Posted tagged ‘screening’

Green Screens for Small Spaces

March 7, 2015

Garden Shoots is on a hiatus while I let my left hand heal. . .  Until I can type again with both hands, I hope you will enjoy one of the blog’s 
most popular posts from the past. Hope to be back in action sometime in April!


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!

American University’s Summer Look

July 26, 2013

Last week, on my way to LPI from an early client appointment, I made a quick pit stop at American University’s campus. Although this time of year there are fewer students in residence than usual, the plantings, designed by AU’s resident Landscape Architect H. Paul Davis and his colleagues, looked stunning. I wanted to share a few with you, taken with my Canon G11, before I take August off to re-charge my creative juices. (I’ll also be getting to know my new computer, which finally arrived this week after the old one died over four weeks ago.)

So enjoy the photos, and take a trip to AU (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW in the District) if you’re in the area.


Garden Shoots will be on vacation until September. See you then!

An Urban ‘Farmhouse’ and Garden

June 16, 2012

On June 9th, I visited a newly built house and garden in Garrett Park, Maryland as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation‘s new program called Garden Dialogues. For two hours, about a dozen of us talked with the site’s architect (Richard Williams), landscape architect (Gregg Bleam), and builder (Abe Sari of Horizon Builders) about the concept for the house and garden (and the relationship between the two), how the owner’s goals were achieved, and materials and process involved in bringing the dream to reality. I should set the stage by explaining that Garrett Park is a neighborhood full of large old (and new) Victorian-style homes complete with spacious front porches and yards with mature, existing trees.

Garrett Park, Maryland, Victorian homes

No, this isn’t the Reed house, but one of Garrett Park’s traditional Victorian-style homes, complete with eye-catching paint, big front porch and hammock, and brightly contrasting shutters. A town ordinance encourages renovated and new homes to include front porches.

As the architect and owners explained before we were let loose to wander about on our own, the lot on which the house and landscape now stand was once occupied by an old farmhouse, which burned down several years ago. In 2009, the Reeds purchased the lot and started to look for an architect who would understand their desire for a feeling of tranquility and belonging in this “magical neighborhood.” The resulting house, while distinctly modern, was designed to evoke the sense of a modern farmhouse, including a distinctive front porch. And the plantings, brilliantly designed by Gregg Bleam, a Charlottesville-based landscape architect, are in sync every step of the way.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Garden Dialogues, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architects, modern gardens, modern architecture

The Reed house, viewed from the street, pays homage to the old farmhouse that previously stood on the site, with an “orchard” of Cercis canadensis, planted in a rectangle of mondo grass surrounded by lawn.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Garden Dialogues, modern architecture, modern gardens

On the right side of the house, an aggregate driveway, intersected by grass panels, leads to the garage, and the corner steps to the front porch welcome visitors.

Once inside the house, the first view that greets you immediately draws your eye out into the garden.

Richard Williams Architects, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, Horizon Builders, water feature, modern architecture, modern landscape architecture

The view from the Reeds’ front hallway takes in a rectangular water feature crossed by a simple wooden bridge and leads the eye to a panel of Equisetum and then to a group of Amelanchier trees at the end of the garden. A specimen ‘Jane’ magnolia can be seen on the left in front of the serviceberry grove.

The pool is only about 8″ deep (the safety of future grandchildren having dictated the decision on depth). Stacked 1-1/2″ flagstone pavers provide access up and down from the bridge on the grass side. A single specimen ‘Jane’ magnolia of considerable heft is in the lawn area in front of the Amelanchier trees. A row of tall hornbeams surrounds the yard on the left and rear, in front of a simple open-design fence only 4′ tall, chosen to avoid a “walled feeling” while provide necessary screening. The simplicity of the design is elegant, reminiscent of a Dan Kiley landscape (Bleam trained with Kiley early in his career, and the design kinship is evident – and impressive.)

Garden Dialogues, Equisetum, Gregg Bleam, modern landscapes

Architect Richard Williams discussing the design of the Reed house. A panel of Equisetum, noted for its sculptural qualities, is seen left front.

The Reed house has been LEED certified, both for the house itself and the garden. The roof, made of a type of galvanized aluminum designed to deflect solar rays, also suggests that of the farmhouse that once occupied the site. The patio area near left is composed of thermal bluestone with joints designed to allow rainwater to percolate into underground drainage collection and dispersal “dry wells.”

