Urban gardener, Cleve West: Acers high

A garden writer called recently, researching an article she was writing on acers. She wanted to know what varieties I like to use and was looking for a suitable quote. For a moment I was stumped. I couldn't think of the last time I'd planted an acer - until I remembered Acer campestre which featured in our show garden at Chelsea last year and more recently at the Clore Learning Centre at Wisley where we've planted a hedge of this British native. While acers are, without doubt, beautiful trees, I've had to ask myself why I don't use them more often.

My first introduction to the acer family was through growing bonsai trees; thereafter, Acer palmatum featured in some of my early small-town gardens, where the Japanese influence simmered gently while I found my feet. It wasn't long before this delicate (in particular A. palmatum 'Dissectum') small tree became twee with a capital "T", and even now I can't help thinking of glazed containers, cooper's barrels and stand pumps, often lumped with them in promotional displays at garden centres. So one reason for not using them more often is, I suppose, the worry that the end result might look a bit too chocolate-boxy for comfort. To milk the confectionery analogy a while longer, acers, with their delicate leaves, attractive bark and autumn colours, are like sweets after the main course - one is just right but more (in a small garden and especially where different varieties are used) risks almost certain nausea.

Some acers have a more spreading habit, so planting them in groups could be tricky in an urban scenario. But if you have the space, one such as A. palmatum 'Atropurpureum' can look stunning, as can A. japonicum 'Aconitifolium' with its autumnal hues. But with winter at our heels, snakebark maples such as A. davidii, A. rufinerve, and A. capillipes will be fanfared in the gardening press along with the paper-bark maple A. griseum. Another snakebark, A.grosseri var. hersii, is also lauded for growing relatively quickly when young established and, thereafter, happy to consolidate as a large shrub or small tree which is not too averse to the odd bit of pruning - ideal for the smaller garden. With careful siting, all could be considered for an urban space, but the important thing to remember is that they command attention, especially in the dormant season, so should be placed where they have little competition. Even mixing trees with different bark in close proximity creates a sense of disharmony and clutter.

My guess is that the palmatum variety of acers are high on the list of impulse buys that subsequently languish either in the wrong soil (they like neutral to acid), aspect (not too wet and away from drying winds), or stuck beneath a dense tree canopy because books say they don't mind a bit of shade. The palmatum varieties are also slow growing and therefore won't fulfil anyone's desire for an instant garden (unless they are willing to shell out thousands of pounds for a mature specimen).

Acer enthusiasts should note, therefore, that I'm not trying to rubbish the tree but to encourage a more considered approach. In fact, while writing this piece, I questioned my own prejudice by reviewing a planting scheme for a medium-sized garden in Dulwich, south London where the client expressed an interest in woodland plants. We thought Betula pendula offered the necessary dappled shade to a large planting bed adjacent to the terrace. Should I have given them more of a choice, though? I'm sure I suggested Amelanchier lamarckii (another favourite of mine for a small garden) but they seemed keen on birch. Did I mention acers? Almost certainly not and I felt a stab of guilt as I picked up the phone. "I was wondering whether we ought to consider using acer instead of the birch?" I faltered. Silence on the other end and then, "Well if you think they'd look better ... it's just that I've always thought them to look a bit, well, alien." I've got a horrible feeling I'll never hear from them again.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Housing Assistant

£16819 - £21063 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager - OTE £60,000

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In 2014, they launched the worl...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Design Lead

£23958 - £29282 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones