OPINION: During cold, dark winter nights, if you light columnar trees with LEDs, they will create a little magic.OPINION: During cold, dark winter nights, if you light columnar trees with LEDs, they will create a little magic.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

OPINION: During cold, dark winter nights, if you light columnar trees with LEDs, they will create a little magic.

Liquidambar styraciflua Slender Silhouette. Photo by Minter Country Garden /jpg

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Most people are developing a much greater appreciation for the value of trees, especially when it comes to their role in the environment, wildlife habitat, improved soil drainage, esthetic beauty, privacy screening in areas of high density living and our personal protection in terms of canopy cover.

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The challenge in today’s new reality of smaller lot sizes and more compact gardens is finding the space to plant them. What are noticeably missing in the landscapes of many homes and community living complexes are tall, vertical features.

Fortunately, a revolution in the breeding of trees is resulting in far more narrow, columnar forms, and as a bonus, these trees require much less maintenance and pruning. Columnar trees come in a range of sizes, making them adaptable to many different landscape situations. They usually have a smaller canopy, which makes them more weather tolerant, particularly to the ravages of heavy winds.

I’ve asked many tree authorities about the stability of these tall trees in relation to their root structures, and although there is no consensus in terms of the extent of their root systems, I’ve been assured that these trees’ roots grow out widely enough to secure the trees. With larger trees and plants, their roots usually extend to the outer edges of the canopy, but with tall, columnar trees, their root systems will exceed the size of their canopies to the degree that they will anchor the tree in most weather situations. It’s always important to ensure that columnar trees are planted in good-quality, well draining soil and in a properly prepared planting area.

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Slender conifers are very popular in today’s landscapes, and many varieties look stunning. A graceful nootka cypress is always a welcome sight, and Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Green Arrow (Zone 5) is among the finest. This very thin, weeping tree will grow about 10 metres in height and often no wider than one to 1.5 metres. In every breeze, its elegant branches move ever so slightly to create a pleasant sense of motion in the garden.

Several varieties of weeping spruces can also create some beautiful, narrow focal points. The most popular one is the weeping white spruce, Picea glauca Pendula (Zone 3). It tops out at three to four metres but stays very skinny, with soft-to-the-touch, pendulous branches. It has an attractive bluish hue that is a nice change from the dominance of green in most landscapes.

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Picea glauca Pendula. Minter Country Garden jpg

The more traditional weeping Norway spruce, Picea abies Pendula (Zone 3) is a rich deep green, and, depending on how it’s trained as a young, grafted tree, it can be kept very slim, with longer, sweeping, pendulous branches. It grows about three to four metres tall and is really quite attractive.

My personal favourite among tall, narrow conifers is Picea omorika Pendula Bruns (Zone 3). This spruce is the dream tree of so many landscapes. It has a similar appearance to those stunning, very narrow alpine firs (Abies lasiocarpa) that we see at the top of mountains. I love its soft, blue-green foliage that doesn’t bite like so many spruces. It will stretch from four to five metres in height, and with a little pruning can be kept between two to 2 1/2 metres wide. It’s a handsome tree with a special grace, and when planted in groupings of threes or fives, will certainly turn heads.

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By far, the most striking narrow spruce, Picea abies Cupressina (Zone 3), is a relatively new tree on the landscape scene. This pencil-thin, exceptionally tall (10 to 12 m), tightly knit spruce is truly a spire. Its base can sometimes widen out to two metres in diameter, but I try to keep it lightly pruned back to maintain the uniqueness of this narrow jewel.

There are several other slender conifers that are shorter yet are still very attractive. However, the magnificent specimens mentioned here are the ones that have true stature.

We are seeing an ever-increasing diversity of narrow deciduous trees, and the one thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of keeping them pruned, especially when they’re young. If you can create a narrow habit initially, they tend to conform to this shape as they grow. The hands-down favourite, Liquidambar styraciflua Slender Silhouette, is a columnar sweet gum tree that is hardy to Zone 5. Stretching up to 15 m, it usually has foliage right to the ground and stays full and narrow at only two metres wide. Its fall colour is a rich deep burgundy. In winter, I particularly love its tall, stately structure lit with cool white LED lights.

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Other very majestic trees with a tight, slender form are the columnar beeches. My favourite is Fagus sylvatica Dawyck Gold because its early green foliage turns gold as spring progresses. Hardy to Zone 5, it can reach up to 20 m in height and, with a little pruning, can be kept at three metres in width. Both F.s. Dawyck Purple and F.s. Red Obelisk sport rich burgundy foliage on a tall, narrow form similar to F.s. Dawyck Gold. These beech trees have beautifully interwoven stems, making them ideal as lighted specimens in winter.

Fagus sylvatica Dawyck Gold (young). Minter Country Garden jpg

Swedish aspen, Populus tremula Erecta, is another widely admired columnar tree. With a little pruning, it can be kept very narrow, but if left to grow, it will stretch up to about 10 metres with a three metre width. Hardy to Zone 2, it can tolerate a wide variety of climates, but its magic is the soothing sound of its foliage quaking in the slightest breeze. Its dark green leaves have a silver underside, which is quite attractive, and its light grey bark looks lovely in winter.

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For interesting winter bark, the relatively new birch, Betula Parkland Pillar (Zone 3), is another very hardy tree. It grows about 12 m tall and two metres wide and is very heat and drought tolerant. It’s a descendant of B. Dakota Pinnacle, which was originally found in an Alberta nursery in 2006. Its golden yellow foliage is very striking, and its pure white winter bark creates an amazing lift in a winter-scape.

I’m a huge fan of columnar maples, especially the varieties that have attractive fall colour. My favourite is Acer freemanii Armstrong. One of the most heat tolerant varieties, it grows about 15 m tall and three metres wide. In October, its leaves begin to turn red, yellow and orange, creating quite a stunning fall display. Recently, in a smaller strata complex, I saw a street planting of A.f. Armstrong, and the autumn colour effect of these trees was amazing. Acer rubrum Bowhall, A.r. Red Rocket and A.r. Karpick are similar columnar maples.

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There are also some smaller, narrower forms of Japanese maples, such as Acer palmatum Twombly’s Red Sentinel (Zone 5). This new, go-to columnar tree grows only three metres tall with a two metre spread. It has deep red foliage that turns fiery red in fall.

Liriodendron tulipifera Little Volunteer (Zone 5), unlike its taller cousins, grows only five metres tall and two metres wide. It’s a handsome tree with pure golden fall foliage.

It’s a good idea to occasionally stand across the street to see your home from a different perspective. The addition of some taller, narrower trees might improve the look and feel of your home and its landscaping. They will also help the environment, wildlife and soils. During cold, dark winter nights, if you light these columnar trees with LEDs, they will also create a little magic.

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