Originally Published: June 22, 2007 8:52 p.m.
Sometimes privacy fences are essential in creating a pleasant residential landscape. They screen out unpleasant sights and sounds that would impinge upon our time out of doors; and they can create intimate spaces for family activities that don't include neighbors and folks driving past our homes.
The traditional hardscaped six-foot fence is not the only way of bringing a sense of privacy to a landscape. Privacy fences composed of plants are often preferable to masonry walls or wooden fencing. These "living walls" enjoy a number of advantages over hard fences. The cost is less; their beauty comes from the plants' colors, forms, and textures; they can display seasonal variation ranging from spring flowers to autumn foliage; they can be a source of fruit which attracts birds or can be consumed by humans; the shape of some shrubs can be controlled by pruning, effectively rendering them works of hedged art; and zoning restrictions don't apply to "living walls" as frequently as to hardscaped walls.
After weighing the benefits of a "living wall" you decide to go for it but find yourself asking, "Which plants are right at this altitude?" Of course, solid green shrubs growing into each other come to mind, but I have had equal design success with a mixed or "loose border" approach for private gardens.
In small yards where space is an issue, hedged shrubs work well. With the right plant choice and the proper pruning, a hedge can be as precisely dimensioned a barrier as a masonry wall. Some of the best plants for this type of hedge are red tipped photinia, golden euonymous, sea green juniper, emerald arborvitae, golden bamboo, silver berry and red cluster berry.
Plants for privacy screens needn't be limited to shrubs for growing into a hedge, or exclusively limited to shrubs, for that matter. The mixed, or "loose border," is an interesting alternative to hedges. While hedges are usually homogeneous, a loose border can be composed of different kinds of evergreens that are blended with deciduous shrubs and trees. Chances are that you will find a loose border of evergreens mixed with other plants more to your liking than the formal austerity of hedges.
Just imagine that your neighbor has just built his dream garage, which now obscures that view you've come to enjoy. This is the perfect place for a "living wall." However, your goal is not to block this new eyesore completely, but to draw the eye forward to something more pleasant. This is best accomplished by planting two types of large evergreens. First, plant slow-growing large evergreen specimens that you strategically place to camouflage the garage. This is an excellent spot for a huge Arizona or Leyland cypress, deodar cedar, Austrian or Scotch pine.
Next, plant fast growers that you will cut down when the slow growers finally mature. I like aspen, poplar, birch, cottonwood, even willow for this purpose. These are extremely fast-growing trees that are full of leaves. Because they grow up to 6 feet in one season, they are great for fast shade and quick privacy. They will fill in the space while allowing the slower growing plants to mature. But in time they will crowd out their space; so, when the preferred living screen grows up, simply power up the chain saw and cut down the fast growing, aggressive, soon-to-be monsters.
Taller natives can easy be worked into a loose border for privacy. A little food and water can turn our rugged natives into thick, lush, screens in short order. Accent the natives you already have and use them to your advantage.
Loose border privacy screens should be layered for maximum effect. Put your tallest shrubs and upright evergreens in the back row and shorter shrubs in front of them. Building attractive privacy screens means adhering to the same design principles employed in designing a perennial flower bed:
Place plants of the same type in odd numbered groups: three golden bamboo over here, three Wichita blue juniper there. Even-numbered groups suggest an attempt at symmetry that is out of character with the "loose border" styles.
Use repetition to "tie in" areas of the border. If you planted a group of three butterfly bushes in one section of your privacy hedge, repeat those same three plants somewhere else in that row.
Triangular patterns are found in the best designs. Group like plants in a triangle or zigzag pattern for a more natural looking style.
Vines can be grown up walls, chain link fences and trellises for fast beauty that hides not so beautiful views. The best choices are Halls honeysuckle, Akebia, wisteria, and silver lace vine. Within two seasons one plant will cover a 6-foot by 8-foot panel. Remembering that "living walls" can add color to a landscape, this is an ideal opportunity to enhance your yard with lilac, forsythia, rose of sharon, butterfly bush and many of the other large flowering shrubs. You'll have the dual bonus of fragrance and flowers while you enjoy the seclusion provided by these plants.
Don't let the prospect of planting a "living wall" overwhelm you into inaction. Garden centers are noted for their willingness to help you design and create changes to your landscape. Knowledgeable staff members can do wonders if you take along a photo plus the measurements of the space where you want your privacy fence.
You will begin by planting the largest, most important plants, and then add to the border. This is when a trip to the garden center each week for just a few plants makes a lot of sense. Complete a little of the screen each week until you have the completed privacy fence you need.
Privacy screens are some of our favorite design projects because they are planted close together and can be composed of assorted foliage, flowers and textures. If you need suggestions for local plant choices, the next time you visit the garden center ask for my printed handout the "Preferred Plant Guide." I'm sure it will help you create your ideal landscaping privacy.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.