Are you looking for a way to block out noise and urban pollution, hide unsightly garbage bins, or create a private, restful retreat in your yard? Forget fences: why not go green? Growing a living screen made of plants is an effective solution, plus it will add beauty and life to your landscape!
In modern housing developments, the space between properties is often a few feet at best, and it is difficult to obtain a measure of privacy from neighboring surroundings, or to prevent pets, children, and delivery personnel from walking freely all over your lawn. A hedge is the most common way to establish a living “fence” to establish boundaries and prevent unwanted foot traffic. Try durable and easy-care plants such as cotoneaster, boxwood, and alpine currant (Ribes alpinum) for the formal hedge: all of these plants stand up well to the periodic pruning that will be necessary to maintain a geometric shape.
Even informal hedge material such as dogwood (Cornus spp.), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), potentilla, and spirea will need shearing from time to time to clear away dead wood. Carefully research the mature height and spread of the plants you will be using so that there will be no surprises down the road. Avoid using plants that have the potential to spread into your neighbor’s lawn: cross certain lilac species and some roses off your shopping list. Finally, think about the most attractive features of the plants you want to plant. Shrubs such as butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) are beneficial to pollinators; still others (Cotoneaster spp.) provide a haven for birds or other wildlife. Other potential hedging plants such as Euonymus have appealing foliage color, or beautiful bark or stems (red osier and yellow twig dogwoods).
Low hedges (less than 4 feet tall) are usually planted alongside driveways, while taller hedges are most often found next to houses. If you have the space and want a more prominent screen, you can plant tall, columnar-shaped trees such as aspen (Populus tremula ‘Erecta’) or blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’) to afford you the ultimate in privacy and noise absorption. Again, bear in mind the mature height and spread of large plantings and the fact that they will eventually provide deep shade and possibly block the views from the windows of the house. Some plants (most poplars, for example) cannot be positioned too close to building foundations due to spreading root systems.
Hedges can also be used as “walls” for outdoor living spaces or to hide necessary but unattractive elements such as recycling bins or sheds. Screening off an outdoor dining area lends a feeling of intimacy to a barbecue or dinner party, or provides a cozy, quiet space to relax and read a book. Tall grasses such as Calamagrostis and pampas grass are particularly attractive near seating areas as they gently sway and rustle in a breeze. A low hedge may be used to surround a vegetable or sensory garden, or even three sides of a sandbox and play area, offering parents unrestricted views of their playing children while defining a kid-friendly space. When selecting a hedge for a location that children (or pets) frequent, ensure the plants are free of thorns and excess litter from fruit, seeds or flowers: broadleaf evergreens such as boxwood or Euonymus may be suitable.
Perennial and annual vines can function as vertical living screens, and work particularly well in narrow, small spaces. Vines are a less permanent screen than trees and shrubs, and many may be easily removed if you are living in a rental property or temporary residence. Most vines will require support such as pergolas, trellises, or a chain link fence. Vines require less maintenance than shrubs; most do not need regular pruning. Consider planting vines that offer beautiful or fragrant flowers, such as morning glories, sweet peas, bougainvillea, clematis, or Thunbergia. The colorful foliage of sweet potato vine, Akebia, and variegated porcelain vine are showstoppers. Fruiting vines are also attractive: try hardy kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta) or grapes for edible delights.
Groups of plants may also serve as living screens. Carefully positioned combinations of shrubs, flowers, ornamental grasses and vegetables can mask the presence of a utility box on the lawn or a large air conditioning unit. Plants do not have to be planted in the ground to be effective — be creative and pot them up in decorative containers! This is especially valuable if you live in an apartment and require some privacy on the balcony. If your climate is favorable enough to allow it, you can even maintain compact trees such as dwarf Japanese maples and citrus fruits in containers to serve as screens in a small space.