Trees for Skinny Spaces

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Trees for Skinny Spaces

“Help! I can’t stand looking at my neighbor’s roofline/second story windows/utility pole any longer!” Sound familiar?

As a designer, this is a cry for help that I hear over and over again. It seems no matter the size of someone’s property, from small urban courtyards to sprawling multi-acre estates, most everyone has some sort of privacy issue, something they’d love to block from their view.For those lucky enough to live on larger properties, this problem can usually be solved by carefully placing a large, beautiful specimen tree. However, for those of us who live in residential or urban areas, this problem can be much more challenging.

One reason is that many newer developments are built with the emphasis on large homes with maximum indoor living space, with little (or no) thought given to outdoor living spaces. Quite often, the result is two story homes built so closely together that you feel like you’re living in a fishbowl. The garden spaces in dense, residential areas are typically square or rectangular in shape, consisting of a lawn surrounded by a skinny border that runs the perimeter of the fence. If this describes your garden, then using trees to create a privacy screen may be the best solution, as the height they provide not only blocks views from neighboring upstairs windows but can help create the feeling of a private oasis within a sea of houses.

Photo 2 - Crape Myrtle

Identifying trees that will work in these skinny spaces, however, can be challenging, as the narrow dimensions (not to mention home owners association rules) often restrict how close to the property line trees may be planted. Reviewing a list of guidelines before you go tree shopping will ensure you choose trees that are right for your situation.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a tree for your narrow planting space:1. Look for trees with columnar shapes and with a mature width of 6 to 12 feet. Trees with a growth habit that is more narrow than wide can be planted closer to the fence line without infringing on your neighbor’s garden or overwhelming your own. While it’s true that you can keep larger trees pruned to a smaller size and shape, who needs to work that hard? This can quickly become a tedious chore made even more difficult by the need to access the tree from your neighbor’s property.

Photo 3 - Betula jackquemontii’s peeling bark

2. Is year round screening important? If so, your choices will be limited to evergreen species. While an all-evergreen screen will result in more privacy, consider including a few deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in cold weather) in your garden for multi-season interest. Even though these trees will be dormant in the winter, you’ll be able to appreciate their other qualities such as spectacular fall color, interesting bark and structural beauty. Examples might include the beautiful, peeling bark of the Himalayan Birch (Betula jacquemontii), the vibrant fall foliage of Japanese Maples or the subtle colors and patterns of a Crape Myrtle tree’s bark.

Photo 4 - Shrubs trained as trees

3. Another option is to think beyond trees and consider shrubs that can be pruned into a tree shape. The majority of trees grow 25 to 40 feet tall, which can be a problem as too many tall trees can quickly overwhelm a smaller garden. There are many shrubs that can actually be purchased and/or trained as small trees, such as: Mock Orange (Pittosporum ‘Variegata’), Christmas Berry (Photinia fraseri ‘Birmingham’) or Carolina Laurel Cherry (Prunus caroliniana ‘Compakta’).

So remember, just because you have a seemingly impossible space in which to create privacy, with a little research it can be done!