How to Design With Japanese Maples


While an obvious choice for an Asian inspired garden, a Japanese maple is at home in traditional and contemporary landscapes as well. When incorporating a Japanese maple into your landscape design, look for a prominent site that will capture attention. In "Japanese Maples," J.D. Vertrees describes over 300 cultivars of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). Regardless of the variety, a Japanese maple is an architectural tree, used effectively as a focal point in the garden. Complement a Japanese maple with boulders and plants with contrasting color and texture that will draw the eye to the Japanese maple, without stealing the show.

Things You'll Need

  • Japanese maple
  • Medium boulder
  • 5 perennial plants, 24 inches tall
  • 2 varieties of ground cover
  • Mulch
  • Look for a prominent spot for the Japanese maple where it will serve as a focal point in the landscape. Select a well-drained site in full to partial sun.

  • Dig a hole two to three times wider than, but only as deep as, the tree's container. Place the tree in the hole with the root crown---where the roots meet the trunk---at the existing ground level. Back-fill the hole with the existing soil. Do not pack the soil too firmly. Spread leftover soil around the tree.

  • Leave three feet of space on all sides of the Japanese maple for accent plants. Place a medium-sized boulder to the front left of the tree, three to four feet away from the tree trunk. Position the boulder in a small hole, one-fourth to one-third the depth of the boulder. Fill dirt around boulder.

  • Install perennial plants, such as Japanese roof iris, behind the boulder. Plant a short ground cover, 6 to 8 inches tall, in front of the boulder, spacing them 8 to 12 inches apart. Apply mulch.

  • Plant a different ground cover around the tree to accentuate the Japanese maple, spacing plants 12 to 18 inches apart. For example, using the design principle of contrast, plant a chartreuse ground cover such as creeping jenny to complement the reddish foliage of a Japanese maple. For trees with green foliage, select a red hued ground cover, such as creeping raspberry. Apply mulch.

Tips & Warnings

  • Japanese maples grow very slowly. If size is important in your design, splurge on a larger, more mature tree.
  • Because cultivars vary significantly in size and growth habit, look for these specifications when purchasing your tree. With hundreds of varieties, you should find a perfect fit for your landscape.
  • Avoid surrounding the tree with large, "busy" plants, as they detract from the tree's bold impact.

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  • Photo Credit japanese maple image by Kathryn Palmer from boulder adorned by wildflowers image by Steve Marquez from Blue Iris image by PinkSkyPhotos from
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