better outdoor living at home spring


Screening with Plants


Evergreens and other plants can be used to create various screening effects for privacy in the yard. Use the plant’s characteristics of leaf size and branching to screen views.

A row of pear trees screens views from an adjacent backyard

Plants are probably the most flexible to use for screening. There is no need for wood posts or masonry columns, footings, gravel bases, or even perhaps hiring a contractor (although we do love a good contractor!). For most plant screens, it can be a do-it-yourself job for many homeowners.

Using the plant’s physical characteristics of height, width, density, leaf size, and their deciduous versus evergreen nature, the objective is to select the correct plant for the specific need. And most likely there will be many plants for you to choose from to satisfy the type of screening that is needed. The hardiness zone where you live will determine the plants you can use. We’ll break down the physical characteristics, so we can see how they each affect the degree of screening. There are many handbooks on the market that list the characteristics of specific types of plants, including growth habit, flowering and fall color (if any), care, along with a photo of the plant itself. Landscape architects use plants for their color, weight (appearance), texture, and their ability to enhance and reinforce defined spaces. A plant’s general health requirements, its care and maintenance, and subsequent survival can best be addressed by a horticulturist or your local garden center.

Height:

The height of the desired screening will need to be determined. If you want to hide something from view that is three feet tall, for example, choose a plant that will mature to three to four feet in height, for lower maintenance. If you choose a plant type that will mature to ten feet in height, you will constantly be trimming it. If you need privacy for perhaps an eating area or a sunbathing area, a screen of at least five feet in height with more opaqueness (less transparency) may be desired. Make your choice based on the activities or intended use of the area that is in need of screening.

If you are screening any electrical unit or an element that is involved in air uptake or exhaust, always leave sufficient space around it.

The height and leaf size of this old fashion lilac shrub provides privacy from the street for a backyard sitting area

Another concept of privacy is the idea of separation. For example, if a low hedge is maintained nearer to the street, it can imply limited access, thus lending a feeling of privacy to this area of the yard.

As a side note, utility companies for overhead utility lines usually cut or trim branches that grow too close to the utility lines. Keep this in mind when using plants that have the potential of reaching greater heights.

Width:

Knowing the mature width of the plant is an important thing to be aware of also. For example, if the plant you choose will eventually grow to be five feet wide, and you plant them five feet away from each other (leaving two and a half feet on each side of each plant for full growth), and the plant is a slow grower (growth habit), just know that it will not provide the required screening for quite a while. To solve this, you can place the plants closer together (be sure to leave room for growth) which may require adding a few more plants for a more immediate effect, buying larger sizes of the plant, if they are available, or selecting a different type of plant.

Density:

This characteristic will provide a screen that will be anywhere from translucent to opaque. Density will be determined by the growth habit of the branching of the plant. The more intricate the growth pattern, the greater the opaqueness of the screening. Some plants have a more open and loose branching pattern, and depending on their leaf size, will provide any where from a translucent to a semi-opaque screening effect. That would be fine for partial screening or a ‘filtered view’ in a semi-private area.

One good use of translucent screening is for the filtering of public views into a window that faces a street. Small growing and multi-stemmed ornamental trees, such as certain dogwoods and magnolias with a very open growth habit, will provide a touch of screening while still allowing views out, from inside the house. There are some shrubs of medium height that can be pruned as they grow to have the appearance of a small ornamental tree, such as the Northern Bayberry and the Palibin Korean Lilac.

 

Open branching and large leaf size provides semi-privacy for an outdoor eating area

Leaf Size:

While providing the aesthetic quality of texture to your yard, leaf size can be a puzzling characteristic in providing screening. It might be thought that if the leaf size is small, it will not provide adequate screening. This is not always true. For example, boxwoods typically have a smaller leaf, but because they have a more intricate branching pattern, they provide excellent dense screening. On the other hand, there are certain viburnums with less intricate branching, but their larger leaf size provides very good screening.

Deciduous versus Evergreen:

For a brief definition of these two terms: a deciduous plant is one that loses its leaves in colder climates, and an evergreen plant is one that retains its leaves or needles year round (only losing older needles at a certain time of the year).

This evergreen taxus hedge provides screening from the street, adding a degree of privacy to the front yard. The use of this plant selection combined with the masonry stone column creates a very architectural feature for the entry drive.

If screening of a specific area is only a warm weather concern, include deciduous plants on your list of possibilities, but keep in mind that it is not until well after the warmer temperatures have arrived that the new leaf growth will provide you with screening. With most evergreens as a plant choice, year round screening will be provided. If you live in parts of the world that are warm year round, some deciduous plants may be as effective as the evergreen (check your plant handbook). Know that all evergreen plants do not provide opaque screening. For example, white pine trees will provide a semi-opaque screening effect.

Observe How Other’s Have Created Screenings:

For the benefit of having a visual aid, you may want to take notice of various plant screenings in your neighborhood or town that others have created. This will help you see what plants were used and how effective the plants were in providing the various levels of screening or privacy. The key is to study or research the plant you are interested in to determine if its physical characteristics will provide the type of screening that you need.

With all that said, there are some plants that, when planted under very large overhanging trees, can have stunted and spindly growth, and so the screening effect will be diminished. Perhaps this condition results from competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight.

Screening with just plants, whether it is with shrubs, trees, or even tall ornamental grasses, can be challenging as we try to find the perfect selection to create the screening effect we desire. But it is also rewarding, for the right plant will contribute to the aesthetics of your outdoor spaces by adding color, depth, texture, and continuity.

As for continuity in a small area, choose the same exact plant, whether five or fifteen plants are needed to create the screening of a specific area. It seems that some people are under the impression that buying one of this plant, one of that plant, one of those, and one of these, is a good solution for creating a screen. This practice will not enhance the aesthetic quality of your yard. It could be equated with using a different style or color of shutter on every window of your house. While variety can be interesting, it is best to be aware of the times when continuity would be a better solution.

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