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
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...


£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London