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A Sense of Privacy
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A Sense of Privacy



A good friend of mine once told me that his idea of the perfect yard was one where he could walk around naked – and none of his neighbors would be able to see him. What a concept!

Unfortunately, few of us can afford a yard so large that we could not be seen by neighbors under any circumstances. So what can you do to create that perfect private environment?

As we’ll see here, you have a lot of choices.


Many people go all the way in creating privacy by building structures that make them feel safe and enclosed. Others prefer a less claustrophobic approach, such as soft plantings. Either way, and particularly when you are dealing with watershapes where your clients may want to enjoy communing with nature in the buff, creating some type of barrier against neighbors’ intruding eyes is essential.

Your clients’ preferences may involve many variables, however, so let’s start by talking about three degrees of privacy. You can:

• Build some type of solid hardscape structure (such as a fence or wall) that will completely and instantly block views

• Install a softer wall – a living screen – using a single type of plant material repeated at intervals that achieve the desired coverage

• Create a soft screen that looks “natural” by using many different types of plant material.

Any one of these choices may be acceptable for your clients. It’s your first task to determine the final look they want to achieve and then create a screen that meets their needs. Their “time frame for privacy” is very important as well: A wall or fence will create an instant screen, while a soft screen may take years to fill in. Often, a combination of these suggestions is the compromise you need to achieve the right coverage.


Most of you, I’m sure, are fully aware of how to build walls and fences and that you have a tremendous selection of materials from which to choose. Now let me give you some options for softening things up.

If your client wants to be screened instantly but doesn’t want to look at a concrete block wall or wooden fence, you might suggest planting vines at the base of the screen to grow and cover it.

As you approach this option, remember that each situation is different and that water, climate and temperature may significantly affect your success. Also, each plant has different growth habits and needs, so you’ll need to consult the Sunset Guide for your area to determine the best placement and conditions for your selection.

Here are some possibilities:

[ ] Creeping Fig. This is a very quick-growing vine that attaches easily to any wall or fence. It may take a year to establish roots, but then it will take off quite rapidly. If your clients want coverage that stays green all year, this is a great choice.

[ ] Boston Ivy. This vine grows at a moderate pace and attaches very easily to any structure. It also may take a year or so to establish roots, but unlike Creeping Fig, it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the winter. Even so, the branching structure it establishes on a wall can be very attractive even when it’s bare – and many people plant this vine specifically for that winter look. Lots of homes in Europe have Boston Ivy or one of its cousins growing on them. Another wonderful feature of this vine is that it turns bright crimson red in the fall just before the leaves drop off, creating a beautiful contrasting display against the rest of the green landscape.

[ ] Blood Red Trumpet Vine. If you want quick coverage with beautiful and abundant flowers, this is your best choice. It does need support to attach to walls or fences, but once it gets going it doesn’t require constant maintenance to stay attached. This vine covers chain-link fences quite effectively.

[ ] White Potato Vine. For a soft, fast, solid enhancement at the top of the solid screen structure, this vine can be a great option. It will mainly cover the top of a wall or fence, but you can plant other plants at the base to keep the screen covered. The one problem here is that the vine gets woody underneath if it isn’t cut back severely each year – meaning the wall or fence will be exposed to view for part of the year. It may be the best choice for a client who wants to see a little of their hardscape.

[ ] Hedge. Using any of the plants listed in the next section, you can achieve moderate to quick screening by placing them in front of the wall or fence. In my experience, however, unless your client really wants to go to the expense, it’s best to use either the hedge or a hardscape structure – but not both.

[ ] Soft Planting. This may be your slowest option, but will most likely be the one that camouflages the structure most naturally, as we’ll see below.

In weighing your softening options, be brave: Mixing any two or more of these ideas can create a more appealing look than you might achieve with any one type of plant by itself.


Planting a living screen or hedge is usually much less expensive than building a wall or fence, but it definitely takes a little longer to create solid blocking.

If that time frame works for your clients, you have many options to consider. For example, you can vary the results with the placement of the plants (distances on center), the type of plant material you use and the placement of the plants relative to each other (straight line or staggered).

As you consider those possibilities, take a look at my suggestions for screening:

[ ] Osmanthus Fragrans. Also known as Sweet Olive, this plant has medium-sized, medium-green leaves and grows at a moderate rate. It can be purchased either as a shrub or as a standard and may grow to be 10 to 15 feet tall. The best part about it, though, is that its tiny flowers send out the most powerful apricot fragrance you can imagine. I love placing it in a yard and having everyone look around and ask, “Where is that fragrance coming from?”

[ ] Ficus. This shrub (or tree) covers quickly and looks quite attractive. But be aware that any time you plant ficus, its roots may become invasive and need to be watched carefully. I would recommend this only in a large area where they can be planted far away from any water sources or structures.

[ ] Wax-Leaf Privet. In the west, this is a very common hedge. It covers quickly and creates a solid screen, but otherwise it is quite nondescript.

[ ] Eugenia. This is also quite common in the west, growing up to 20 or 30 feet. Many varieties in California once were plagued with a disease called psyllids that caused the leaves to dimple and shrivel. The problem has been eradicated in the past couple of years and nurseries are now beginning to sell them again. Even existing hedges that looked quite bad are now thriving again.

[ ] Italian Cypress. This vertical/ columnar plant may grow as high as 60 feet. It was used a lot in the 1960s, when they were commonly planted quite close together. (I’m predicting they will make a comeback, as some designers tap into the “retro” look.) The main drawback of these shrubs is that they get very woody underneath and may become a haven for rodents. If you need a tall/columnar hedge, however, there is nothing that compares: These will grow mainly upright as opposed to taking up more space by growing out into the yard.

[ ] Hemlock. This cone-producing plant has many different varieties, most of which grow very large. Talk to your nursery to see if they have a dwarf variety that would be suitable for your situation. These generally take well to pruning and shaping – ideal if you want to create a formal hedge.

[ ] Boxwood. This is the most popular choice for formal hedges. There are many, very hardy varieties that take very well to shaping. The leaves are small and light green.

[ ] Bamboo. There are many varieties of bamboo but just two primary categories: Clumping varieties are usually self-contained and will not become invasive, while trailing varieties can be quite invasive – and seem to be the ones most people are familiar with and afraid of even though they can be held in check through use of a root barrier. The advantage of bamboo is that it is generally very quick to establish and grow. It’s ideal if you’re working on a project where the style lends itself to bamboo – and you need a fast solution. As with Italian Cypress, if contained or clumping, this plant will grow vertically instead of moving into the yard.

That point I just made about style is important: Each one of these selections should be in keeping with the overall look of the yard. I wouldn’t ordinarily use bamboo with a cottage garden; similarly, I’d generally shy away from using Osmanthus in a contemporary garden.


For those clients who just can’t imagine looking at any type of wall, whether it be living or not, a soft screen may be the best option. Any types of plants can be used to create a screen so long as they are grouped in a way that takes their mature height and width into consideration. You might place the plants randomly or in a pattern; however you do it, they should be installed so that when they mature, they will be touching – and thereby block outside views.

Start with larger shrubs or even small trees, and be sure to plant underneath them so that when they grow, there is something to fill in at their bases. Without giving you a full lesson on landscape design, just assume that it’s more interesting to vary the heights, width and depths of plants and that placing everything in a row will only create something that looks like a hedge screen.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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