Garden Design: Where and How to Plant Italian Cypress

by on December 27, 2012Wilma Stordahl

The busiest season for retail garden centers is spring, with Mother’s Day weekend being the peak weekend for sales of garden plants. Many people simply don’t realize that fall is actually a great time to plant woody trees and shrubs. Today, I’m going to talk about how to plant Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) as part of your garden design.

Why Plant Italian Cypress in Fall and Winter?

how to plant italian cypress Picture via wikipedia.org

This fall, I added a plant similar to Italian cypress, my namesake, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Wilma’ (gold Monterey cypress), to my garden. (I mean, with a name like ‘Wilma’ how could I not have at least one of these plants in my garden?) I wanted to get it planted in the fall because the fall and winter rains can help with watering, and the roots will have a chance to get established before temperatures get hot again next summer.

However, the primary reason to plant an Italian cypress, or any conifer (a plant that bears cones), in fall and winter is that in most regions of the country, conifers go into a dormant period in the winter. The leaves, or needles, stop actively growing but continue to photosynthesize while the roots keep growing.

This means that if you plant an Italian cypress in the fall or winter, it will go through less transplant shock. The rate of transpiration is slower in the fall and winter, and allows the roots to get better established than if you were to plant an Italian cypress in the spring or early summer.

Where to Plant an Italian Cypress

If you have ever been to Italy, especially Tuscany, I am certain you have seen an Italian cypress. They are the tall, narrow, columnar evergreen trees used as windbreaks along roads and accent points in formal gardens. Plant Italian cypress in well-drained soil and in a sunny spot in the garden. The best cultivar for residential garden use is Cupressus sempervirens ‘Stricta,’ which forms a narrow, pencil-like tree that is narrower than the species.

When planting Italian cypress in a residential garden, its use should be restrained. These trees look like exclamation points, and just as you wouldn’t end every sentence with an exclamation, you don’t want to overdo the punctuating effect of an Italian cypress.

In a formal garden, plant Italian cypress to mark entrances and transitions in the garden. Plant one on either side of a front entry or gate. Use it judiciously as an accent or focal point.

Also consider scale and proportion when deciding where to plant an Italian cypress. This tree might look small and cute in the nursery, but they can actually get quite tall. If given the space, Italian cypress can grow up to 70 feet tall, and 3 to 20 feet wide. Although most will not achieve this size in an urban or suburban setting, Italian cypress look best when planted near a building that is at least two stories tall.

Finally, I would not recommend planting Italian cypress as a hedge or windrow as you see in Italy if you are living on a small residential lot. You don’t want to prune into old wood on an Italian cypress because new buds typically do not break from old wood. That means if you cut back to old brown branches, that’s what you’re going to be left looking at. There are other, cheaper evergreens that can be used for screening in a small residential garden. For example, arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’), however overused it may have become, is still an economical choice when you need an evergreen to screen out your neighbors.

How to Plant Italian Cypress

Once you have decided where to plant your Italian cypress, it’s time to get down to the dirty work.

Italian cypress will typically be sold in containers or balled-and-burlapped (B-and-B). When selecting Italian cypress, look for healthy foliage and a tight, even branching structure. If you will plant your Italian cypress in pairs, at an entry for example, make sure the plants you buy are even and matched.

Check the roots. In a balled-and-burlapped specimen, there should not be any roots exposed and the root ball should feel firm and moist. A plant in a container should not be root-bound with roots circling the container.

Dig a hole that will allow the top of the root ball to sit about 2 inches above the surrounding soil. The hole should be twice as wide as the root ball. If you are planting an Italian cypress that is balled-and-burlapped, untie and completely remove the twine securing the burlap and any non-biodegradable material surrounding the root ball. Cut away the top half of the burlap.

If you are planting an Italian cypress from a container, the planting depth of your hole is the same as above; you want the top of the root ball to sit approximately 2 inches above the surrounding soil. Remove the container and loosen the roots. It is extremely important to tease out any coiled roots. If your hands are not strong enough to do this, you can make several vertical cuts into the root ball with a knife. This may sound drastic, but it will actually stimulate new root growth.

Once your Italian cypress is in place and at the proper depth, fill the hole with soil to within about four inches from the top and water gently. Then, continue filling the planting hole with soil, firming the soil as you go. Cover the area around the base of the tree with 2 to 3 inches of mulch, but avoid burying the trunk where it meets the ground.

Even though Italian cypress trees do well in dry, sunny sites, they still need regular watering during their first year of growth or until the roots get deep enough to get the tree through dry periods. Once established, Italian cypress will need very little irrigation.

Ecco! (That’s Italian for “there it is!”)

