Most of us live in neighborhoods, and mostly, we love our neighbors. They're great, but...
The neighbors have a bird's eye view into our backyard barbecues and the opportunity to take notes as we dash across the driveway in our PJs, putting the trash cans out before the garbage truck arrives. Not to mention, we'd like to avoid looking at their lovely collection of junk cars. What about a view of their bathroom window? Can we cover that up with trees and shrubs?
The below picture is a perfect privacy border with its rock wall and mixed conifers, but hardscaping, majestic trees, topiaries and flowering perennials aren't possible for many of us due to budget, time and space constraints. The opposite of a mixed border is typically a straight row of Leyland Cypress , and while useful, it's pretty dull. Don't worry, you can have your secret garden, or at least some privacy, by installing living walls or "screens" with a few well-placed evergreen trees and shrubs.
Tips for screening
Diversify the plant material. Let's say you plant a row of Leyland Cypress (please don't, here's why), and the bagworms show up and defoliate all of them. There goes your investment. If instead, you mixed the border with Leylands, hollies, magnolias, rhododendrons and the like, then the bagworms destroy a only portion of your privacy and investment. Replacement costs, if needed, are less and you still have some privacy wile waiting on new plants to grow in.
Plant multiple species in small groupings of three to five. Plant in a staggered or layered planting, not a row (if possible). This provides greater interest year round. If you don't have room for a layered planting, and a row is all you can do, diversifying is still a better long-term choice.
Avoid cramming plants on top of each other. Allow individual plants enough sunlight and air circulation to grow and fill out. The inclination is to cram a lot of plants as tightly together as possible for greater coverage. This leads to multiple fungal and bacterial diseases due to less air and sunlight circulation. Plants pass diseases between them, reducing the lifespan of your screen. Extra patience is required to wait for plants to fill out, but you save money and trouble in the end. Replacing fully grown trees in the middle of a row of fully grown trees is no easy endeavor.
Remember your neighbors when planting. They will see the backside of your screen. Consider how to make it attractive from all sides.
Add shrubs and perennials to create a more natural border. A straight row of tall trees blocking the neighbors may be efficient but it looks unnatural and static. Use varying heights and textures and add plants that bloom or have berries for year-round interest. Ex: Thuja 'Green Giant', Magnolia 'Little Gem', Viburnum 'Conoy', Inkberry holly, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Understand the cultural conditions of your site and the requirements of the plants. Ex: Magnolias will tolerate some shade, but too much shade and they provide a screen but no blooms. The same goes for camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. They may grow providing the needed evergreen, but will not bloom if shade is dense. Certain conifers can tolerate more shade than others. Japanese cedars work in a somewhat shady setting. 'Green Giant' arborvitaes need full sun to thrive, but can tolerate shade. The goal is to understand what you’re attempting. Don’t expect plants to perform as perfect specimens in less than ideal situations. Sometimes, we consider the only the functionality of the plant. Will it thrive in this part-sun setting (i.e. will it be full and lush, bloom, and grow quickly)? Or will it survive and meet the need or providing privacy (i.e. grow but not necessarily be a perfect specimen)? It's important to know how much sun/shade you have and what the plant's needs are before you buy.
Stand inside your home and look out your windows. Where is coverage most needed? Will one large spruce or magnolia do the job? Or a grouping in one or two areas? Mark the spots with an orange flag to remember where to plant.
Consider how quickly you need screening. Trees are characterized into slow (< 12" yearly), medium (13"-24" yearly) and fast (25"+ yearly) growth rates. Remember that sunlight exposure, soil conditions, drainage, fertility and other elements affect growth.
Stump grinding is necessary if you want to plant new trees. If the deciduous forest between you and your neighbor is full in summer but bare in winter, removing some trees to plant evergreens may be necessary. Be sure to budget for stump grinding when you calculate the cost of tree removal. Folks often skip this step to save dollars, but planting new trees in a mass of old roots is hard for the digger and the plant. For successful planting, the old roots should be gone, giving the new roots plenty of room to spread.
Plant for the mature size of the screen. What's it going to look like in 5 years, 10 years, and so forth. Plants don't stop growing, so while they may look just the right size when you plant them, remember they're going to grow. Plan for the ultimate height and width.
5 Trees for Screening
Hollies are dioecious; meaning the male plants produce pollen, and the female plants produce berries, the reason we want these evergreens trees. To get the berries, a male plant needs to be within 30-40' of the female for the holly to have berries. Some are self-pollinating.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-25' (slight variation depending on cultivar).
Cultivars Suggested: 'Nellie Stevens', 'Emily Brunner', 'Satyr' Holly (American holly)
Culture: Hollies prefer full sun, but some tolerate more shade ('Satyr' and 'Emily Brunner'). The more shade the less fruit, but you still have the evergreen coverage.
Growth rate: Medium to Fast
Pests and Diseases: Hollies are relatively pest-free, but some do suffer from winter die-back and scale.
*Nellie Stevens' pictured
Magnolias are coveted for their big, showy blossoms, but the evergreen cultivars make a good addition to privacy screens. Many of the newer cultivars are smaller and more suited to a neighborhood.
Size: 20'-25 x 10'x 15' (varies slightly depending on cultivar)
Cultivars suggested: 'Little Gem' or 'Teddy Bear'
Culture: Full sun, to partial shade. Will tolerate mildly wet soils. 'Teddy Bear' does best in full sun, while 'Little Gem' thrives in full sun to part shade.
Growth rate: Slow
Pests and Diseases: Magnolia weevil and scale. Bacterial disease especially during rainy season.
*'Little Gem' pictured
A substitute for Leyland Cypress, many people cannot tell the the Leyland from the 'Green Giant' arborvitae. 'Green Giant' or 'Emerald Green' is a better fit in smaller landscapes.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-20, or more narrow varieties 10'-12' x 3'
Cultivars suggested: 'Green Giant', 'Emerald Green', 'Yellow Ribbon'
Culture: Full sun to part shade
Growth rate: Medium to Fast
Pests and Disease: No serious issue, sometimes scale or bagworms
*'Green Giant' pictured
Cryptomeria japonica 'Radicans' or 'Yoshino' look very similar and make an interesting addition to the screen. Pyramidal in shape with tiny cones on the pendulous ends, these sentry-like trees are also narrow.
Size: 30'-40' x 15'-25''
Cultivars suggested: 'Radicans,' 'Yoshino'
Culture: Full sun, tolerates light shade
Growth Rate: Fast
Pests and Disease: Leaf blight of leaf spot
Sometimes, one tree is enough. You don't need a row or a hedge, just a well-placed large tree to obscure an eyesore from either direction. Spruces fit nicely into that category.
Size: 40'-60' x 10'-20' (Norway),10'-15 x 10'-15' (smaller blue spruces)
Cultivars Suggested: 'Fat Albert', 'Baby Blue Eyes', Norway, Oriental
Culture: Full sun, does not like wet feet, good wind screen
Growth rate: Slow
Pests and Diseases: Needle cast, canker, bagworms
*Colorado Blue Spruce pictured
For a full list of trees and shrubs that make good screens download this pdf: Hedges and Screens
Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.
BB Barns serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.