A little less than thirty years ago, I was still fairly naive about yard landscaping. I was an ace on organic vegetable gardening, and I knew a lot about native plants, but I was mesmerized by all the glossy gardening magazines that demonstrated how we all should be landscaping our yards. I bought the hype. What can I say? Gardening is all about trial and error. Experience is always the best teacher, and my experience with Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii) is a textbook example of what I’ve learned the hard way.
When Wonder Spouse and I first moved to our five-acre landscape 26 years ago, we were eager to block out any views of what has become an increasingly busy road. Most of the road front was already blocked by a wild mix of overgrown vegetation dwelling beneath a stand of mature Loblolly Pines, but down in the far northeast corner where the creek that borders our property goes beneath the road, we had an unobstructed view of the traffic, and vice-versa. To reduce traffic noise and increase privacy, we decided to add evergreen trees that would fill in the gap. I immediately thought of Leyland Cypresses.
Leylands were the hot new screen tree back then. They grow very fast — over three feet a year, they keep a nice columnar shape. They can grow 60-90 feet tall, but remain 12-15-feet wide. And they were advertised as trouble-free. Now wise landscapers in my region know better. It turns out that this natural hybrid of western North American cypresses is prone to pests and diseases, especially when it’s not sited correctly. We planted our trees in moist, well-drained sandy loam; we never had any significant pest/disease issues. In fact, our Leylands did exactly what we envisioned, growing 50-60 feet tall in 26 years; they blocked the road and its traffic noise perfectly.
What was not advertised in the literature a quarter century ago — at least not anywhere I saw — was the fact that Leyland Cypresses have remarkably shallow root systems for trees that grow as tall as they routinely do. This, of course, makes them susceptible to being toppled by high winds and heavy ice and snow accumulations. Because our trees were tucked down by the creek, they were protected from strong winds. And they weathered past ice and snow storms just fine. But the last big storms were about 12-15 years ago. Our Leylands had grown probably another 10-15 feet since those storms. This past February’s 5-inch snow was wet; heavy accumulations of snow stuck to every evergreen in my yard. We’re still cleaning up broken branches of Loblolly Pine and Southern Magnolia. But those trees didn’t topple; a number of the Leylands popped right out of the soil and fell onto each other. Five or six trees — about half the stand — came down.
It took Wonder Spouse and two helpers — all with chainsaws — half a day to clean up what the snow toppled. The rest of the Leylands seem to be holding their own for now, but we are debating whether we should bow to the inevitable and take them down too. However, that’s a task best left to this autumn. Our immediate concern was the gap left behind that has re-opened unobstructed views (and noise) of the road.
Having learned my lesson, I decided to replace the Leylands with native evergreen trees that I knew would thrive in that spot. They don’t grow as quickly as Leylands, being characterized as having moderate growth rates. Both of these native species already grow in my yard. They were here when we moved in. Neither species suffered any damage from the recent heavy snow. I know their roots go deep, having tried to relocate their seedling trees from time to time. Thus I settled on Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and American Holly (Ilex opaca). Both species are important food sources for native wildlife, they provide shelter during winter, and make excellent camouflaged nesting sites in summer.
We decided to invest in named varieties of these natives, because they offer more predictability, and often a bit more vigor. We need strong, hardy trees for this spot. Thus, I went to my favorite mail-order nursery that offers small, bare-rooted trees with a price friendly to our budget constraints. I’ve had great success with plants from this nursery. They start out small, but with good siting, they always grow into wonderful specimens in a few years.
For our two holly additions, I chose Ilex opaca ‘Dan Fenton.’ Because hollies are either male or female plants, nurseries sort these out and sell mostly females, because they are the ones that produce berries. If you don’t have male hollies growing nearby, you must add at least one to your planting. Our property is loaded with American Hollies of both sexes, so I just got two female plants. They are supposed to have very glossy foliage and look much more ornamental than the average native tree. Mature trees are predicted to be 20-25-feet tall and 15-20-feet wide.
My Red Cedar choices were between a variety noted for its narrow growth form and one with a pendulous form. I have a few of these more pendulous trees already growing on my property. Their branches droop down aesthetically, but don’t seem to break from ice and snow any more than the straighter forms in my yard. We purchased three Juniperus virginiana ‘Hancock Weeping’ trees. The term “weeping,” in my opinion, is a bit misleading. The branches don’t cascade downward in the way that weeping willows or weeping cherries do. To my eye, such Red Cedars have broader shoulders that hang down a bit. Thus, the trees are wider. Hancock Weeping is predicted to reach a mature size of 25-30-feet tall and 8-10-feet wide — large enough to shelter us from the road, but not so tall as to be prone to toppling by bad weather.
We arranged the new Red Cedars in a triangle near the creek. In front of those and facing our house, we added the two new American Hollies. As the hollies grow and produce berries, they should be framed nicely by a background of growing Red Cedars. In my mind’s eye, I can see them in their mature forms, valiantly blocking road sights and sounds, and feeding and sheltering wildlife.
That ability to envision the futures of our plant charges is an important skill of successful gardeners. I wasn’t born with it. I developed it over the years — years of learning from my mistakes — mistakes such as planting Leyland Cypresses. I offer my experiences here in the hopes that I can save at least a few folks out there from repeating my mistakes.