If you have any questions on how to plant Italian cypress or any other garden topic, let us know. We want to hear about your gardening and landscaping experience.

{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Lori October 19, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Hi! How much distance do you need between the foundation of the house as compared to where you will plant the Italian Cypress? Does this tree have issues with a home’s foundation? My elevation is approximately 3300 feet above sea level and I live in Cottonwood, Arizona (Verde Valley). Would Italian Cypress do well in my area? Many thanks! Autumn blessings to you and yours!

Lori

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Steve October 27, 2014 at 9:43 pm

I have 5 italian cypress on my property and some tall specimens are near the windmill gardens on cornville road. They do well, if watered during the first year and dry spells in May and June here in Cottonwood area.

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Eric Carey September 7, 2014 at 8:55 pm

Hi: I really like the tall thin shape of the IC. Will this tree grow in zone 6?

Eric

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Cheryl September 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

I live in Arizona Climate Zone 13 (500 ft above sea level). Will Italian Cypress grow in my area? We have extremely hot summers and very little rainfall. I plan to plant them to block neighbors view of our yard but the area is only 10ft wide & 5ft from the side of the house. Will they work or should I consider something else?

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Cindy July 29, 2014 at 11:12 am

I love the look of the Italian Cypress and I would like to plant them but they get too large for my yard. Will they stall small if I plant them in 1 gallon containers?

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ann June 5, 2014 at 7:56 am

Hi – due to the polar votex, my 4 italian golden cypresses i planted two years ago look almost dead. most of them have turn brown with very little green towards to bottom. anything i can do to save the trees? they are approximately 5 ft tall. please help!

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ann June 5, 2014 at 7:57 am

i live in metro DC area. Thanks.

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Beverly July 10, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Ann,

I’m wondering if I can plan Italian Cypress in the same zone you are in. I live in Maryland, the DC metropolitan area and I love them and want to plant two in my garden entry in my back yard. I found this blog by searching for if Italian Cypress can grow in zone 7. Does anyone have the answer or any experience with that?

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Michelle Pack May 3, 2014 at 12:11 pm

I live in Georgia and really like the look of italian cypress. I was thinking about planting about a dozen of them along my back fence to create a bit of a privacy screen with my neighbor. I don’t need to completely block them out but want something to break up the direct view of them. What I do need is for the trees to grow as tall as our homes b/c they are three stories tall (and I would like to see greenery and not brick and rooftops when looking out from the upstairs windows) but I do not want the trees to spread too wide at the base (so as to minimize how much of my yard it eats up). How do i minimize how wide it spreads as it grows? Are there any other varieties of trees you can recommend that have a similar look, grow three stories tall but do not spread so wide at the base?

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Tom April 27, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Hi,

I live in zone 7. Recently I transplanted 4 Italian Cypress from a neighbors yard to mine. They are about 15 ft. tall. One week after transplanting, we had a late frost. The trees seemed ok, but now have drying leaves. I have watered them about every three days. What can I do? And is it already too late?
Thank you,
Tom

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Addie August 22, 2014 at 1:18 am

Too bad you went to all that trouble of transplanting…..Italian Cypress grows very fast. I bought a 2 foot high one, planted it in a sunny spot and now 3 years later and it is over the roof line of the house…and I might add, it is in the front of an A-line roof….so that is pretty high up there.
I wouldn’t water yours too much…..they actually do very well with less water.
So, if you have to start over…don’t stress…they will be up there in no time!!!!

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Erandi April 12, 2014 at 9:12 am

My neighbors have in their backyards cupresses too big, and it is a problem for my inground pool since I can not keep it clean. They do not do any maintenance service for their trees and lately, when it is windy, I can hear the noise of the trees moved by the wind. How do these trees fall? I am afraid one can fall on my roof!
Is there any way to prune them at least once a year? One of them is breaking my fence, and I want to know all the inconvenience of those trees.
Thank you, Erandi

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Scentsy Katie April 4, 2014 at 10:20 pm

I was quite drawn to the dramatic European look of this beautiful plant but I live in zone 5. Looking for something to give some privacy and a border between our driveway and neighboring house. Thinking perhaps a Spartan Juniper might the closest choice.

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Junipers will survive in Zone 5 as will Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’, which are better for tight spaces.

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Steve December 11, 2014 at 8:42 am

Try Blue Italian Cypress. They are rated to Zone 6, but may tolerate the harsher environment to a varied degree if you are near teh boundry of 5 & 6. Other than that Leyland Cypress would likely do very well indeed.

