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Privacy, Please: Choosing the Best Plants to Hide a View

Privacy in our modern world can be a challenge. Choosing the best plants to hide a view, or to block others from seeing into your garden isn't difficult. You need to keep three things in mind.

Privacy in our modern world can be a challenge. Choosing the best plants to hide a view, or to block others from seeing into your garden isn't difficult. This guest post by Marty Wingate originally appeared in Horticulture Sept/Oct 2017 issue.

To select the best plants to hide a view, you need to keep three tips in mind:

  1. Choose a long-term solution, not a short-term fix that creates more trouble
  2. Think "year-round" and assure your selections provide privacy when you need it
  3. Take the time to choose what you like, not just what works (you'll see it a lot!)

Passersby peer over the fence. Neighbors look out of their kitchen window and into yours. Second-story decks loom next door, and there’s that ugly cell-phone tower two streets over. It’s enough to cause anyone living in a house, apartment or condominium to break into, “Make the world go away.”

Hedges and screens to the rescue. The thoughtful use of well-chosen trees or shrubs fills in where fences and walls cannot. The trouble comes when one solution is applied to different situations—planting 40 feet of running bamboo, for example, or a wall of Leyland cypress only because it grows fast. An impulsive quick-fix causes bigger headaches than it solves. The bamboo, even when planted with a root barrier, will need constant vigilance, and the towering heights of a Leyland cypress hedge have caused legal issues between many sets of neighbors. (What you're trying to avoid by following tip #1 above.)

Just as not all problems are the same, the solutions vary, too. The good news is, there is something for every situation, whether that be privacy screening, spot coverage or seasonal hedging. Ask this question of yourself and the rest will begin to fall into place: What is it I don’t want to see, and where am I when I see it?

Best Plants to Hide a View: Solid Hedges

If your rear neighbors use their back yard as a parking lot, then an evergreen hedge the full length of your property may be just what’s needed. This is especially the case when your municipality sets a limit on fence heights and a six-foot fence is not enough. One of the best plant choices for this situation is also one of the most over-used: Emerald Green arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’). Mostly trouble free, it can grow into a green wall that not only screens but also provides a backdrop for mixed plantings of colorful shrubs, perennials and bulbs.

best plants to hide a view, thuja

Emerald Green arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) shelters this garden from the view of the neighboring lot. The hedge runs the length of the steps; the sense of privacy and security grows as one descends. Photo credit: Jerry Pavia.

The biggest problem with Emerald Green arborvitae is that while it may grow up to 15 feet high and 5 feet wide, it does not do so overnight. Many a hedge has been installed using one-foot-high plants set five feet apart; for many years this will look more like the slalom leg of an obstacle course than a hedge. Set them out every three feet and have patience. If you can afford it, begin with larger specimens, getting things off to a quicker start.

Broadleaf evergreens widen your hedge options and offer an alternate visual appeal. While a hedge of arborvitae or yew (Taxus baccata, another popular choice of conifer) can look more like a wall than a plant, non-coniferous evergreens grow into a similarly dense screen but their larger leaves create a chunkier texture. Plus, their foliage reflects the light, which changes so that the hedge is not a single, solid green.

Best Plants to Hide a View: Spot Coverage & Seasonal Screens

A 40-foot hedge is overkill if what you want to hide or be hidden from does not run the length of your property. Neighbors’ windows, expansive decks or that skinny apartment building that seemed to spring up overnight are a more focused concern. Here, the arborvitae ‘DeGroot’s Spire’ could be just the ticket. It’s difficult to match the elegance of this evergreen. Its mature size—20 feet high and 3 feet wide—gives the impression of an Italian cypress in climates where the cypress is not hardy. One ‘DeGroot’s Spire’ does the job if you want to disguise a utility pole or any other tall, narrow object. A cluster of three, five or seven plants (odd numbers are calming to the eye) draws the attention upward, adding another dimension to your garden while forming a semicircle around a small patio and bistro table, for instance.

Time of year is a factor when choosing the proper screen. If your patio is well used but only in good weather, planting a deciduous hedge makes fine sense year-round. In spring, the hedge leafs out to offer a light yet opaque cover. Out of season, when you have moved indoors and the leaves have dropped, sunlight—a precious commodity in winter—streams into your garden, a boon to specialty late-winter and early-spring plant collections: hellebores, fawn lilies and carpets of hardy cyclamen. (Solution referring to Tip #2)

best plants to hide a view

A hedge of hornbeam (Carpinus), which takes well to summer clipping, obscures the utility building behind this garden even in winter. The effect is stonger when the hornbeam is in leaf, coinciding with when the garden is in use. Photo credit: Brytta.iStock.Getty 

For a deciduous hedge, look to hornbeam (Carpinus betulus and C. japonica). Even the narrow hornbeam cultivars, C. b. ‘Fastigiata’ and ‘Frans Fontaine’, may grow wider than you need, spreading to 10 feet or more, but they take a summer clipping well.

Best Plants to Hide a View:
Short Yet Secure

One last consideration: Do you need to cover something up with a hedge, or do you just need to soften the effects of a world too close at hand? If you feel exposed when you sit on the front porch because there’s nothing but lawn between you and the sidewalk, imagine your garden with a buffer. A mixed row of low hedges—Mexican orange (Choisya ternata), abelia, dwarf rhododendrons—acts as a cushion. You can hold the world at arm’s length, and it’s a reason for more plants, every gardener’s wish.

Buffering solves issues in the back yard, too. Divide the patio from the children’s play area or surround the vegetable garden with a low hedge of flowering germander or dwarf boxwood. With these you keep the entire back yard in view, yet feel as if it’s divided up into reasonable and usable parts.

There’s no need to go over the top when you feel the need for privacy. Instead, identify the exact problem and find the right plants to solve it. The result will be an answer that suits both you and your garden design.

In addition to instructional gardening articles and books, Seattle-based Marty Wingate writes mystery novels in two series: Potting Shed and Birds of a Feather. This article appeared in Horticulture Sept/Oct 2017 issue. (All rights reserved.)