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?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.