Green Screens for Small Spaces

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.

Carpinus betulus, European hornbeam

A mature Carpinus betulus starting to show fall color on the grounds of the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina

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.

Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata'

Young Carpinus betulus

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.

Carpinus betulus, fastigiate

Fastigiate hornbeams, looking like lollipops, screening a parking area at a Connecticut house.

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.

Carpinus betulus, hedge

These fastigiate hornbeams have been clipped into a kind of hedge between two new houses in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

(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.)

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, Patrick Dougherty

The hornbeam hedge at Dumbarton Oaks (shown here with Patrick Dougherty's 'Easy Rider' installation).

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.

Carpinus betulus

Four European hornbeam trees act as a screen but also as a focal point in this garden.

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!

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21 Comments on “Green Screens for Small Spaces”

  1. Pam/Digging Says:

    I wonder if hornbeam would grow in Austin. I’ve never seen it here. Probably too hot and dry for it.

    However, I like to use ‘Will Fleming’ yaupon holly for the same situations. It too can be topped for a hedge look, or left to grow into a tall column. Also suitable for sun or part-shade.

    • Melissa Says:

      Pam, I’ll have to look into using Yaupon holly in part shade. I always assumed the only holly that could take part shade around here is Nellie Stevens, and that gets so huge. Thanks for the tip.

  2. What lovely trees – particularly when not topped, which always looks so abrupt to my eye. Do you use pleaching too? I’m not sure I’d have the patience, and in any case prefer to see trees in their natural state, but I’ve seen it used very effectively to create a formal screen.

  3. Melissa Says:

    Janet, the hornbeams at Dumbarton Oaks in the Ellipse are formally pleached. I’ve never done it although I know of a couple of designer colleagues around here who have included small pleached hornbeam hedges in residential designs. Like you, I prefer trees in their natural state, with occasional exceptions where the pleaching, as at Dumbarton, is done with care and artistry.

  4. Melanie Says:

    I love the photos you show of the fastigiata trees. I recently purchased three trees with tags showing “Carpinus b fastigiata”, no other information. I appreciate the photos and information you provide. I’m concerned about how large the trees will grow after 20-30 years. I would like to plant them within 8-10 feet of each other. Your photos show them even closer then this. Have you had any problems later on? Or do they just sort of mesh together and look great?

    • Melissa Says:

      Dear Melanie, glad you found this post helpful. By all means plant your hornbeams 8-10′ on center to begin with if you prefer and are patient. For most of my clients we are looking for more immediate gratification which is why I aim for 6′- 7′ on center. Yes, they will grow into each other but the branching structure is pliant and relatively thin so there’s no harm in that spacing. They look great in maturity as they have grown together.

  5. Melanie Says:

    How close can I plant one to a spruce tree?

    • Melissa Says:

      Now you’re getting a little beyond my powers of advice without seeing the site. The closer you plant it to an existing tree with a canopy, the more you have to be mindful of the hornbeam growing up into the existing outspread branches of the neighboring tree. Also remember that the roots of the spruce, particularly if it is large, will pose a challenge to getting the hornbeam planted.

  6. Ann Says:

    Melissa, first off I love your blog! Your’s is the reason I just ordered 16 European Hornbeam Fastigiates to plant in my backyard next month. They’ll be here in a couple weeks. I do have a question for you though. If they do get up to 25-30 feet wide in maturity, then does it hurt them to be planted so close to the fence, as the picture above you have shows. The picture shows them planted 6 feet apart (which is what I’m going to do), but in the picture they’re planted right up against the fence. I understand the tree’s branches being pliant when the trees blend into each other, but what happens to the branches when they bump into a rigid fence as they mature and fill out? Thank you in advance for your time.

    • Melissa Says:

      Ann, so glad you like the blog. To answer your question, the branches next to the fence are as pliant as any others – but if they are really close to the fence, they will probably defoliate and give up the ghost after a couple of years. You can, if you want, make a preemptive strike and limb up the trees up to the fence line gradually, since your main goal is for screening. Just don’t do it right away the first year; take it a little at a time. Hope this helps.

  7. Tom Says:

    Hi, is there such a thing as a hornbeam hedge? Or is it just a tree? I would prefer the leaves to stay on throughout the winter? Thank you

    • Melissa Says:

      Tom, hornbeams are deciduous so they lose their leaves in the winter. And they are trees, but can be “topped” to keep their height level.

      If you are looking for an evergreen shrub that can be used as a hedge (depending on where you live) you could try something like skip laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Schipkeansis’).

  8. Tom Says:

    Thank you for the quick reply!

  9. Chris Says:

    While the shape of the tree lends itself to planting in a narrow space between two houses, I’d be concerned about the roots damaging the foundations. Is this tree’s root system less of a threat than others’?

    • Melissa Says:

      Chris, I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. Hornbeams’ rootballs when planted can be quite sizeable compared to their caliper (trunk) size. But I’ve never had clients have problems like the one you describe. Maples and magnolias have much “greedier” root systems.

  10. john Says:

    Hi there,

    nice article. I love the fastigiate hornbeam and have 12 of them planted in my garden either side of the drive way. They really set it off. However can you keep trimming the top of them to keep them small? Some people say the grow to 60 feet while others say they grow to 150+ feet, what do you think the correct height at maturity would be if they were left untrimmed?


    • Melissa Says:

      John, in general I don’t like to “top” trees, for plant health reasons as well as aesthetics. The literature says fastigiate hornbeams’ maximum height is 40-60′. I you top them you will create a wound for disease to enter and ruin their lovely oval shape.

  11. Melissa Says:

    Hi thanks for the article, I’ve been really interested in fastigate hornbeams lately for several garden installations I’m working on. Do you know if your last photo of the 4 hornbeams is the fastigiate or Frans Fontaine variety, or are they the regular full sized hornbeams? Thanks for sharing this useful information!

  12. dimitris Says:

    Hi Melissa, nice blog,the tree in photo of Biltmore estate is an old feathered Carpinus Betulus Fastigiata or synonym Pyramidalis

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