The Skinny on Shrubs

Big houses on small lots. Teeny town houses and condos with no garden. Infill. High-rise balconies. There seems to be an ever-growing inventory of places where there”s hardly room for shrubs at all. Luckily there is also a growing inventory of slim-line shrubs. Virtually all shrubs and trees, including skinny ones, get broader as they age. Pruning to control height is relatively easy, but pruning to limit girth can be trickier, especially with conifers. Most people, however, are not planting for the long term, so a plant that is truly narrow for a decade or so may be perfectly satisfactory. Let”s look at some options for those tight spots where you”d really like to see a little height. 

Conifers are the stars among the slim. Think of Italian cypress, which can quickly rise to 20 feet high and you can almost get your arms around it. More useful, perhaps, are the many conifers with a more moderate growth rate, notably arborvitae, yew and juniper. Skinny shrubs can be useful for making low-maintenance hedges, but they really shine as solitary specimens, as exclamation points in the landscape. One narrow juniper such as “Skyrocket” or “Blue Arrow” is a striking feature on its own. I”d never plant a row of junipers, as they are quite prone to root rot. 

Arborvitae is ubiquitous as a hedging plant, but too few people recognize how great it is in isolated splendor. A single, vibrantly green arborvitae would look terrific as the largest item in a small garden. A huge number of arborvitae cultivars are available, some of them dumpy globes, some with yellow highlights. Some are particularly narrow. Two of the narrowest are “Degroot’s Spire” and “Smaragd.”  Unfortunately, deer find all arborvitae irresistible.

The classic columnar yew is Taxus baccata, “Fastigiata,” the Irish yew. (The adjective fastigiate means upright or columnar. When you see fastigiata in a plant name, you can assume it is narrow relative to others of the same species.) Yews withstand a lot of pruning on both top and sides, even, unlike most conifers, sprouting from old and leafless wood. Cultivars abound, some with gold-tinged needles. Among these the gold standard, as it were, is “Standishii.” The narrowest yew is probably Taxus x media, “Beanpole.” I’ve seen it, and the name is apt. 

Looking for something that is not a conifer? I paid a visit to Gossler Farms Nursery to view some options in the Gosslers” wonderful display garden. Two narrow varieties of camellia were among my favorites and, of course, they bloom. Roger Gossler led me to an 8-foot specimen of “Bob’s Tinsie” which bears showy red flowers in spring. It’s not exactly columnar, but decidedly upright. Smaller-growing “Night Rider” was even narrower. The spring flowers and new foliage are deep burgundy red. Of the fall-blooming camellias, “Yuletide” is probably narrowest, but Gossler says “Bob’s Tinsie” is hardier. 

Ilex crenata, “Sky Pencil,” is so useful, it’s becoming almost as familiar as arborvitae. This thornless, pruner-friendly holly has small, dark green leaves on a petite and stiffly upright plant. It is useful in many situations, but I think its best use is to soften a featureless wall or fence where planting space is tight. Plant several in a row, a few feet apart, alternating with something lower, softer and preferably more colorful. A dwarf daylily, perhaps, or a small ornamental grass. 

Less familiar is an upright holly-leafed osmanthus, Osmanthus heterophyllus, “Fastigiata.” As columnar plants go, it’s a chubby one, but might be a good choice for a 4- to 5-foot hedge. The autumn flowers on this species are small but intensely fragrant, and they last for a long time. 

While I haven’t nearly exhausted the repertoire of upright evergreens, columnar deciduous shrubs are more rare. Rhamnus frangula, “Fine Line,” makes an interesting specimen, and the narrow leaves show nice yellow fall color. “Helmond Pillar” barberry has red leaves and makes a nice addition to a rock garden, but it tends to spread with age. Beyond these, it seems, we have to go taller to get narrow. Gossler introduced me to a super-narrow willow, Salix alba, “Siver Column,” which he says will reach 20 feet and only 4 feet wide. I”m skeptical. 

What about trees? In addition to having a very small footprint, a really small tree can end up with a crown that’s narrower than the average shrub. One of the best little trees for a really tight spot is  Acer palmatum “Shishigishura,” the lion’s mane maple. Gossler says his 40-year-old plant is 15 by 8, with no pruning. Oxydendrum arboreum (sourwood) grows tall eventually but keeps a narrow crown for many years. Acer griseum (paperbark maple) is another beautiful, slow-growing tree that works well in narrow spaces. All three of these have great fall color. 

Gossler introduced me to a form of Japanese snowbell that’s an extreme weeper. Styrax japonica, “Fragrant Fountain,” has an upright leader, but the branches weep so sharply that it almost forms a column. It’s still a rarity, and expensive. 

Gossler Farms Nursery ( is open year-round by appointment. Call 746-3922.