If you find that you do not want to risk it….. Go with Eastern Juniper ( Eastern Cedar)
Those will require more pruning and will indeed last a very long time indeed. They too will be stunted by colder environs, however they are sturdy and grow naturally in glades found throughout the eastern USA. They even tolerate very rocky soil (limestone, cherts, etc etc).

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Homer March 21, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Hello,

I’m from San Antonio, TX (zone 8b). I planning to have a few Italian Cypresses right next to the house in a foundation planting bed. The planter is only 28″(D) x 120″(W).. right now I have Japanese Boxwood small shrubs which I plan to relocate when I do the conifers.

Will the Cypresses be “ok” in a narrow planter ? as well as my foundation and driveway ?

Thank you,

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:02 pm

If you uses Cupressus sempervirens ‘Tiny Tower’ you will be ok, but the species gets WAY too big.

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Dave March 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm

I have Italian cypress trees in my garden that were planted about six months ago. They’re about a foot away from a retaining wall (maybe less). Should I worry about the tree destroying the integrity of the masonry as they grow?

Thanks!

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:03 pm

If they are the species (Cupressus sempervirens), they could present a problem as the plants grow. These will become large trees. See my note about ‘Tiny Tower’ above.

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PAUL CAPREZ March 8, 2014 at 9:13 am

My cypress trees are in their second year and are covered in seed balls. Some are hanging down from the tree. When is the best time to remove them?

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:04 pm

These are the cones. They will drop naturally. I would not remove them.

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Troy February 28, 2014 at 5:59 pm

How do the roots of the Italian Cypress grow? Outward or downward? I just cut down two pine trees and want to plant the cypress in the same holes from the pines. I did get most of the stumps removed but some still remain. Thanks mam

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:07 pm

The idea of a tap root on plants is largely a myth. Most plants, even large conifers, have roots that only go to about 24″ deep, but they extend out from the tress quite far.

You will want to remove the grindings from the hole. The wood from the old tree could lock up nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes, and your new cypress will need those nutrients.

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Stephanie Dashiell-Robinson February 25, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Hi Wilma:
I plan on planting these ascending up a very steep driveway. I need 8 all together, and they will be planted about 5-6 feet apart in concrete planters. I live in Bermuda, and this area gets direct sunlight, and has a lot of concrete around it. I am concerned about the sun and the heat during the day. The climate is also salty here. Is this a good choice for this climate to dress the house up, or am I throwing money away?

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Unfortunately, Stephanie, I don’t have any direct knowledge as to how these trees respond to salt water. In Italy, I’ve seen Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) in coastal cities, but I don’t recall seeing a lot of Italian cypress. Italian cypress are prevalent in Tuscany, which is more interior to the country. The roots of big trees need somewhere to go as the plants grow. You have to think of a tree as if it were a Popsicle on a pancake. The part we see makes a narrow portion of the over all plant. Typically, the roots extend two to three time farther than the edge of the canopy of the tree.

If you plant Italian cypress in your concrete planters, you should consider them temporary and know that you will have to replace them when they get too large for the space.

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Carmel February 21, 2014 at 10:23 am

Hi all,

What is the minimum distance that one should plant Italian cypress trees. I intend to use them as windbreaker and expect them to last. On the other hand I do not want them to get to much into each other. I understand that they go tall and narrow. I could not find the diameter as to how wide they can go.

Please advise.

Many thanks.

Regards,
Carmel

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Again, it depends on whether you are planting the species, or a cultivar like ‘Tiny Tower’. Lets assume you plant the species, which can get to be up to 20 feet wide. I would recommend planting them about 12′-15′ apart if you want them be there for years to come.

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Tom Goodloe February 16, 2014 at 7:43 am

Can Italian Cypress trees be planted next to an underground pool? What affect if any would their roots have on the pool structure?

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Wilma April 8, 2014 at 8:20 pm

I’m not sure what zone you’re in, but I would use arborvitae instead. The cones of Italian cypress can be messy, and you’ll be fishing them out of the pool. The roots will also get too big if you use Curpessus sempervirens.

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Cisco February 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm

We live in Arizona and planted 6 Italian cypress and 3 are gorgeous and 1 died and 2 are well on there way how can this be all were planted and watered the same way.

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Hi Cisco,

It’s difficult to know what happened without seeing the situation or without more information. There could be a problem of the roots strangling the dead trees. There could be a drainage problem associated with them. It could be that they did not get watered at the same rate as the others. Check all of these conditions. When you dig the dead ones out, inspect the root ball for circling and tangled roots. Look for standing water in the bottom of the planting hole or blueish-grey anaerobic soil, which are an indication of water-logged soils. If the area is irrigated, turn on the system and check the coverage. You may need to adjust a head or add more heads to the system.

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Peggy December 6, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I received a “european tree” as a Christmas present. It looks like it’s a cedar- or possibly a cypress-type tree.

Have you heard of this? Also, since we will likely move into our new home after it is completed in January, what recommendations do you have to keep it alive till we can plant it?

Thank you

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what a “European tree” is without the botanical name. Most plants survive with 1-inch of water per week. Also make sure it gets plenty of sun. Indoor lighting is typically inadequate for most conifers.

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Bill October 14, 2013 at 11:44 am

Wilma,

Thanks so much for your article! I’ve been brooding for years on a question, and you seem perfect to answer it. I’m in NYC in a townhouse with a yard 18 feet wide. I love the pencil thin and extremely tall shape of the Italian Cypress, but fear that it might not cut it. Will it work here? Is there a better option? I want something very tall so it is readily visible from the second floor kitchen. The yard is small, so I want something very thin that won’t make much shadow and won’t take up much space. Winter and snow are a concern. Morning light is good, and afternoon and eve get a brought indirect light, but not bright all day long like in Tuscany. Yard has clay down deep and a cement retaining wall, so after torrential storms tree will have wet feet, at least for some time. I suppose that conflicts with the desired ‘well drained soil’.

I guess I’m asking for a lot! What do you think?

Thanks so much!
Bill

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Hi Bill,

If you take the time to install some drain rock in the bottom of the tree pit, you might be able to avoid some of the problems caused by poor drainage. You will want to use round gravel as opposed to crushed rock.

You may want to look into planting the ‘Tiny Towers’ cultivar, which grows very slowly and stays about 3 feet wide at maturity.

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Eric Wilson October 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Hi Wilma,

I am planning to use Italian Cypress trees along the side of my house as a privacy border. I am unsure how far apart to space them. I would like to have a gap of 8″ to 12″ between them so that the other plants, and grass, can receive some sun. Can you give me any direction on the spacing?

Thank you.

R,
Eric

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Hi Eric,

It’s difficult to know whether Italian cypress is the best choice for your situation. The species actually can get quite large. If you’re using a smaller, slow-growing cultivar, you can get away with planting them root ball to root ball or even the 8″ to 12″ you mentioned.

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Esther October 2, 2013 at 8:49 am

I live in York Pa please give me the best advice on this tree will it grow here, it is exactly what I need to screen the neighbor’s porch from our new addition, we look right into thier house from our ist floor, our house is level in the front and then goes downhill on the sides, we could use the height. great natural fence> ???

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Hi Esther,

You may also want to consider Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’ or arborvitae as they are called. They can be planted side by side to create a solid screen for privacy. The Italian cypress species will most likely get too large for your situation. Check out this arborvitae screen on the right of the photo for this project in Seattle. http://terrawerks.biz/blog/portfolios/greenlake-residence/

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Robert September 8, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I need to transplant a healthy Italian cypress which has grown to touch the roof of my home. Thanks to your article I now know I need to wait a couple of months. I live in Dallas, are there any other tips I need before transplanting?

Thanks for your time.

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Hello Robert,

Winter is a good time to transplant. Trees are dormant in winter months and go through less transplant shock at that time. The most important part of transplanting is to make the move as fast as possible. Most transplant shock occurs when roots are allowed to dry out and die during the process.

Have the new tree pit dug and prepared before you dig the tree from it’s old location. When you lift the tree, it’s ok to do some light pruning of the roots. Check for any roots that are circling the root ball and tease those roots out before you replant. Make sure the new location has well-draining soils and add amendments if necessary.

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Michael August 17, 2013 at 10:22 am

Is there any way to grow Italian Cypress trees from the buds that the tree produces?

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Wilma August 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm

If you collect the cones from the tree, you can separate the seeds and plant them. You should soak them for about 24 hours and then put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about a month. This creates an artificial winter period and helps the seeds germinate. After a month in the cold, the seeds can be planted in a seed tray filled with sterile perlite and peat moss. You will cover the seeds with a quarter inch of peat moss and water them in. A clear plastic cover placed on top of the tray keeps moisture in and keeps the peat from drying out. The plastic cover can be removed during the day to allow the fresh exchange of air. Once the seedlings have roots established, you can transplant them to larger pots and allow them to grow until you are ready to plant them in the landscape.

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Walter July 16, 2013 at 9:38 am

I would like to plant italian cypress along my back fenceline but have a giant pecan tree in my neighbor”s yard to the east and a large live oak tree in my yard closer to the house, along with a two-story garage to the west of the planting area. The trees would have late morning and early afternoon sun. I live in the Houston, Texas area, would that be enough sun for the plants?
Also how far apart they are to be planted if I decide to indeed use them–I have seen them at 24 inches but that seems too close especially after reading your article on them?

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:18 pm

The plant you have probably seen planted at this spacing is probably Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’. See my comment to Esther above.

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Sher July 10, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Hi! I am on the board for our neighborhood association, and we are re-doing our landscape at our entrance drives. Any good ideas for a dramatic look, what plants and tree (shrubs) should we consider? I like the Italian cypress tree, but this would be in North Dakota. Would you recommend the Serbian Spruce for zone 3 to 4? Thanks.

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Wilma August 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm

It really depends on what kind of room you have next to the entrance drive. Serbian spruce can handle the temperatures of Zone 4. However, although it’s narrow, it can still get to be about 15 feet wide.

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Luci Paulino July 1, 2013 at 9:25 pm

I own a Tuscan style home and would love to plant Italian Cypress trees on both sides of house with one side of the driveway(facing home right side) and the far left side of home. The driveway is about 10 feet long and the width is about 24 inches where I can plant the trees along my driveway that has pavers, I don’t want to ruin them. I know the trees can grow width of 5 ft to 20 ft wide . What type of tree can I use to substitute and have the same effect, long and slender evergreens. Thank you, Luci.

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Wilma August 21, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Luci, there are three narrow conifers you could try instead of Italian cypress along your driveway. Consider Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’ (Irish Juniper), Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ (Skyrocket Juniper), or Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ (Arborvitae). None of these grow to more than about 30″ in width and should not do damage to the pavers of your driveway.

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Randy May 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I have 2 Italian Cypress planted only 3 feet from my house in Lynchburg, VA. They have been growing about 6 years and are approx 15 feet tall. They get plenty of morning sun but not much afternoon sun. The problem is they are alive but far from thriving and are constantly drooping away from the house. Could the placement of these trees be adversely affecting their growth?

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Wilma May 31, 2013 at 9:16 am

Michael –

Italian cypress can get to be 70 feet tall and 5 feet to 20 feet wide at maturity. Although it takes them a long time to reach this size, better choices might include Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’, Juniperus virginiana ‘Blue Arrow’, or Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Snow White’.

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Wilma May 31, 2013 at 9:51 am

Yes, Randy. It sounds like these trees are leaning out to reach sunlight.

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Ann T May 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Would Italian Cypress trees grow in large pots? I live in Western Washington south of Seattle, will they live in this area?

Thanks

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Wilma May 31, 2013 at 9:48 am

Italian cypress can survive in the Seattle area, however, it depends on your planting zone. If you are in the Cascade foothills, there’s a chance they would not make it through a hard winter.

Italian cypress is not the best choice for a container. There are a lot of wonderful dwarf conifers available that would provide wonderful color and the focal point needed for a pot. Take a look at the gold Monterey cypress that I mention in the article above. It is a chartreuse color and is very popular in pots right now. If chartreuse isn’t your thing, consider Chamaecyparis obtusa nana ‘Gracilis’ or Juniperus virginiana ‘Skyrocket’.

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Wilma February 5, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Ann,

Check out the Italian cypress cultivar ‘Tiny Towers’. It should work in your containers.

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Michael May 7, 2013 at 1:02 am

I’d like to plant a row of these along my back cinderblock fence but there is only about 3 feet of ground between the fence and the deck of my inground swimming pool. The deck is 2 feet wide, so the pool itself is about 5 from the fence. Are the roots going to be a problem for the pool and/or the fence some years down the line?

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mdeverna January 27, 2014 at 6:58 am

I have the same situation i am considering. if you ever get any good feedback on this please forward to me. thank you.

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Elena Montian April 16, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Hello Wilma,

Being interested in planting Italian Cypress on my backyard, I would like to ask your opinion – if these trees can survive in zone 5 ( I live in Toronto, Canada ).
I am looking for really tall and narrow evergreens, what brought my attention to Italian Cypress.

Regards,
Elena.

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Wilma April 30, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Unfortunately, no. Italian cypress is native to the Mediterranean grows best in Zones 7-11. How tall do you need your evergreen spire to be?

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Eva May 12, 2013 at 3:53 am

This is something that I have also looked into, living in the same region. Are there trees that are similar to the Italian Cypress (tall, narrow) but can survive the Canadian climate?

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Wilma May 31, 2013 at 9:59 am

Juniperus species are hardy to Zone 4, and False Hinoki cypress are hardy to Zone 5. I’m not sure if you’re looking for a hedge or specimen, but if you’re looking for the latter, Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) has a beautiful, narrow habit and is hardy to Zone 4.

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