One of the requests I hear most frequently as a designer who lives in a suburban area is for screening plants. Maybe your neighbor’s house is a McMansion, or perhaps you just don’t want to look out your porch or the dining room window and see the street or – whatever. If you’re lucky, you have a large enough yard and enough sun that you can accommodate a mixed grouping of trees – some conifers (no Leyland cypresses, please!), a holly or two, and some deciduous but ornamental trees mixed in.
In some cases, however, the space available is more limited. Here is where I make a pitch for a tree that may not be as well known as the American holly or even the Japanese cryptomeria. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata,’ or the fastigiate hornbeam.
Before looking at the slimmed-down version, the straight species deserves its own moment of glory. I first encountered Carpinus betulus on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate outside of Asheville, North Carolina many years ago on a glorious early autumn day. Although the fall color is only hinted at in this photo, it’s a glorious golden hue and a real plus.
At the time, I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, but I made it my business to find out later. Since then, while I haven’t had clients with the kind of space needed in their gardens to plant one of these “regular” Carpinus, I’ve discovered the merits of its smaller cousin.
Fastigiate hornbeams (‘Fastigiata’ or a supposedly even narrower version, ‘Franz Fontaine,’) have a branching structure that is so tight it stops the eye, even when the tree isn’t in leaf. I’ve seen them planted as close together as 4′ on center, although I prefer to space them out six to seven feet apart (measured from trunk to trunk). This photo shows three ‘Fastigiata,’ planted along a six-foot fence in a back yard in the District of Columbia about seven years ago. Today they are fully grown together, about twenty feet high, and the garden owner loves them, especially since she can no longer see the car parked in her neighbor’s back yard.
I have seen them planted more formally (and seemingly “topped”), as a backdrop for a parking area at Muddy Rugs in Connecticut last August on a Garden Conservancy Tour.
They can be kept relatively short and used as a hedge in smaller suburban spaces between houses, although I’m not sure how attractive I find them when treated that way if the height is seriously curtailed.
(Of course, the Ellipse at Dumbarton Oaks is the most famous use of a clipped hornbeam hedge that I know of, but there the height at which the trees are kept is probably closer to 30-40 feet.)
So you probably get the picture. The added bonus is that hornbeams can “take a little shade,” as designers like to say. That allows them to be used in less than ideally sunny sites, either mixed with other kinds of screening trees or on their own. And the fastigiate varieties can be utilized where space is very tight (a narrow space between two houses, for example); over time you can limb up the lower branches so that they can clear a low fence, or prune them to keep them tight.
But truthfully? I prefer situations where you can give them some breathing room, even when using them for screening. Here’s a perfect example, where local landscape architect Guy Williams has used matching pairs to great effect on one side of a somewhat formally designed back yard, both to screen the house next door but also to set off the space with grace.
So the next time you’re contemplating how to screen a view – or just add some beauty to your garden – give some thought to a hornbeam. You won’t regret it.
Garden Shoots will take a brief holiday break over the Christmas weekend. See you in the New Year!