Good fences make good neighbors, it’s true, but sometimes a chain link barrier or wooden wall just doesn’t cut it. Unless your client has the advantage of a glorious borrowed vista — say, the uninterrupted view of rolling hills and meandering streams, purple mountains majesty, a forested glade tailor-made for a National Geographic documentary — chances are they’d like a little relief from the view of the neighbor’s compost pile and garbage bins. On the other hand, perhaps they’d like to keep passersby from peering in at their patio and pool. Privacy fences can provide the necessary screening, but the hardscape elements may leave homeowners a little, well, bored.
Studies have shown that the simple act of looking at plants (flowers, shrubs, trees), even if it’s through a window, can help to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Looking at a fence? Not so much. So, whether the property already is bounded by a fence, or the project calls for a living installation to secure and soften the boundary, your best bet is to select from a number of evergreens that can provide screening.
A word of caution when creating a living barrier: Monocultures, although uniform and lovely in the right setting, are breeding grounds for trouble. Should one plant succumb to an insect pest or a disease common to the species, the entire planting may be susceptible. Breaking up the repetition by interplanting unrelated selections with similar cultural requirements can help to forestall disaster.
That being said, designing a privacy screen is another opportunity to let your creative juices flow. Incorporate hardscape features or companion plants, find ways to define the property with a unique character. After all, it’s not just a fence, it’s a defining part of the landscape.
We’ve offered just a few suggestions for evergreen plants that can be used alone or in combination, as the barrier itself or as foundations for an imaginative and functional screen. Although the “fence” confines the property, your creativity need not be confined.
× Cupressocyparis leylandii
Often used as a single specimen plant to anchor a structure or to act as a punctuation point in the mixed garden, × Cupressocyparis leylandii (Leyland cypress) is a natural for screening. (The similar × Cuprocyparis leylandii, a bi-generic hybrid of Cupressus macrocarpa and Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, also is commonly called Leyand cypress.) It’s known to be fast growing (up to 3 feet per year when juvenile), and its foliage is full and densely packed. Reaching 20 to 30 feet tall in about 10 years, it can grow to 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide, so it’s best reserved for larger properties unless pruned to suit the site.
Bright, emerald-green young foliage matures to a darker, blue-green, but remains soft and feathery. Leyland cypress naturally forms a dense oval or pyramidal outline, but is tolerant of even severe pruning and can be shaped to create a formal hedge or windbreak.
Preferring full sun, Leyland cypress is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions from acid to alkaline, but will perform optimally in moderately fertile soil with moderate moisture.
Bagworm can be a serious problem, so vigilance is required.
× Cupressocyparis leylandii is hardy in zones 6 to 10.
Junipers come in all shapes and sizes and a wide range of colors, but there are several upright selections that are nicely suited to screening. Juniperus communis (common juniper) is a medium-sized tree that reaches only about 5 to 10 feet tall and can spread to 12 feet wide, but it tends to be a bit slow growing. Nevertheless, its habit and ultimate height make it a good choice for use as a living fence.
Foliage tends to be gray-green to blue-green, and individual needles have a distinctive band of white on the upper side. Many selections turn somewhat brownish during winter, but a bronze tone often is considered an ornamental feature. What provides additional interest are the small, waxy, blue fruits (yes, used to flavor gin) that stand out among the needled branches.
Common juniper is resolutely adaptable: It tolerates wind and can handle poor soils; it prefers full sun but can perform well with some shade; it’s easily transplanted. It’s not as tolerant of heat as other juniper selections, but is generally hardy down to Zone 2.
Few serious insect or disease problems bother common juniper, although juniper blight can be problematic.
Long lived and easily pruned, Taxus baccata (English yew), when planted densely, grows into an impressive wall that can reach to 60 feet in height, but normally reaches about half that. Individual plants spread from 15 to about 25 feet. Although it’s classified as a conifer, the female plants do not produce cones, but instead develop small red fruits, each with a single seed enveloped by the fleshy red aril. (A word of caution: Despite their attractive appearance, the fruits are toxic — rather, it’s the seed inside the “berry” that is nasty.)
Flat-needled, dark green foliage is lustrous and remains attractive year round.
English yew can be planted in full sun to part shade, and it does well in a wide variety of soils, with the exception of poorly drained areas. Once established, it requires little maintenance except for an occasional shaping and, in fact, English yew responds well to pruning. It’s bothered by few serious insect or disease problems, with mealybugs and scale being occasional visitors.
The plant is not tolerant of temperature extremes, however, and hardiness in the U.S. is limited, ranging only from Zone 6 to 7.
They’re for protection, too
We think of using screening plants as ways to protect the privacy and aesthetic sensibilities of clients. Is there an all-too-inviting pool they’d rather the neighbors not see? Is there an unfortunate view they’d rather not see? Screen the property with green.
But screening plants also can protect clients from crime. If selected carefully and planted properly, plants can act as a property’s defense. Plant several thorny specimens beneath a window, and intruders are unlikely to risk ripping their best black trousers, preferring, instead, to target a building where there’s no barrier to entry.
The tactic has such potential for protection that police in Essex, England, have created a “Secured by Design” garden plan, designed to help homeowners reduce the risk of criminal activity on their properties. Although the plan does not specify certain plants, a report in Horticulture Week states that the police department is working with local nurseries and garden centers (make that centres) to recommend “prickly plants” that create a natural barrier. These include creeping juniper, blue spruce, climbing roses, holly, bamboo, firethorn, blackthorn, oleaster, berberis and giant rhubarb.
Selections of Thuja species, including T. plicata (western red cedar) and T. occidentalis (American arborvitae) appear to be tailor-made for screening. Many are fast growing, quick to fill in empty spaces where a privacy screen is most needed.
Western red cedar (sometimes called giant red cedar), is native to the Pacific Northwest, where it enjoys the cool and moist climate, but it’s also found in the northern Rocky Mountains from Montana into British Columbia. In its native areas, T. plicata can grow to nearly 200 feet tall, far too much of a stretch for the standard residential living fence. In cultivation, however, the plants can reach 50 to 70 feet with a spread up to 25 feet, so its application would be limited to a larger property. Named cultivars will top out at a more manageable 20 to 25 feet.
T. plicata performs best in sunny to partly shady locations, and it thrives in cool summer climates. Moist, fertile and well-drained soils are best.
Feathery, dark green foliage is held on horizontal branches, but its apparent delicacy belies its ability to stand strong. And when crushed, the foliage is delightfully aromatic.
Generally hardy in zones 5 to 7, western red cedar suffers few insect or disease problems.
T. occidentalis, considered by many to be a “common” plant, may be common because it serves a useful purpose. It’s known by many names — American arborvitae, Eastern arborvitae, Eastern white cedar, Northern white cedar — but it’s interesting to note that the name “arborvitae” means “tree of life.”
The straight species can reach up to 40 feet tall, but cultivated varieties are more likely to top out at 25 feet or so, with spreads ranging from the narrow, columnar type (4 to 5 feet) to 8 feet plus. Several selections are used individually as focal points, but arborvitae is known for its screening ability, and its relatively fast growth rate serves to create a living fence quickly.
There are several cultivars that boast golden foliage, but the majority of selections feature rich, medium- to darkgreen tones held in flattened sprays. Like the foliage of its cousin T. plicata, this feathery effect softens the regimented feel of a property-defining planting.
Hardy in zones 2 to 7 (depending on the cultivar), arborvitae is well-suited to a wide range of sites.