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.

acers
‘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
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.

acers
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.

acers
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

acers
‘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.

acers
‘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.

acers
‘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