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Few trees put on such a sensational seasonal display as the maple, writes MONTY DON

There are at least a hundred species of maple in the Acer family, with scores from Asia and a dozen from North America. However, Britain has only one native, Acer campestre. 

But it’s a lovely tree with a fabulous golden-yellow autumn colour. To my mind, along with the crab apple, it makes the ideal small garden tree and will take any amount of trimming and shaping. 

There are a few ‘garden’ varieties: ‘Postelense’ has pale yellow leaves when young, which turn greener as summer progresses, and ‘Schwerinii’ is a purple-leafed version that could be useful in a large border as it’s comfortable with being cut back. 

The sycamore, A. pseudoplatanus, is part of the maple family and is often thought of as a native but was in fact introduced to the UK from the Pyrenees in the middle ages. Sycamore is regarded as a weed in town gardens, shading out everything beneath it and producing seedlings by the thousand. 

There are at least a hundred species of maple in the Acer family but only one is native to Britain, Acer Capestre. Monty Don loves its golden-yellow autumn colour and says it’s ideal for gardens

But in large gardens or open country, it can be a magnificent tree, impervious to winds or salt spray – so especially good near the coast. ‘Brilliantissimum’ never reaches anything like the towering size of the parent plant, but does develop leaves that start out shrimp-pink before becoming green via a yellowy phase. 

Maples have always been treasured in Japanese gardens and in particular A. palmatum – of which there are now hundreds of cultivars. They’re all grown for their deeply cut leaves, elegant shapes and the intensity of their autumn colours. 

They don’t like being buffeted by wind and do best in free-draining, slightly acidic soils. The shallow roots dry out easily and so need mulching and regular watering in very dry weather, and they’re happiest in light shade. 

The colour ranges from red, like the ‘Osakazuki’, through bronze and all the usual shades of green, and the leaf shapes include the deeply cut leaves of the dissectum group, as well as Japanese maples with bigger, more typically maple-like leaves. 

MONTY’S JOB OF THE WEEK

It is time to take a look and take care of your terracotta pots as some are not as weather-proof as others

It is time to take a look and take care of your terracotta pots as some are not as weather-proof as others 

Some terracotta pots are more weather-proof than others, but any that can be lifted and stored indoors should be taken in for protection. Those that are too big or have plants in them should be raised up off the ground to improve drainage. 

This means that the compost will not be too wet and, should there be a hard frost, will expand less and therefore be less likely to crack the pot. Any that are especially precious or delicate can be wrapped in hessian or bubblewrap to insulate them against freezing. 

My favourite eastern maple is A. griseum, the paperbark maple introduced from China. The greybacked leaves turn orange in autumn, but it’s the bark that is the real attraction as it peels into translucent curls and ringlets to reveal a cinnamon-coloured underlayer. 

Whereas Japanese maples are all small, many of the American maples make for large trees. The sugar maple, A. saccharum, is famed for its explosion of colour in autumn, but it’s rare that the UK can provide the necessary combination of very hot August days and very cool nights. 

The red maple, A. rubrum, needs an acidic soil to thrive. Native Americans used their maples for many medicinal and edible purposes, collecting the sap to make sweet syrup, and the syrup is, apparently, of a very high quality. 

The seeds were also gathered, boiled and eaten hot and the bark was used to treat sore eyes. 

Maples shouldn’t need much pruning, although when they’re young they often produce some very vigorous shoots that should be pruned back to stop the tree becoming lopsided. A. palmatum ‘Dissectum’ often produces dead wood, which can be alarming but it should simply be pruned back. 

The best time for pruning of any maples is now, in autumn.

ASK MONTY… 

My plum trees fruited well this year, but only on the lower branches. Why is this? 

Marie Jewkes, Warwickshire 

A I suspect that the top of the tree was exposed to frost at blossom time, whereas the lower branches were more protected. The frost would have destroyed the flowers, hence no plums. 

A We’ve tried many ways to kill horsetail but nothing has worked. Please can you advise? 

Jack McFadden, Derry 

Q The horsetail weed is the bane of many a gardener’s life and nothing will get rid of it other than good drainage. The roots reach 2.5m or more so weedkiller has no effect. The best solution is to cut it back constantly (ideally now).

Herbaceous peonies can be moved but never like it and often show their displeasure

Herbaceous peonies can be moved but never like it and often show their displeasure

A I’ve grown peonies for years. Four years ago I moved house and now garden on heavy clay. I put in two peony plants three years ago and they flowered – until this year. What’s wrong? 

Susan Osborn, Cheshire 

 Herbaceous peonies can be moved but never like it and often show their displeasure by not flowering for a few years. In this case, I counsel patience for another year or two. Don’t despair – they should flower again in time. They do also need sunshine to flower well.

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