Les Parks is the Curator of Herbaceous Plants at the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

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The Tall and Skinny
by Les Parks       #Landscaping   #Trees

Fern-filled urns, clipped boxwood (Buxus spp.), and attractive brick paving combine with varying sizes of ‘Degroot’s Spire’ arborvitae to let visitors know they have arrived at the front door of this stately home.


It is no secret that plants come in many shapes, sizes, and growth habits. For those of us who are fortunate enough to know the joys of gardening, we get to take advantage of this great variety when creating our own personal Eden. Two nearly identical groups of plants that are both fun to work with and practical, are columnar and fastigiate evergreens. While these two terms are often considered interchangeable, there is indeed a slight difference, but only by a matter of degrees. This difference is so small that it really does not affect the ways these plants can be used. What these forms have in common are dense upright growth and an inability to develop broad, spreading, side branches. This results in skinny plants that reach for the sky, yet ask only for just a little space in your garden to do so.

Blue Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’) frames this ancient brick wall and gate without obstructing its architectural details. Unfortunately, the aggressive Wisteria climbing on top will not be so kind once it breaks dormancy.


One of the most practical ways to use these evergreens is to create tall, yet narrow, screens or hedges. This is especially useful for people who garden in today’s smaller spaces and want to create a sense of privacy without sacrificing precious garden real estate. Additionally, these plants will not make anyone a slave to pruning, unlike many traditional hedge choices. For those that want a bit of height in these same small gardens, a single tall, narrow specimen will give them what they want without requiring the space and sunlight that a larger tree would.

Unfortunately, many shortsighted builders leave narrow strips of nearly useless garden space wedged between walls and paving sections. These spaces barely have enough room to grow a few annuals, let alone a tree or a shrub. However, they may have room enough for something tall and skinny. When space is not an issue, these plants can also be used in informal, thoughtfully spaced groupings, and a more natural feel can be obtained by selecting distinctly staggered sizes of the same plant.

Tall narrow plants are often used to accentuate the features of a building, whether to frame an entrance, line a walkway, soften corners, or to enhance vertical architectural elements. For taller buildings, these plants are one way to add a layer, or a bridge if you will, between the height of the structure and the garden that surrounds it.

Dense narrow evergreens can be added as “thriller” to container designs. ‘Sky Pencil’ holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) has been used to great effect in these combinations.


Speaking of structure, planting tight narrow evergreens is one way to add this design element to looser, more free form gardens that may need it. Used this way and repeated, a sense of rhythm can be created in the process.

Contrast is another design element that can be added to gardens by combining these evergreens with more rounded, open, or sprawling plant forms. You can achieve this same contrast in container gardens by adding a tall vertical element for a bit of drama. This is especially useful in winter containers, as many of these plants can easily withstand lower temperatures.

Whether columnar and fastigiate plants are used artistically or practically, there is a small place in gardens of all sizes for these “exclamation points” to be used as punctuation.


Tall narrow evergreens are an excellent choice for privacy screening, and to create a sense of enclosure. Here a tightly planted row of ‘Degroot’s Spire’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ’Degroot’s Spire’) does that well, but also leads the eye towards the distant red mobile.


Botanical Name

Common Name


Light Conditions

Zones Notes
Buxus sempervirens ‘Dee Runk’ Dee Runk boxwood 8’ x 2’ light sun to shade 5-8 tolerant for a boxwood
Buxus sempervirens ‘Fastigiata’ Fastigiata boxwood 8’ x 3’ light sun to shade 5-8 dark green foliage
Camellia sasanqua ‘Autumn Rocket’

Autumn Rocket camellia

8-10’ x 3-4’ light sun to shade 7b-9 white flowers in late fall
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’ Upright Japanese plum yew 8-10’ x 3-5’ light sun to shade 6-9 heat and humidity tolerant
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Korean Gold’ Korean Gold Japanese plum yew 6-10’ x 3-6’ light sun to shade 6-9 golden foliage
Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Red Star’ Red Star Atlantic white cedar 15-25’ x 6-8’ full sun 4-8 plum-purple winter foliage
Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’ Blue Italian cypress 25-40’ x 4-5’ full sun 7-10 blue-green foliage
Cupressus sempervirens ‘Swane’s Golden’ Swane’s Golden Italian cypress 15-20’ x 2-3’ full sun 7-9 golden foliage
Cupressus sempervirens ‘Tiny Tower’ Tiny Tower Italian cypress 25-30’ x 3’ full sun 7-10 smaller than the species
Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’ Green Spire euonymus 15’ x 6’ full sun to shade 6-9 salt and drought tolerant
Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ Sky Pencil Japanese holly 6-8’ x 2-3’ full sun to part shade 6-8 good for containers
Ilex vomitoria ‘Scarlet’s Peak’ Scarlet’s Peak Yaupon holly 20’ x 3’ full sun to part shade 7-10 native, red berries
Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming’ Will Fleming Yaupon holly 8-15’ x 2-3’ full sun to part shade 7-10 may need occasional pruning
Juniperus chinensis ‘Spartan’ Spartan Chinese juniper 15-20’ x 4-5’ full sun 4-9 drought tolerant
Juniperus virginiana ‘Brodie’ Brodie eastern red cedar 20-25’ x 6-9’ full sun 6-9 drought and salt tolerant
Juniperus virginiana ‘Taylor’ Taylor eastern red cedar 15-20’ x 3-4’ full sun 4-9 dense foliage, very adaptable
Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ Degroot’s Spire arborvitae 15-20’ x 2-3’ full sun to part shade 3-8 foliage bronzes in winter
Thuja occidentalis ‘Jantar’ Jantar arborvitae 6-10’ x 3’ full sun to part shade 4-8 bright golden foliage
Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ Emerald arborvitae 12-15’ x 3-4’ full sun to part shade 4-8 common and easy to find
Thuja occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbon’ Yellow Ribbon arborvitae 8-10’ x 2-3’ full sun to part shade 3-7

golden yellow foliage



A version of this article appeared in a June 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Les Parks.


Posted: 09/19/16   RSS | Print


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