Trees For Tight Places

Any landscape is predicated on a finite amount of space.  A property could be described by a certain amount of square footage on the ground plane.  A landscape is comprised of lots of different elements, the largest of which would be the sky.  Next up, the trees.   I suppose a small urban property could be forested like woodland, but that assumes  the gardener has only one use in mind for their landscape.  Fortunately, trees come in all sizes and shapes.  A number of trees have a fastigiate, or columnar form.  This means just what the word implies.  The foliage or needles grow naturally in a column.  A tree with a restricted spread is a great choice for small gardens, for gardens that ask for screening, and for gardens asking for natural ornament.  Years ago, this side garden was in full view of a neighboring house.  Today all that remains of that view is a chimney.  The arrangement of pairs of columnar hornbeams have created a natural pergola that is home to a shady seating area.   

My first visit to this property immediately brought the idea of columnar trees to mind.  The back yard is very small, and adjacent properties very close.  The prominent feature of the yard-a beautifully constructed wall.  The soil had been mounded up against the wall, and boxwood had been planted against its base.  In the front of the bed, a collection of perennials. The boxwood and perennials obscured rather than featured the wall,  nor could they possibly provide screening from a neighboring house. The rear yard screen of hemlocks had grown thin, and was very wide at the bottom where no screening was really needed.

These columnar Bowhall maples will eventually completely screen the neighbor’s garage wall from view.  Lowering the grade meant much more of the wall was available to view. The hemlocks were replaced with Thuja Nigra, an arborvitae that grows narrow and tall.  A very small yard is now completely private, given the planting of  fastigiate trees.  The maples only occupy the air space; their pole-like trunks take up no room whatsoever.  The arborvitae are narrow at the bottom as well as the top.  This helps to make a very small space feel spacious. 

This back yard sloped steeply towards the foundation of the house; water in the basement was a problem.  A retaining wall permitted the soil at ground level to be graded away from the house.  The top of the wall was planted with hornbeams  spaced at 12 feet apart; they will grow together faster than you think.  Carpinus fastigiata is naturally broadly egg shaped, but it is quite tolerant of pruning.  The hydrangeas will make the wait for the trees to grow a little more tolerable.  It will be interesting to see what direction the client wants to take with pruning.  They have time to sort that out. The wall also gave the trees a little leg up, screening out the neighboring property.

Arborvitae have a naturally columnar shape, but they also adapt quite well to closer pruning.  This landscape called for a vertical element which would not shade the surrounding plants.  A once yearly pruning is all it needs to keep it in shape.

This landscape features both pruned and unpruned arborvitae.  The pruned cylindrical shapes are very interesting and sculptural.  Pruning any tree or evergreen should be undertaken over time.  It has taken my palabin lilacs on standard 2 years to recover from the shock of my pollarding fit. 

There are those trees that are not particularly columnar by nature, but they are amenable to pruning.  The hybrid magnolia “Ivory Chalice”, a cross between magnolia acuminata, and Magnolia denudata, has been priuned to stay within the confines of this very narrow space along a driveway.  They have been happy here for over 10 years.

Populus tremuloides erecta , or Swedish columnar poplar, is a loosely growing columnar tree that will eventually provide some screening for the giant windows of this contemporary home. The rounded and scalloped leaves flutter in the breeze just like any other popple, and the fall color is great.  This tree may occasionaly have a branch that falls out-a little pruning will put that to right.  Even older trees are not much wider than 5 or 6 feet.

Of course the queen bee of columnar trees has to be the fastigiate European green beech.  Properly cared for, as these are, they make a very strong vertical statement. 

Once these trees reach the roof line of the house, they could be pruned flat.  Age will only improve these fine trees.


  1. The first 5 pictures are everything that I want my landscape to be- lush, green, and well maintained. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Jennifer in Toronto says

    Thank you for this post. Two years ago, I planted 4 chanticleer pear trees, 2 on each side of a pergola, to stand in front of a row of emerald cedars which form the rear wall of my backyard. These chanticleer trees are covered in pear trellis rust and have to be removed. I have been carefully considering which tree to replace them. The space is tight and close to a pool so I need something columnar, but the trees are underplanted with perennials so it has to be something with a long trunk. I am grateful for the picture of the columnar Hornbeams and the Bowhall maples. I’m in Toronto. I will look up which one of the two is easiest to grow and does not require pruning and will finally have a solution!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jennifer, both the columnar hornbeam and the Bowhall maples are big trees. Perhaps a columnar crabapple would be more friendly to your perennials, or columnar gingkos are tap rooted, and less disruptive to other plantings. Doing a lot of research is good, before you buy. Deborah

  3. Jennifer in Toronto says

    Hmm. Tall would be fine, but wide is bad – I feel the same way about my own shape. I worry that a crabapple would mean debris in the pool, but I will check out columnar ginkos. Thanks, Deborah.

  4. Hi Deborah,
    Great source of information– thank you. Would you mind sharing the type of shrub that the Populus tremuloides erecta (or Swedish columnar poplar) is nesting in? Love the textures– looks amazing.

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