Some Privacy Please!

I recently received an email question from an eager inquirer.

Hi Josh,

I’m looking for some privacy trees that are solid all year long, very disease resistant, and fast growing. They say the Thuja Green Giants are pretty good. What kind do you recommend?

Also when would be a good time to plant them and how far apart?

Thanks!

I rarely just give a list of plants without knowing context; I always encourage people to let form follow function. If you answer some design questions, the right design solution shall appear. The main questions I would ask about privacy screening are:

  1. What are you wanting to screen?
  2. How much space do you have?
  3. What is your viewing vantage point?
  4. How completely do you want to screen?
  5. What else can you do with the space?

Let’s look at each of these questions a little more closely.

What are you wanting to screen? Consider what it happens to be – is it something that needs screening year round, or just part of the year?

How much space do you have? Are you screening a narrow lane between two urban dwellings or your country neighbor? One mistake functionally and aesthetically I see with both privacy screens and windbreaks is the single file line of a single plant variety. Not only is this not very interesting (in my humble opinion), but what if you start losing plants in the line? You are better off layering with multiple types and sizes of plants. This creates resiliency as well as greater interest. Mixing trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and/or vines into the mix allows a few quick species to establish early screening while slower species get established. Always go for slower, smaller solutions. The other common mistake is proper scaling of the vertical plane to the horizontal. You would not want to plant sixty foot tall Thuja between two houses separated by only thirty feet for example. It will definitely screen, but feel overwhelming and claustrophobic. Try employing the golden ratio when thinking about how tall to plan your screen.

What is your viewing vantage point? At what elevation are you most likely to view your neighbor’s rather unkempt yard? Is it visible from your first floor windows? Second floor windows? Are you just not wanting to see traffic on the road when you are sitting on your deck or patio?

How completely do you want to screen? If it must be absolute, all the time, man I cannot stand seeing how my neighbor eats their chicken, then you had better add evergreens into the mix, or look at fencing or walls. If a fuzzy picture of the offending object during the summer when you are outside enjoying YOUR chicken is acceptable, then perhaps a more deciduous plant palette is acceptable where a more filtered view is created.

What else can I do with this space? I am always looking to stack as many functions out of piece of ground as possible. Could your privacy wall also serve to grow some fruit or act as a trap crop to direct deer away from the vegetable garden? Could you build a stone wall that also acts as a thermal mass to extend your vegetable season or to create a microclimate to grow some out of zone plants? Could you plant trees you can coppice for a continued source for the fireplace?

European gardeners have long utilized hedge rows for all kinds of purposes beyond just blocking out the chump next door. There might be something to imitate there. Hopefully, this has given you some things to consider, beyond just building a 10 foot high fence!

Josh Steffen
Horticulture and Facilities Manager


2 comments

  1. I just mentioned hedging briefly in my column, but the limited space does not allow me to explain so clearly. Space is also a concern for hedges in compact urban gardens. I grew up with common glossy privet hedge, so I know it is possible to contain them, and less work than one would think, but it is apparently too much work for the (so called) gardeners who charge a lot of money to keep then shorn.

  2. Green Bamboo the Clumping kind is great way to hide away from neighbors!


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