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Sat, Sept. 21

Plants as living screens

Many customers come into the garden center asking for help in protecting and enhancing the views from their windows and porches. This is a story repeated time and again since people settled the mountains of Arizona.

Pristine vistas enjoyed through living room windows face obstruction from new home construction seeking a portion of those same views. A new motor home is nice while on the road; but at home, parked off the side of the garage, it can encroach physically and esthetically on its neighbors. Whether you are anticipating or reacting to this encroachment, proactive or reactive living screens can soften or camouflage the harshest assault on the senses.

The goal with living screens is not to block the obstruction completely but to lead the eye over the object to another vista. They can create or frame the best sight from your home. My favorite trees and shrubs for this function are by no means your only choices. The following suggestions have evolved over the years as I've learned of their hardiness, fast growth, vigorous performance and all-around adaptability to our climate.

Austrian pine, Pinus nigra, is a fast-growing pine that grows to 40 feet and is a natural choice within the Ponderosa forest regions of the tri-city area. However, don't write this one off in the valley areas. I have seen some of the most beautiful specimens in the full sun of Prescott Valley and standing up to the brutal winds of the Chino area. This tree looks much like a Ponderosa except that it keeps its needle foliage right to the ground, making this perfect for a tall screen.

Arizona and Leyland cypress, Cupressus, grow naturally throughout the area. Arizona cypress comes in the classic Arizona blue tones with new hybrids available in silvery blues. Leyland cypress is a more traditional Midwest or California green. Both are fast growers to 25 feet with widths in excess of 12 feet. They make a perfect tall hedge screen or wind break. Easy care and low water requirements perfectly describe this family of plants.

Mint julep juniper, Juniperus chinensis, grows to a height and width of six feet. It's excellent to screen sheds, utility boxes and any other object where the line of sight needs to be at a higher view. This serviceable plant tolerates and thrives in our most brutal clay, wind and sun. If you are allergic to juniper, stay away from this one; there are plenty of other choices for allergy sufferers.

Columnar poplar, Populus, is a large family of plants that includes aspen, Lombardy and Theves poplar, any of which will be your fastest growing screens for the area. Two negative characteristics of these screens: First, they will need more consistent irrigation even in clay soils. Second, they are deciduous, so they will lose their leaves in fall. However, if you need a screen now and don't want to pay a lot of money for it, Poplars are a good choice.

Red cluster berry cotoneaster, Cotoneaster parneyi, is an evergreen with two-toned leaves, and from fall through winter it sports loads of beautiful red berries. This makes a great hedge that birds love.

Wax leaf privet, Ligustrum japonicum, grows to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide with a lush California tropical feel. Because of its thick waxy leaves this plant is tough enough for a sunny spot in the yard, but it will also grow well in part shade. The nice foliage and fragrant flowers make this a favorite in large container accents around the patio or courtyard.

Pyracantha is also known as firethorn because of its needle-type thorns that demand the use of thick gloves whenever it is handled. On the positive side, anything with thorns on it grows well in Arizona, and I would rate this the toughest of the large shrubs in our area. Large specimens left unpruned have grown to 12 feet high and equally as wide. Showy white flowers in spring and brightly-colored berries of orange and red in autumn produce an ever-changing appearance in the garden.

Red tipped photinia, Photinia Frazeri, has proven itself as a large hardy shrub growing up to 10 feet high by 10 feet wide. The name comes from the new red leaf growth that emerges each spring. As the leaves mature, they turn to a light waxy green with small flowers that are quite fragrant. In my opinion, it suffers from over-use throughout the tri-city area.

Silverberry, Elaeagnus, has been known to the xeriscape crowd for years, but in the past few years it has found a wide following because of its prolific growth with low water needs. This unique evergreen plant grows to 10 feet tall and comes in two classic Arizona colors. One features speckled green leaves with silver backing, the other has a gilded yellow front to its silver-backed leaf. Both have fragrant flowers that beg to be cut and placed in a vase on the back patio.

When planting living screens, remember to plant a little more closely than recommended. You may ask more about living screens and other gardening challenges when listening to my new radio show "Gardening in Granite" on KYCA 1490AM. I'm on the air from 7:05 to 8 a.m. every Saturday morning.

Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.

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