By Ken Muellers
As a landscape designer, I am often asked some variation of the following question: “What should I plant to screen out: A. my annoying neighbors, B. the views of my pool from the neighbors, C. you.” Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy a question as you may think (especially for C!). Most people expect a simple one word answer such as “Arborvitae” or “Leylands,” but usually the best answer is not quite that simple.
First off, before you can decide what to plant you have to consider the site conditions including light, wind exposure, soil type and most importantly, the size of the space you are looking to screen, both height and width. The second reason this is a loaded question is that I rarely recommend using only one type of plant for screening, always striving for diversity of plants in the landscape to protect from insects and disease damage.
Commonly used (or over-used) screen plants such as Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis ‘Leylandii’), skip laurels (Prunus ‘Schipkaensis’) and emerald green arborvitae (Thuja ‘Smaragd’) are popular because of their growth rates and habits, but all have their weak points (such as susceptibility to winter/storm damage). For alternatives, there are many great plants from which to choose.
If you have a narrow space to work with, instead of emerald green Arborvitae you may want to consider a variety of upright Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Cultivars such as ‘Steeds,’ ‘Chesapeake’ and ‘Excelsa Schwoebel’ are all available in nurseries and can be pruned to maintain their size. If you have more space, other hollies such as Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’) will provide an attractive pyramid of glossy leaves and grow to 20 feet tall. Another substitute for emerald greens are many varieties of upright junipers such as Hetzii column (Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetzii Columnaris’) or the more “artsy” Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’), which will thrive in exposed sunny locations and is deer resistant.
If you live on a larger property and need to screen out larger areas, green giant arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’) can grow to 40 feet tall and stay dense to the ground. Norway spruce (Picea abies) is a very large evergreen that is great on a large estate. On most properties, its cousins – Colorado spruce (P. pungens) with its bluer color, Serbian spruce (P. omorika) with its narrow habit and Oriental spruce (P. orientalis) with its short dark needles will all be a little more scale appropriate. Another option is Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) which is a nice contrast to other evergreens and it will tolerate more shade than most other conifers.
If privacy is only a concern during the summer months, such as for a pool area (see ‘B’ above), you can get blockage with deciduous plants that will grow faster, cost less money and maybe provide some flower interest. Viburnum ‘Summer Snowflake,’ Vitex ‘Shoal Creek’ and Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) all flower during the summer and get large enough to block-out the neighbors. If flowers are not important, the old standard privet hedge (Ligustrum ovalifolium) can be pruned to almost any height and width.
If your problem is ‘C,’ you will need to start with at least six-foot-high plants (I’m pretty tall).