Tall plants for small gardens

by Drucilla James

Cardiocrinum pkdon50

When land is in short supply, builders look upwards and you can do a similar thing in the garden by picking skyscraper plants. Columnar or spire-like plants are useful for adding height, structure and screening in a small plot without taking up much floor space. Look for trees and shrubs described as having an upright, narrow or fastigiate habit, and don’t forget about bulbs, annuals and perennials such as foxtail lilies or snapdragons which can add plenty of drama on a smaller scale.

Here are some suggestions from our experts:

Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’, Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine’, and Cornus sanguinea ‘Compressa’

These  unusual, narrow plants should be suitable for urban environments, although they would of course need careful watering, as you would expect, if grown in a pot.

Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’ is a very tough, hardy selection of buckthorn with a narrow, upright habit and very fine leaves reminiscent of bamboo. It is deciduous with lush, dark green summer leaves and handsome bronze/gold autumn colour. When established it can grow up to 8 ft with a spread of up to 2 ft, but can be pruned if required.

A tough, narrow and upright small tree, Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine’ can be pruned to whatever size is required and makes an attractive column once established. 

The slow -growing, narrow, upright shrub, Cornus sanguinea ‘Compressa’ is again, tough and hardy with a very interesting architectural leaf arrangement. It has good autumn colour and some stem colour once the plant is established. It can be grown in a pot until it reaches the required size.

 And for a different approach:

Something else we have used here for narrow interest is we have several tall – approximately 8 ft – thick stakes in the garden. Each of these has a thick piece of rope running up to the top in a spiral pattern. Up this rope, we have climbed Wisteria and in early summer we now have a very narrow yet elegant display of Wisteria flower. This is best for a sunny spot of course.


Rhamnus and Cornus mwms 1916 and jacki-dee

Robert Vernon BlueBell Arboretum and Nursery (www.bluebellnursery.co.uk )

Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’

This is a lovely plum-coloured columnar plant. Although deciduous, it puts on quite a show from the spring right through until the autumn when its already attractive red leaves turn fiery shades before they drop. A sunny spot intensifies the colour but part shade will do too and since it maintains its shape without much help (bar the occasional pruning of a wayward stem) it makes a great specimen plant for a summer border where the soil is free draining. 

Reaching an eventual height of 1.2-1.5m (don’t expect this rapidly, it is a slow burner) with a spread of about 60cm means that although a definite anchor point in a scheme it will not dominate. Silvers and rich plum colours work very well in association; Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ or Astelia chathamica would be good silver planting partners and could be combined with the much darker bloomed Penstemon ‘Raven’ and Geranium phaeum for a richly coloured border. 

kate gould

Berberis, Artemesia and Geranium: Leonora Enking,gnomicscience,Anne Tanne

Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com )

Italian Cyprus

When it comes to plants to give a vertical dimension to a garden there is nothing better than the Italian Cyprus.  It fits into so many planting schemes – either the classical and classy green courtyard garden or a freer and more colourful Mediterranean planting.

In the town garden, a pair of Italian Cyprus on either side of a water feature or sculpture works well either with all foliage planting or beds edged with box hedging and filled with roses.

For the Mediterranean style planting, then Cyprus repeated down both sides of the garden at two metre intervals can provide all the structure you need and then you can fill the beds and pots with the colourful flowering plants we think of when we think of Mediterranean gardens.

Italian Cyprus are hardy across the UK but care must be taken to make sure they don’t dry out in the first year after planting so that they can acclimatise themselves to their new home.

cypress image for roof garden px

David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (www.roofgardens.virgin.com)

Prunus spire – Spire Cherry and Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow

Prunus spire – Spire Cherry is a fairly small tree which blooms early with white-pink flowers and which is very suitable for smaller gardens. It is considered as one of the best small street trees with a pencil- like shape reaching a maximum height of 10m (30ft) and width of 7m (20ft), but with well -adapted pruning it is very easy to keep it slender.

Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow is a narrow, upright evergreen conifer with distinctive, erect growing stems and bright silvery-blue foliage. It is a very compact-branched variety which forms a beautiful pencil-shaped tree and loves to live in a pot.


Prunus spire: wicutler

Matthew Wilson, garden designer, writer, broadcaster and Managing Director of Clifton Nurseries (www.clifton.co.uk )


echium pinana px

Credit: left hand

My vertical plant of the moment is echium – we have two varieties here and the tall ones (pininana) are particularly loved by the bees. They are drought- tolerant and happy in free- draining soil and produce stunning flower spikes. The large varieties grow up to 2m. in height.

Martha Orbach, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www.culpeper.org.uk  )

Leonotis leonurus, Eremurus stenophyllus, Cardiocrinum giganteum, and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Leonotis leonurus or the staircase plant is the tallest annual you can grow reaching 6-7ft in one season and sporting large orange flowers which are very attractive to insects.

Eremurus stenophyllus is a herbaceous perennial with soaring slender spikes of dark yellow flowers which fade to orange brown as the plant ages.

Cardiocrinum giganteum is a herbaceous perennial with heart-shaped leaves which takes some years to produce a 6-10ft spike of white trumpet-shaped flowers with ruby red throats resembling lilies.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass. In summer, this plant produces tall flower heads that start off pale golden green and gradually turn bright golden yellow and will last into the winter months.

chelsea physic garden

Leonotis,Eremurus and Calamagrostis:macinate, dogtooth77, matt lavin

Nick Bailey Head Gardener at The Chelsea Physic Garden (www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk )


Leave a Reply