Build a Natural Privacy Fence With Trees and Hedges

One of my favorite springtime activities is doing the neighborhood garden walk to see what new and wonderful things people are doing with their yards. It's a great way to gather new ideas for my own home and a bit of eye-candy that's not too out of reach. Recently, I've noticed that people are choosing privacy hedges and privacy shrubs in addition to or instead of fences.

Instead of knocking on doors and asking people how they got the look, I turned to J. Mark White, ASLA, president of DC-based GardenWise for his expert advice on privacy hedges and shrubs.
While we often think of fences as the standard way to create privacy, they are not necessarily the best choice. Fences are an expensive solution and are restricted in height by local codes -- typically six feet which often isn't enough to achieve the desired privacy or shield your view of unsightly surroundings.
White suggests strategically placed hedges, trees and shrubs to create a privacy screen. Your privacy hedge will look different depending on the amount of time you have, your climate, housing situation and preference, but there are options for everybody.
If you have a few years to grow the privacy screen, White suggests going with bamboo -- which also serves as a sound barrier. Running Bamboo is one of the fastest growers on earth, reaching heights of 25-30 feet in just a few years. But before you plant, beware: Running Bamboo is highly invasive, and it will take over your garden space if you don't control the spread of its roots. Mark suggests installing underground barriers 24-36" deep to successfully prevent the roots from traveling away from your bamboo area; rolls of thick plastic for this purpose can be purchased at any garden center."
If you need something less invasive, choose Green Panda Bamboo. Green Panda is a clump form of bamboo and has slow spreading roots. Plus, the clumps are attractive and can be used as a focal point.
If you live in a colder climate, Black Bamboo is a strong option. Native to Taiwan and China, it can withstand temperatures to -4F. The new canes emerge green and turn ebony black within two years.
Say you just don't have a few years to wait and need privacy, now. Maybe one morning you wake up to find the cute home next door is being leveled to make way for a much larger home and your six foot high fence might not provide the level of privacy it once did. In this case, you'll want to keep your existing fence and add height above it. White suggests the Upright European Hornbeam, which is a stately tree with gray branches and trunk. It has glossy green foliage and produces interesting strings of yellow-brown fruits in fall. It's also a tough plant that will tolerate urban conditions.
Tall trees that are pruned high are also great for small spaces -- and leave homeowners the option to plant under the tree, adding more visual interest. Some other small upright ornamental trees to consider for a tight situation: Okame Cherry and the Japanese Snowbell. The Okame Cherry is one of spring's earliest flowering trees, producing gorgeous pink blossoms. The Japanese Snowbell has dark green foliage in summer and turns mildly yellow to red in fall. Flowers are white; less than an inch wide and bell-shaped with a mild fragrance. With three to six flowers on a stalk, they're extremely beautiful.
If you're thinking even longer term, upright evergreens will serve you well. Some good choices include the Emerald Green Arborvitae. White tells us that "They belong to the cypress family, grow to 14 feet high and three to four feet wide, and can be easily pruned in spring -- before the new growth appears -- to fit your garden space." The Emerald Green Arborvitae has an upright shape and it stays dark green year round. If you're not worried about space, the Red-tipped Photinia will provide complete privacy. It is a broad leaf evergreen that flowers in the spring. If needed, this beautiful tree can be pruned in the spring after it flowers, to accommodate tighter situations.
When I was growing up, we had holly growing all along the back fence. White says that this is a great choice for small spaces and can be kept pruned tightly as a more formal hedge.
A well planned privacy fence also functions as the backdrop to the rest of your garden, adding color, texture and new scents to your outdoor space. White recommends that, space providing, you stagger the shrubs, using different heights for a more natural effect. He explains that this is also a good strategy in case a plant dies because it is less obvious.
"The back row should have the tallest plants -- that will create the screen. The middle row should have medium-height plants, such as a smaller deciduous shrubs like the Annabelle Hydrangea, which will offer texture contrast and offer summer color. The front row should be composed of your shortest plants and evergreen ground cover, such as variegated Liriope, which is grass-like and has the added feature of a late summer spiky lavender colored flower," explains White. "Another striking effect I like is to use the purple coneflower and the Russian sage against the pendulous white blossoms of the hydrangea. Unity in an outside space is the best way to quickly provide a stimulating visual."
Photo Credit: Flickr/CascadeAndSTAN

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