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Choosing Trees and Shrubs for Privacy Screens

Updated on September 26, 2012

The dos and don'ts of planting a privacy screen

One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing to plant a privacy screen in front of a large window or glass door is to plant based on the current size of a new plant without taking growth rate into account. When planting any kind of garden, the key is patience...lots and lots of patience! Plants don't grow overnight, but choosing plants based on the size they are in the nursery will lead to problems later down the road and when you're ripping out those plants and trees, you'll be back at the beginning. While you're waiting for your plants to mature, consider purchasing some blinds or curtains to keep out the prying eyes of your neighbors.

There are a few things to consider when choosing the right plants for your privacy screen:

  • How close to your house do you want the shrubs or trees? If you live in an area prone to wildfires---for instance---you need to keep all shrubs and trees at least 100 feet from your building. The distance the plants are from your house will determine the minimum height of your screen.
  • Soil---is the soil around your house loose or sandy, or is it hard and clay-like? Will heavy rainfalls cause the ground around your home to wash away? The type of soil in your yard will determine which plants will thrive and the kind of root system that will give your yard maximum stability in bad weather.
  • Do you have small children who will be playing around the area? If so, be sure to ask your local experts about plants that can be harmful if tasted by a curious little one. You'll probably want to avoid bushes with poisonous berries or leaves.
  • Plan your screen for all seasons. If you like flowers in the spring, a fence of honeysuckle will look lovely, but come winter, you'll be wishing for an evergreen. Ask your local horticulturalist about using a mix of evergreens and deciduous plants.
  • Space---Consider the amount of space you have for this privacy screen. If your house is on a large piece of land and your nearest neighbor is hundreds of yards away, you can plant tall trees and hedges that will rapidly increase in size. However, if your house is 15 feet from the street, you're going to want something smaller in scale.

Local nursery personnel are your greatest resource. A good nursery will be able to tell you what kind of plants will grow well in your area, how much water various plants will take, and how to take care of them during the cold seasons and make them look their best come spring and summer!

Conifer Trees

Ponderosa Pines, Redwoods, Eastern White Pines, and other large conifers are all popular trees for planting screens, but they aren't appropriate for every space. True, they are evergreen, grow quickly, and come already tall enough to act as a sufficient screen for your yard. But the reality is, these kinds of trees are not ideal for small yards or areas close to structures. Unless conditions are absolutely perfect for the species of large pine tree you're planting, the taproot (the long root that extends vertically from the trunk and anchors the tree) will not provide sufficient strength to support the tree.

If the dirt in your yard is made up of hard-packed soil (hardpan), or bedrock, conifers won't grow a taproot. This means the only roots supporting your tree as it reaches 25 or 30 feet, will be shallow, and surface roots. High water tables also prevent the growth of long taproots. In other words, without the exact right soil conditions, the 12-foot tall tree you purchased is going to turn into a 30-foot-tall, top heavy, wrecking ball just waiting for the next rainstorm or windy weather. Don't plant these kinds of trees near your house or other structures on your, or your neighbor's property!

In addition to soil conditions having a huge impact on the stability of your tree, spacing is an important aspect to consider. Trees planted too closely together will not have a chance to thrive because there won't be enough room for the roots, sufficient sunlight for the tree, or nutrients in the soil. Every species differs in the exact amount of space it needs, but a good rule of thumb is two to five times the mature height of the tree between each sapling. If you're planting a tree that is estimated to grow about 30 feet high, you need between 60 to 150 feet between each tree and you won't find that kind of space in a small back yard or front patio.

Don't write off conifers completely though. If your property is large and you're looking to put up a screen between you and your neighbor's without building a fence, a row of Ponderosa Pines (or other variety native to your area) will give you a nice, tall level of evergreens to block the view from a long distance. In smaller yards, talk to your nursery personnel about dwarf conifer varieties, or trees that will only grow to a height of 6 to 8 feet and don't necessarily require regular pruning.

Broad-leaf evergreens

Although most varieties are evergreen, not everyone is enamored of the conifer. Even if they don't lose all their needles at once, they still drop them regularly and leave you with hours of cleanup. Sometimes, you just want a fuller, more leafy look to your yard. There are still lots of evergreen varieties that are not conifers. Oaks, Magnolias, and Bay Laurel trees are all broad-leaf evergreens that will provide wonderful shade, beautiful, year-round foliage, and a lushness to your landscape. Like all living trees, though, they still drop leaves and won't spare you the cleanup, but their root systems often lend themselves to being more stable than conifers and less likely to fall over during a rain or windstorm.