It is not often that clients are foresighted enough to understand the importance of bringing a landscape architect into the design process while the house is on the drawing boards. When they do, the relationship between interior and exterior and materials used both places, and the importance of views, can be exploited to the maximum. And when designers like me have the opportunity to hear from clients and the creators of their visions in a dialogue like the one I experienced Saturday, everyone is the richer. I look forward to attending more of these events – and hopefully of seeing more of Bleam’s and Williams’ work. It’s inspiring.

Crape Myrtles for Everyman

July 16, 2011

It is that time of year when wherever you look, crape myrtles are strutting their stuff. I’ve been known to favor them in certain design situations – when clients request them (assuming they have enough sun), when I want a tree whose size can be kept in check, and when I want four-season interest in a sunny site with no irrigation.

Lagerstroemia 'Natchez,' crape myrtles, garden design

A trio of white 'Natchez' crape myrtle trees frame the entry walk to this house in Chevy Chase.

While ‘Natchez,’ which bears white blooms, is my personal favorite, one of my favorite instructors in my landscape design course used to say, “What’s the point of having a tree that flowers in summer when everything else is past bloom, if you can’t have COLOR?”

Lagerstroemia, pink crape myrtle

A pink crape myrtle, possibly 'Tuscarora'

Recently, however, I’ve been noticing how commonly these trees are used in commercial or public spaces, for screening or to provide a colorful setting for seating areas. Here is an “allee” of ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles lining a pedestrian/biking path in downtown Bethesda, Maryland.

Lagerstroemia 'Natchez'

A row of Natchez crape myrtles screens a parking lot from a bike path in suburban Maryland.

On my trip home last weekend from our local Giant grocery store in Silver Spring, I saw crape myrtles used in three different ways. One was lining the sidewalk in planter squares along two rows of restaurants, coffee shops and dry cleaning establishments. Anchoring this ‘allee’ were two other groupings. One was by some outdoor tables at a Caribou Coffee shop, screening patrons’ views of the busy street beyond.

Lagerstroemia, crape myrtle, screening

Pink crape myrtles (cultivar unknown) provide a welcome screen for outdoor dining tables in busy downtown Silver Spring, MD

Across from it was this trio of beauties, surrounded by some Knockout roses and striped zebra grass, neither of which seemed to be performing as well as the crape myrtles.

Lagerstroemia, crape myrtles

Dark pink crape myrtles in a shopping center in Silver Spring.

The actual blossoms were a bit lighter than this picture shows (the trees were in full shadow at this point). But they were definitely a hot pink, as opposed to the lighter lavender-pink of the ones across the way at the coffee shop. Which led me to wonder why whoever designed these areas had chosen different cultivars, and ones that arguably clash in terms of their colors?

And even closer to home, here’s a small pedestrian island at a busy intersection that I see on my way to work most mornings.

Lagerstroemia, crape myrtles

A deep pink-purple crape myrtle in a small pedestrian island on the border between Washington, DC and Chevy Chase MD. Note the matching-colored phlox in the foreground!

I understand why these trees are popular. The many varieties developed at the National Arboretum over the years, named for various Native American tribes, are mildew-resistant and offer interest in all four seasons. They bloom at a time (late summer) when other parts of the garden may be past their prime; they thrive on hot weather and are drought-resistant, once established; they have great fall color

Lagerstroemia, crape myrtles, fall foliage

Fall foliage on crape myrtles is spectacular.

and exfoliating bark. Their down sides are few: the blossoms are messy when they fall, requiring diligence if you plant them near a patio or other hard surface; and they need to be planted (at least in this area) no later than the end of October (and even that is pushing it).

The Arboretum has a separate section where they trial these trees, and includes them also among the plantings in the Gotelli Collection, where they work surprisingly well. Here’s Lagerstroemia ‘Osage,’ photographed at the Arboretum several years ago,

Lagerstroemia x indica 'Osage'

An 'Osage" crape myrtle in bloom.

and a shot of its gorgeous exfoliating bark.

Lagerstroemia x indica 'Osage' bark

Exfoliating bark makes crape myrtles truly wonderful four-season trees.

I suppose their low-maintenance nature, and the ability to choose among cultivars ranging from shrub size to 20-30′ (‘Natchez’ and a few of the other varieties) is what accounts for their apparent increasing popularity outside of residential landscapes. I’d be interested to know if any readers in Zones 7 and warmer (where these trees are hardy) see them often outside of home gardens.

For more information on the care of Lagerstroemia, visit this part of the National Arboretum’s website.

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