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Many homeowners use their porches, decks, and yards as extensions of their living space. To feel at ease, however, they need privacy. Walls and fences create privacy, but can be off-putting and expensive. ‘Living screens,’ methods of landscaping for privacy, provide another alternative.
When creating a living privacy fence, make sure to pick plants that are appropriate for your property in terms of hardiness, sun, and moisture. Younger plants will be cheaper and easier to install, but if you need privacy quickly, buy larger ones and expect to pay a lot more. You can also use shades, shutters, or awnings until your plant cover grows in fully.
Plants grown on trellises create an effective screen that allows light and air to pass through. “Trellises are very handy because they take up very little space,” says Doug Gagne of The Mixed Border Nursery and Gardens in Hollis, NH. They can be made of pressure-treated wood, plastic, iron, copper, or aluminum—just make sure the trellis is sturdy enough for the plant you grow on it. Most trellises have stakes that go into the ground. If you’re going to use one on your porch, you’ll also need to secure it to the frame or soffit. If you use a trellis to screen your deck, you may have to combine it with a structure like a pergola across the top for support. Good perennial vines to grow on a trellis include clematis, honeysuckle, and Dutchman’s pipe. Popular climbing annuals include morning glories and scarlet runner beans.
Hedges can be as tall or short as you like, and can fit in small or large spaces. Select shrubs or trees that won’t grow taller or wider than you need, otherwise you’ll spend lots of time pruning. When planting, calculate how much space the full-grown plants will fill so they don’t encroach on your house or the neighbor’s yard. Leave breaks in the hedge, so you won’t be boxed in or send an unfriendly message. “You want privacy but you also want it to be inviting,” says Patricia St. John at St. John Landscapes in Berkeley, CA. “To enclose it all the way makes it seem very uninviting and tells visitors to go away.”
When planning your hedge, remember that deciduous plants drop their leaves, so most of your screen will disappear in the winter. For year-round privacy, evergreens may work better. Arborvitaes are fast-growing evergreens that come in many sizes. “They have the effect of looking like little soldiers, but if you have a narrow area, that might be your best alternative,” says Judy De Pue, owner of New Vistas Landscaping in Goshen, IN, and president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. If you have lots of space and need to screen your yard from a multi-story building next door, larger evergreens like blue spruce, white pine, or hemlock can do the job.
If you’re using deciduous shrubs, mix different kinds and colors to make your hedge interesting. One of De Pue’s favorite combinations includes burgundy ninebark, variegated red-twig dogwood, dwarf lilac, golden privet, and Onondaga viburnum. You can also incorporate herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses, and annuals into your hedge for interest and variety.
Carefully positioned small trees, especially those that branch out at the base, also help create privacy. “We find trees give all the benefits of a hedge with a lot less maintenance,” says Judy Drake of Sunscapes Landscape Design in Jacksonville, FL. Options include magnolias, flowering dogwoods, Japanese maple, Japanese tree lilac, stewartia, birch, and palms. Bamboos make good screens, but the aggressive roots of the running variety need to be contained.
If you’re planting trees you may want to mix the sizes. “That way your screening will look more natural because in nature trees are all different sizes and have different rates of growth,” St. John says. You can also plant shrubs to fill in under the trees. For a beautiful but high-maintenance privacy wall, consider an espalier or flat, broad screen, made with trained apple, pear, or fig trees.
You can build a private “outdoor room” in your yard with greenery instead of solid walls. Use posts covered with vines to establish the boundaries and enclose the sides with trellises, planters, shrubs, or perennials. You can also create a pergola effect by connecting the posts from above with wood, wire, or chains and training vines across them. Make sure you match the materials, colors, and style of your outdoor room to the house. “It’s important that this outdoor space doesn’t look like it’s been stuck on,” Gagne says.
Another option for screening your property is an earthen berm or mound with plantings, which serves as a living hillside. The berm should not be too narrow or steep, because a broad, gently rising area blends with the yard more naturally. Use drought-resistant plants when creating a berm, because water tends to run off the incline, leaving plants thirsty and undernourished.
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