Japanese maples on a budget

Garden Making

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Japanese maple (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
Japanese maple (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
Japanese maple (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

Apart from fall-blooming perennials, the big show this season is colourful autumn foliage. Leaving out enormous trees like sugar maple (Acer saccharum, Zone 5), nothing approaches the vivid tones of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum, Zone 6). These are small trees and shrubs, suitable for almost any garden where there is half a day of sun and moist, organic well-drained soil. In autumn they often burn intensely with scarlet, gold and orange. Japanese maples can be expensive plants, but I have about a dozen of them blazing away in my garden right now, and all were acquired at budget prices.

I purchase only small Japanese maples (with comparatively small prices; $20 to $30) in one- or two- gallon (4- or 7.5-L) pots, either from my local bonsai society’s annual spring sale table or from a few nursery growers. (One good place to look for Japanese maples of all sizes is Vineland Nurseries in Beamsville, Ont.)

With adequate care, maples grow quickly. Unfortunately, woody plants are often presumed to be capable of finding their own moisture, and left out of the irrigation schedule. This slows their growth and leads to disappointment—they survive, but are slow to put on size. Given afternoon shade and careful placement out of the west wind, good soil enriched with leaves and peat moss, and regular irrigation, small Japanese maples make strong root growth in the second growing season, and are established in the third year. (I also give them transplant solution with rooting hormone once every spring.) After the third year, trunk and branch growth move along quite rapidly.

Unnamed seedlings are every bit as interesting and worthwhile as named selections and cultivars, and I have some of both. Of named plants I have, the ubiquitous dark maroon ‘Bloodgood’ (A. palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, Zone 6) is now mature enough to make viable seeds, and occasional seedlings are worth growing on (although they may be unlike their mother). ‘Bloodgood’ is dark maroon-scarlet in autumn, and one of the hardiest; mine never has any winter dieback in Zone 6a. (It would be an experiment to grow it in a sheltered Zone 5b location.)

Another favourite is ‘Seiryu’ (A. palmatum dissectum ‘Seiryu’, Zone 6), a vigorous multi-trunk grower (about 18 inches/45 cm each year) with a vase shape and lacy green foliage. It’s the only upright tree form in the dissectum group, and has bright raspberry petioles in early spring as the lime green leaves unfurl. The autumn colour is vivid, almost electric scarlet. ‘Viridis’ (A. p. dissectum ‘Viridis’, Zone 6) is a shrub-form, lace-leaf Japanese maple, with pendulous extending branches and green foliage turning to a harlequin mix of scarlet, orange and yellow. ‘Viridis’ is another hardy plant with no winter dieback in an exposed Zone 6a location, and in my experience grows at nearly the same rate as corn!

Closest to my heart is ‘Aconitifolium’ full moon maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, Zone 6), which is tender and has lost some wood the past few winters. I give it a protected corner and baby it, because it’s too lovely to be without. Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s a beautiful obsession; Japanese maples grow quickly and last decades in the garden—and they’re not as pricey as you might think.

Scented hostas

While trying to re-establish an edge on the lawn, I discovered one of the shrub-form Japanese maples had grown so far forward, the hostas in front of it have been completely overtaken. I haven’t seen them in a few years! It took some minutes to remember that they are Hosta plantaginea (Zone 3), with shiny, light green leaves and large fragrant flowers in August. This is a tricky hosta to grow, requiring full sun and a hot growing season to flower (and some years it won’t). But though unreliable, when in bloom the single flowers are large, pure white trumpets with strong perfume (like freesias), so they’re worth giving the right placement and hoping for extended warm weather. They probably would have been fantastic in last summer’s heat, and I really missed an opportunity. But I’m moving them out and perhaps next year I’ll see some blooms. There is a double-flowered hybrid, H. plantaginea ‘Aphrodite’, also worth acquiring, which needs the same light and warmth to flower.

Scented hostas that flower more reliably are available. Perusing a catalogue’s pages, I see: ‘Fragrant Blue’, ‘Fragrant Bouquet’, ‘Fragrant Dream’, ‘Honey Bells’, ‘So Sweet’, and ‘Sweet Innocence’. What’s in a name? I call it insurance!

Still blooming: ‘James Compton’ and Knock Out roses

The late, purple-leaved bugbane ‘James Compton’ (Actaea simplex [Atropurpurea Group] ‘James Compton’, syn. Cimicifuga ramosa [Atropurpurea Group] ‘James Compton’, Zone 4) is in bloom. This is an event! Most years the flower spikes with dark buds (looking like the antennae of some extraterrestrial being) are nipped by frost. But finally the white flowers are opening and have a wonderful spicy lemon fragrance. There was a single bee making a fool of itself around it all afternoon, as enthused as I was to see the flowers.

The Knock Out rose carries on with 17 flowers still open. This fluorescent-pink landscape rose is totally resistant to blackspot, and has another unique advantage over more elegant roses—Japanese beetles ignore it. This is probably because the poor thing is scentless; and I put it that way because I don’t see the point of a rose without perfume. On the other hand, all my perfumed roses have become lunch for the beetles. Soon Knock Out may be the only game in town. (Hmmm, I must give this some thought—I need a strategy.)

Once again, a pleasure having you at Garden Making. Hope to see you next week.

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7 thoughts on “Japanese maples on a budget”

  1. To Catherine, Dec.1

    Well, you present a realistic premise, and that's a good starting point. First, take a look around. Is anyone near you successfuly growing a Japanese maple? Does a local garden centre sell them? If not in both instances, then that tells you no one has found a Japanese maple that will thrive in your area.

