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Garden Topics: Screening Yard and Garden for Privacy

Although most of us are friendly with our neighbors, we also like some privacy. With the proper use of plants you can achieve some separation without fencing off the neighbors completely. To achieve selective privacy, identify the key areas of the garden where you want to minimize the living-in-a-fishbowl effect. Look for features of neighboring properties that you can “borrow.” In other words, came up with creative ways to stop the eye or steal the view, depending on the situation. The result is a garden that offers places for privacy while not entirely screen out of the neighborhood. By using a combination of strategies to block, divert, or steal views, your garden can be an oasis without using fencing that is often less than beautiful.

Single Specimens

If you need privacy in a limited area—say, to block the neighbor’s view of your deck or bathroom window—you don’t need a whole hedge or screen; a single, well-placed plant can do the job. If you have plenty of space to plant the screening plants, then consider a tiered or a layered look for your garden. Plant a small tree with a wide top, with medium bushes in the front. Plant a selection of low perennials or a ground cover, in front of the shrubs. Deciduous trees offer a wider variety of landscaping elements including spring flowers or fall colors but do not provide a year round screen.  The picture to the left shows the use of a tree as screening. By planting this fast growing Cleveland Pear in this location, along with plantings in window boxes, a natural screen is created totally blocking the surroundings.

Filter Views with Columnar Trees

Chose columnar trees which stay relatively narrow as they grow taller. These will provide a strong vertical element in the landscape. Use evergreen plant material where year-round privacy is desired. Where enclosure is needed only in the summer, when flower and color are important, or when the sun’s warmth and light is wanted during the winter, deciduous plants can be the perfect choice.  The open hedge shown here has space between each tree to catch glimpses of neighbors without intruding.

Formal or Informal?

With an informal screen, plants are allowed to assume their natural habits, and are allowed to billow and fountain, creating a softer, more natural look. Informal screens provide privacy without requiring the meticulous maintenance needed by a formal hedge. An informal screen can be a row of one kind of plant—bridal wreath spirea, perhaps—or it can combine several types of shrubs. Besides being less work, informal hedges can afford greater visual interest. Many bloom in spring or glow with color in fall. They can also supply food and shelter for birds and wildlife, they can buffer noise, and they make excellent windbreaks.

A formal hedge presents itself as a single unit with a smooth, sheared top and sides.  It can be clipped so that it’s boxy, rounded or pointy topped.  The best plants for formal hedging are rugged small-leafed types such as boxwood, hemlock or arborvitae. A screen of evergreen trees can also effectively block a view; White spruce makes an excellent screen, as does eastern hemlock. The downside of using evergreen trees for screening is that they grow slowly in the near term, then in later years become too large.

Make the Most of Elevation Changes

Small changes in elevation can create the illusion of more space. So consider enhancing the difference in grade by creating a sunken patio garden surrounded by a seat wall. Mounded up dirt from the excavation can be used to form a berm. As soon as you take the first step down into the sunken garden, your focus is on the patio and on the garden berm instead of some large nearby and unsightly building or object. To further block the view, you may want to add a solid line of screening plants on the highest points of the berm.

Use Freestanding Trellis Panels to Screen the View

Intersperse freestanding trellis panels to partially screen the view. They can block, for example, the view of the neighbor’s driveway and the foundation in one place and allow glimpses into the neighbor’s garden in another. It is a subtle, attractive way of hiding unsightliness while providing a lovely background for this particular part of your garden.

Stagger Plant Material for Mutual Privacy

To decide how and where to create some privacy, sit down in key locations in your garden and look around and identifying areas that need screening. Plantings in a staggered, or triangular pattern, often provide the desired privacy without being too overly dense.

Ornamental Grasses

Another way to screen your garden is to plant tall ornamental grasses in the back, with lower grasses positioned in the front. (Be aware that between March and Late June these grasses are not high enough to provide much screening.)  

Privacy Columnar Trees Informal Formal Elevation Change Trellis Stagger Ornamental Grasses

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