There are ugly spots in every yard where practical purposes must be served. I”m talking garbage and recycling bins, electrical meters, and the HVAC unit. Hiding HVAC units is a universal conundrum. We need them to stay warm or not die of heat, but hiding them from our view or the neighbor’s can cause a lot of head-scratching. So, let’s talk about what plants (or not) are the go-to shrubs for hiding the HVAC units and other landscape eyesores. So, how do we hide HVAC units? Read on. 

Hiding HVAC Units When Plants Won’t Work 

Practically, sometimes a plant won’t do the job. Lack of space is the most common reason for this. When planting around an HVAC unit,  you must allow for 2’ from the branch tip to the unit on every side for airflow to work efficiently around the unit. If you measure 2’ out, then measure for the size of the plant (say a ‘Helleri’ holly that can grow to 4’ x 4’) you may find yourself standing in your neighbor’s yard or standing in the middle of your driveway.  When that happens, there are other options. Check out these fun and beautiful screens on Gardenista.

When plants don’t work, get clever. My neighbors used a recently cut-down tree and pots of verbena to hide their trash and recycling bins.

Hiding HVAC Units When Plants Will Work

If you do the measuring and discover you have plenty of room to hide the HVAC unit with plants, then look up, around, and down.

Lookup: What’s the sunlight/shade situation right now? What will it be in five years? Ex: Did the neighbors plant a row of trees for screening? How tall are those trees now? How tall are they going to be? When they’re mature, will they turn your currently full sun spot into the full shade? As you consider the sunlight/shade understand it for the present and the possible future to the degree you can. It may be necessary to choose a shrub adaptable to both situations (yews, boxwoods, cherry laurels).

Look down: What’s the soil like? Good drainage? Standing water? Do you need to create a bed by digging up grass? Are any cable or phone lines nearby? Steps? Pathways? If there’s a pathway nearby, think about tight and compact plants in their growth habit (boxwood) versus open and spreading. You aren’t forever pruning that forsythia off the pathway (speaking from experience here).

Look around: What plants are doing well in the neighbor’s yard around their units? Noting this gives you some good ideas. ‘Otto Luyken’s cherry laurels are a favorite to use, and it’s precisely because everywhere you see them, they are hiding the HVAC unit, cable boxes, and a myriad of other ugly items and doing it well. If hollies are thriving three doors up, put them on your list of possibilities.

Finally, when we recommend plants for hiding the HVAC units, we try to stick with the tried and true, in other words, what works. That can seem boring to some customers hoping for a bit more pizazz, but remember the point is to hide the HVAC unit, and the plants that fit that bill have to be plant thugs. They’ll have air blowing on them, maintenance workers hacking at them to do maintenance if needed. They’ll be consistently pruned, so it is key to choose plants that don’t look mangled after a few years of pruning. That doesn’t mean ugly plants, but it typically means the standards and not specimens. Save your “happy dollars” for elsewhere in the yard—say on that Japanese maple you love—and spend the “necessary dollars” around the HVAC unit. 

Neat and tidy go a long way for those utilitarian places in our landscapes. It isn’t as much of an eyesore if the grass is trimmed, the gravel clean, and the units free of debris.

What Plants Will Work  

HVAC units vary in size, but most are 2’-3’ tall and 18”- 2’ wide. Consider plants that will max out around 4’ tall and wide and make a good hedge. You want to hide it. The unit does not draw attention to it, but your plant choices can. So, choose plants that will grow together and stay full from top to bottom. Evergreen will give you coverage all year, but deciduous flowering shrubs are an excellent addition if you don’t mind seeing the HVAC in winter.  The lists below give both evergreen, deciduous, and perennials. Some are listed by cultivar, but most are not allowing you flexibility when shopping and picking out the cultivar that works best for you. Staff can help you narrow it down to a specific plant when shopping. I’m also not listing vines since my experience is that vines tend to grow into the units, requiring the homeowner to make sure that doesn’t happen consistently. 

Evergreen suggestions

  • Boxwood
  • Camellias
  • Dog hobble
  • Evergreen viburnums’
  • ‘Helleri’ Holly
  • ‘Hoogendorn’ holly
  • Inkberry holly ‘Shamrock’ or ‘Compacta’
  • Gold mop cypress
  • Nandina
  • Pieris Japonica
  • Schip Laurel
  • Yew

Deciduous and perennial suggestions

  • Abelia (semi-evergreen)
  • American Beautyberry
  • Butterfly bush
  • Hydrangea paniculata
  • Lilac
  • Ornamental grasses
  • Redtwig dogwood
  • Winterberry

For suggestions to screen, ask staff for advice and ideas and check out what the neighbors are doing. It’s helpful to be a bit snoopy when it comes to gardening.

Written by Cinthia Milner, Landscape Consultant, and blog writer.

B.B.Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.