    Here are some thoughts and plants to consider. The Japanese maple with greatest hardiness in the north is maroon-red Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'. Acer palmatum is rated hardy to zone 6. However, 'Bloodgood' is considered (by esteemed horitcultural experts) to have exceptional hardiness, and has been grown down to -29F (-33C). 'Bloodgood' would be worth trying as an (expensive!) experiment, if you could give it a sheltered location out of the wind, or sturdy confierous wind break companions like cedars or spruce. And it would be wise to wrap 'Bloodgood' the first 2 or 3 winters, until it's well established.

    But for a more reliable plant with similar characteristics to the Japanese maple, one excellent tree is the shantung maple, sometimes called purpleblow maple (Acer truncatum, 5 m, zone 5) with small rippled glossy leaves, an open habit, and yellow-orange-red autumn colour — a real beauty. (If shantung maple isn't locally available, ask a nursery to source one for you.) Another choice would be Amur maple 'Flame' (A. ginnala, 5 m, zone 4), available in tree and shrub form, with small leaves and brilliant yellow-red autumn colour.

    For all these trees, see alcocknurseries.com. I hope you make a happy choice!

  2. Judith,

    Delightful blog. Living in a 5a zone, I am wondering if there are Japanese maples that will thrive rather than survive. If not, are there trees of similar habit and leaf shape? They are a favorite of my husband's who spotted them when we visited the west coast. He refers to them as "julienne maples". What can I say, cute is his life 🙂

    Thank you,


  3. To Kathleen, Nov. r

    Hi Kathleen,

    Yes, Cimicifuga ramosa 'James Compton' is a cool plant! And it's also known as Actea simplex 'James Compton'.

    I presume you want these plants in spring. (It would be hard to find them now.) There's been quite a flurry of breeding work on bugbanes, trying to get the foliage consistently dark all season. 'James Compton' is an older selection, although not really that old, but just a few years further back in the breeding work. Its dark maroon spring foliage fades to dark green-purple in mid-summer. I don't see it on any Canadian mail-order source, but I feel sure you could find it in the nurseries next spring; it's definitely still around. The subsequent hybrids are equally satisfying (and some would say have darker purple-maroon-black foliage lasting through autumn), and they are 'Hillside Black Beauty' and 'Black Negligee', both available from http://www.hortico.com, a Canadian plant mail-order company. You'll also find these two hybrids in garden centres in spring. It's interesting to note that the cost of these plants increases with their newness — 'James Compton' coming first and least expensive, and cost increasing with 'Hillside Black Beauty' and 'Black Negligee'. They're all wonderful and you can't go wrong. By the way, some nomenclature authority has shifted Cimicifuga ramosa into the Actea simplex category — they like to see us scramble!

  4. Hi there,

    At the Montreal Botanical Gardens Japanese maples have been replaced with Acer ginnala 'Flame'. They resemble Japanese Maples, are very tough, will grow in full sun to part-shade, foliage is green in summer, great red colour in fall, has pinkish red maple keys.

    They come as multi-stemmed shrubs or in tree form, grow 15 to 20 feet tall, can be trimmed and might just fit your requirements.

    Good pics at Northscaping.com website

  5. To Linda, Nov. 4


    My goodness, what a saga, and may that Japanese maple rest in peace!

    I understand you have a tough site with harsh conditions. I can think of an evergreen tree that suits your purpose — attractive year round, and able to take the low temperature, wind and snow cover. It's the hybrid limber pine, 'Vanderwolf's Pyramid' (Pinus flexilis 'Vanderwolf's Pyramid', 16 x 10 ft/5 x 3 m, Zone 4), with open structure, deep blue-green foliage, and a cream line down each long, elegant needle. It's a fast-growing tree to about 15 feet (4.5 m), but in your zone might not reach quite that high (fewer growing days in Zone 5a). A second choice would be the dwarf 'Fat Albert' blue spruce (Picea pungens 'Fat Albert', 2 x 10 feet/7 m x 3 m, Zone 4) with dense conical form and silvery blue needles. 'Fat Albert' has the potential to grow a bit higher than you want, but again, the cold climate will most likely hold the height back from reaching full potential. 'Fat Albert' spruce is a slower growing tree than the 'Vanderwolf's Pyramid' pine, but its dense branches are better winter refuge for birds. An Internet search for images of these trees should give you a good idea of what they look like, and I don't think you can make a mistake with either one. The constant wind conditions will make irrigation very important for trees, so be sure to provide water twice weekly. Hope you enjoy making a selection.

  6. Hello

    I wonder if you can recommend a small but fairly fast growing tree (no higher than about 12-15 feet) that can withstand strong northeasterly winds all year long, about 8 feet of snow cover in winter and temp rang of -10 to +30, zone 5b. My backyard, where I hope to plant this mystery tree to replace a japanese maple (Acer palmatum) will now have sun in summer from about 10 am to 4 pm. the maple, which I loved, was new in June 2010, but within 3 months was pretty ragged from the winds and finally, in Hurricane Igor was flattened by a neighbour's falling tree! I still love the maple but not in the backyard!

    So I am looking for a replacement, and perhaps, this time, a year round green tree to shelter birds as well. My desires for the kind of tree have changed in the last 3 months since lots of shade trees, and bird homes were lost in Igor.

    any suggestions gratefully received.


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