Choosing a tall columnar tree to form a privacy hedge


Hi, I live in Toronto, and sort of in a valley with hills and tall trees surrounding the street. Our soil is sandy – close to Lake Ontario, maybe slightly acidic since I have a big white pine tree that sheds needles all over the backyard. I have a south-facing backyard with a 6-story apartment building right behind it, so it gets a few hours afternoon sun. I hope to plant a tall hedge along my back wall (it’s 7 meters high), and I’m having a hard time to choose from a few suggestions: ‘Dawyck Purple’ European beech, Pyramidal English Oak (‘Fastigiata’), and Frans Fontaine Pyramidal European Hornbeam. I need the trees to grow at least 15 meters tall (ideally 15-20 meters tall) and as narrow as possible. Since I don’t think the location gets full sun (maybe 4 hours sun in summer), I was initially considering hornbeam. But then I learnt from my research that this cultivar of hornbeam may not be able to grow that tall. I like the purple beech a lot, however, would it be able to grow well in my spot? The English Oak seems to be a really nice choice too, especially the leaves stay on the branches longer which provides more privacy into winter time. But they seems to prefer full sun as well, am I right? Or maybe there are evergreen options? I’m looking for some advice to help me decide which tree is the best option for me.


Thank you for your inquiry.  You are correct in choosing either beech, hornbeam or oak are all excellent choices for hedging. Depending on the growing conditions (sun, soil, drainage) will determine which plant is best.

Beech is the most popular due to its beautiful leaves. After they turn brown in autumn, they will hang onto the branches right through the winter. ‘Dawyck Purple’ European beech, grows to a mature height of 50-60’ and spread to 30-40’. It does best in full sun (6 hours direct sun or 4-6 hours of partial sun/shade. It prefers rich, moist well-drained soil. Your sandy soil will drain well. It is advisable to ammend your soil every year with compost. This will add much needed organic material to your sandy soil.

Pyramidal English Oak ‘Fastigiata’ grows to a mature height of 50-60’ and mature width of 10-18’ wide. Unfortunately, this tree should only be grown in full sun and will not do well under your growing requirements.

Similar to beech Hornbeams serrated leaves will hang on the branches for most of the winter, but not as long as the beech. ‘Frans Fontaine’ Pyramidal European Hornbeam grows to a mature height of 35‘ and mature spread of 20’.  In general European hornbeams will grow in full sun (6 hours of direct sun), as well as partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs of sun) or even in full shade. They are also tolerant of all soil types.

Although beech and hornbeam are both deciduous trees and their leaves die in the autumn, they remain attached until pushed off by the new buds in the spring so are an effective screen through the winter months.  Yew, (Taxus) is an evergreen option, which is also zone appropriate. Yew, beech and hornbeam all have the advantage that they can grow tall whilst being kept dense and relatively narrow but yew is slower to grow.  The Master Gardeners have posted some information on evergreens as Privacy Hedges, which can be found at Hornbeam hedging is faster growing than beech, if you want more immediate results.

Hedges are planted at high density and plants compete with each other from an early age, so careful preparation at planting is essential. The ultimate shape and height will determine the spacing of plants. Planting distances vary between 300-750mm depending on the plant’s vigour. Severe root competition and possible mortality can occur if too close, and it will take a longer period to join up and form a hedge if too widely spaced. Adding organic material at planting is essential and will assist moisture and nutritional retention. Keeping the hedge watered for the first two years, while it becomes established is also critical.

We receive numerous questions concerning privacy hedges; this link will take you to similar questions which were posted on our website and will give you additional options for you to contemplate.

Good Luck