s gold medal-winning garden at this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival

The stock is grafted for Howle Hill by a British specialist and the nursery takes delivery when the trees are around four months old. The acers are then grown on to be sold at the nursery, through its online arm Acers Direct, or used in clients’ gardens; Peter designs four or five Japanese-style gardens a month.

How to grow acers

But even if you don’t want a true Oriental garden, Peter believes you should make space for an acer.

“They are such a fabulous genus. You get a huge amount of variation and seasonal interest from them.

Blazing reds are lighting up the nursery

“They are suitable for a very wide range of soils including clays to chalky and sandy soils.”

And he dismisses as a myth the commonly held view that acers need acid soil to thrive or that they can’t cope with windy spots, although he advises against planting on the top of a hill or as the first line of defence in a seaside garden.

“Average wind conditions are not an issue with maples so long as the soil preparation is correct,” explains Peter, whose landscaping business has built many RHS gold medal-winning gardens.

Instead, he believes brown edges to leaves, often blamed on wind burn, is more likely to be poor soil without enough humus.

The nursery has a wide selection of trees

“The important thing for gardeners is to mimic their natural habitat on the fringes of deciduous woodland.”

Adding lots of leaf mould, well-rotted farmyard manure or composted bark would give acers the conditions they need.

Peter also says you shouldn’t be afraid to prune an acer to get the best shape – just be careful when you do it to avoid the plant ‘bleeding’.

“The golden rule is to prune from late June to the end of December.”

Spoilt for choice

‘Garnet’ makes a small tree

Acers can be grouped as dwarf, small, medium and large, making them suitable for any garden, even courtyards.

A good dwarf for containers is ‘Little Princess’, which grows up to 1.5m in height, while ‘Garnet’, which has purple, dissected foliage is classed as a small tree.

Among the medium acers is ‘Osakazuki’ and ‘Bloodgood’ is a popular large tree, which has a strong red colour.

If it’s orange tones you want, Peter suggests ‘Orange Dream’, which has a golden orange autumn display.

‘Orange Dream’ is starting to live up to its name

Yet acers are not just for autumn with many having beautiful colour early in the year.

“Spring is such an underrated window for maples. There’s a whole range of spring fizzlers that are just knockout.”

A top choice is ‘Deshojo’, whose new leaves are cerise pink.

‘Deshojo’ has a wonderful cerise spring colour

“When it’s pink in spring and you’ve got sunlight through that it’s just unbeatable.”

Planting companions

Among the nursery’s top choices for planting companions with acers are Hakonechloa macra and Mukdenia rossii, which has a white flower, glossy leaves and good autumn colour.

And a favourite partnership is Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ underplanted with winter aconites, the tree with its aconite-like foliage opening just as the yellow blooms are fading.

Howle Hill Nursery is hosting an Acer Week from October 17-22 open 9am to 5pm daily, with the preview week from October 10. There will be trees for sale and advice on growing acers. More details here

Looking beyond the trees

Arboretum seems almost the wrong word for Batsford. True it has a far-reaching range of specimens, is a National Collection holder and is involved in important scientific research, but it’s so much more than that and there’s a sense of fun and a garden-like quality that makes it unusual.

Red painted bridges and a Japanese rest house lend an Oriental flavour, there’s a water garden with pools and streams, and glimpses of Batsford House, no longer part of the arboretum, give the impression of having wandered into a large garden.

“It’s more than an arboretum,” explains head gardener Matt Hall. “It’s not just about trees.”

The Foo Dog is among the Oriental features

Much of this dual personality is due to its past: originally part of the estate of Batsford House, it was developed as a wild, naturalistic garden by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, later the 1st Lord Redesdale. He was a keen plantsman who was particularly interested in the Oriental style of gardening and involved in the running of Kew; Joseph Hooker, one of Kew’s directors, was influential in Batsford’s development.

The creation of the arboretum, which wraps around the garden elements, is the work of the 2nd Lord Dulverton, who inherited in 1956 and set about restoring Batsford and introducing rare and beautiful trees, resulting in today’s specialist collections.

Yet, even then the garden element was influential and Batsford’s collections, which include Japanese flowering cherries, acers and magnolias, are not arranged in botanical groups but scattered throughout the 60 acres with an emphasis on planting for visual impact.

It means that at this time of year the autumn colour runs through the arboretum with shades of gold, crimson and pink in every direction, a style that is being continued with many new acers being planted.

Batsford sorbus berries
Sorbus berries add a red glow

As befits a serious collection, among the more commonly seen birch, oak, prunus and sorbus, with berries of white, pink or red, there are some more unusual specimens. These include the Chinese pistachio, Pistacia chinensis, which has good autumn colour, the Korean mountain ash, Sorbus alnifolia, and Disanthus cercidifolius, whose heart-shaped leaves are turning fiery colours.

Meanwhile, a pair of vines are adding flame red to the display and Matt is hoping newly introduced bamboo Borinda papyrifera, which has stunning steel blue stems, will eventually form an impressive clump.

Batsford colour
There is beautiful colour throughout the arboretum

Elsewhere, the team have been thinning trees and clearing the understorey to create both planting areas for new specimens and an increased feeling of space.

Arguably the most important trees are also the most easily overlooked. In an extension to the arboretum, which opened in 2010, are some that form part of the International Conifer Conservation Project, run by Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and designed to safeguard species that are threatened in their native countries.

“It will generate a bank of material,” explains Matt.

Among those at Batsford are monkey puzzles from Chile, Nothofagus alessandri, one of about eight plants growing in Great Britain and the golden Vietnamese Cyprus.

Countryside views are one of Batsford’s special features

They are found on the outer edges of the arboretum where another new development is taking shape. What was once a field is being planted up with a mixture of trees, including ash, acers and liquidambar. The centre is being left open with wild flowers and care has been taken not to obscure the long views that are one of Batsford’s strengths and something that makes it more than just a collection of trees.

Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton-in-Marsh, is open daily, except Christmas Day from 10am to 5pm. Last entry at 4.45pm. More information at:

Acers light up the autumn

Nurseryman and designer Peter Dowle will be helping gardeners get the best out of autumn with his annual Acer Week.

The Chelsea gold medallist will be on hand to offer advice on choosing acers, how to grow them and planting combinations.

With more than 50 varieties in stock at his Howle Hill Nursery near Ross-on-Wye, he says it promises to be a spectacular show.

“It’s a chance for people to see out beautiful range of acers in their full autumn glory.”

The nursery is open from 9am to 5pm from October 12 to 17, 2015.