As with conifers, be sure to give each tree plenty of room to grow and spread out its roots. Although more stable than conifers, broad-leaf evergreens, like many trees, can have extensive root-systems that can ruin pipes, sidewalks, and potentially, foundations. There are also any number of broad-leaf evergreen shrubs that can grow to the same height as trees, without invasive root-systems or heavy branches. Camellias, Hollies, and Bottle Brushes can all grow to over 10 feet tall and trained to grow like a tree, or a bush, depending on your needs.

Trees vs. shrubs

Trees create a tall layer that provides privacy from great distances and heights, but if your back yard or window is visible from street level, you'll need something closer to the ground to fulfill your needs. Even small trees need their space, but shrubs can be planted closer together to form a hedge. Shrubs are not maintenance free---not even Junipers, which appeal to many homeowners for their low-maintenance qualities---but if properly maintained, a hedge of shrubs can provide you with a natural fence.

Planting shrubs instead of trees also gives you the advantage of protecting your privacy without completely obstructing your view. Trees can be trimmed and trained to remain small, just as shrubs can be trained to grow tall, however many gardeners find it easier to let trees be trees and shrubs be shrubs. If your house is on a berm or hill above the street, choose shrubs that are more dense at the base. Ornamental grasses and small shrubs that don't grow more than a few feet high make beautiful screens that give you privacy from below, but let you enjoy the view from above.

Vines

Vines are a wonderful way to incorporate horizontal and vertical coverage of unsightly structures like cyclone fences or brick walls. Vines grow quickly and flowering varieties brighten any dull view. Although they require the support of a trellis to grow vertically, vines can still act as a privacy screen in yards with low fences or in front of windows or decks surrounded by an arbor or pergola.

When choosing a vine, like choosing a tree or shrub, select a variety that will create a good screen without taking over your entire house---a plant that will grow proportional to the size of your yard. Ivy is an excellent example of a vine that is too invasive for small spaces. As charming as a little cottage covered in Ivy may look on a postcard from England, the vines and roots that Ivy puts out to climb to those great heights will increase the size of even the most microscopic cracks in masonry and brick, and will grow under wood and vinyl sidings, letting in moisture, insects, and rodents. Reserve the Ivy-growing for areas far away from houses, sheds, and other structures you want to keep standing!

Talk to your local nursery personnel about the growth rate of various vines and how they will affect your small space. There are three types of vines; clinging vines, which, like Ivy, can grow up solid surfaces; twining vines, like Honeysuckle and Wisteria twist around poles, fences, and trellises; and tendril vines like Clematis and Grapes grow with curly little tendrils that can wrap around a trellis or something as small as a wire to climb. If you have a brick or masonry wall you want to hide, but don't want to use a clinging vine, consider building a trellis or using horizontal wires to support a twining or tendril-type vine. Each type of vine has its benefits in specific areas. Make sure you mention the type of surface you want your vine to climb to your nursery personnel.

Layering

When creating a privacy screen for any yard, whether it's small or acres and acres of land, layering different sizes of plants can provide you with rich texture, seasonal color, and variety. The varying levels of foliage will also provide added privacy throughout the year. Use shrubs that grow to different heights to fill in spaces between trees and smaller plants to fill spaces between shrubs.

Choose a combination of evergreen and deciduous plants to ensure year-round foliage and annual regrowth. To maintain your privacy screen, regular pruning of your trees and shrubs is in order. Regardless of whether your plants are evergreen or deciduous, pruning will keep all of your shrubs and trees healthy and continuously producing new growth. Using a mix of plants and layers will allow you to regularly prune without losing the privacy you've worked so hard to build up. The variations in type of plant will let you prune your plants at different times of the year so you never have to be without that privacy you crave. In late summer/early fall, cut back your early spring bloomers. When your early and mid-summer plants are at their peak, clean up your conifers for fall and winter coverage.

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      ciana smith 3 years ago

      I have little space and want to plant something in the front yard to keep nosey nighbors from spying . The topsoil was pushed off leaving rock and clay. I amend the soil for every thing I plant . Thought maybe crapemyrtle might work ?

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      Rug Writer 3 years ago from Boulder, CO

      Crapemyrtle is a beautiful choice for fall blooms and visual interest in the winter. Once established, the soil shouldn't be an issue according to the National Arboretum. Keep in mind, however, that crapemyrtle is deciduous and won't provide winter privacy. I always check the US National Arboretum website for zones, ideal soil conditions, watering, and pruning instructions. It helps ensure healthy, long-lasting plants. http://www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/faqs/crapemyrtlef...

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