You can’t sunbathe nude when neighbours look down onto your patio or backyard. They can watch every move you make, and you don’t want to see them, either. Your neighbour’s rotting camper or junk cars might not suit your garden style. The knee-jerk solution is to plant a closely spaced row of Italian cypress or other cigar-shaped evergreens. It might be a wasted effort, because they are slow growers, unlikely to fulfill their purpose before the end of our lives.
This is not a new problem, and if you go back to old gardening books, you see how wider beds and borders were standard along the fence lines. This wasn’t just for beauty, but ease of maintenance and improved plant health. And yes, the borders featured screening trees because they had eyesores, too. They didn’t recommend trees in lawns, as shading is unproductive: Grass needs full sun. Their primary concern back then: successful, beautiful gardens, period.
Wide beds allow for a diversity of plants that support a much wider range of wildlife. More importantly, if a pest or disease attacks one type of plant, it won’t destroy the garden as is the case with monocultures. If you lose one, things still look good until you plant a replacement. This rule of diversity in design ensures sustainability of the garden as a holistic ecosystem, not a habitat for a particular plant or insect.
Trees grown for screening are watered and fed with the rest of the plants in that bed. They are naturally compatible, rather than fighting with a lawn for water and nutrients. The flowering diversity here rewards good design with great colour thriving under and around the screen tree.
Your first step to a solution is to evaluate the privacy problem. Where is it, how wide is it and tall? Is there a window or patio that is the most important vantage point at your house? If so, make your visual assessment from that point to ensure proper tree coverage. This exercise roughly shows you the ultimate shape and size of the tree needed to block it.
Selecting a certain tree for privacy screening is more difficult. It should be done with the help of a professional who is familiar with a wide range of locally successful tree species. With tree problems often limited to a region, these professionals will know the species to avoid and best bets.
Here are some general rules for the screening garden itself:
• A deciduous tree loses its leaves in the winter for semiannual screening. But you may not be in the yard during the winter anyway. Evergreens are essential for year-round screening.
• Tree canopies offer varying degrees of opaqueness. It’s related to the density of branches and how much foliage they carry. Some want a more porous visual screen that blocks the view but not the light or breeze. These also offer a greater sense of depth while full blackout planting in hedge densities just make living walls.
• Growers of trees have two methods of shaping young tree stock: standard and multiple trunk. A standard just has one trunk and a foliage head on top. Trees pruned to multi-trunk branch much lower, so they are wider earlier in life tan the same plant as a standard. Multis can cover a lot more fence line than a single trunk in the same position. Multis rarely need ugly staking in youth, though if unstable they may require guy wires. A good garden centre can order your tree in as a multi trunk in any size containers, from budget 15-gallon containers to sky’s-the-limit boxed semi-mature specimens.
The beauty of being a homeowner is the ability to create spaces for outdoor living. It’s darned hard to do when you live in a fishbowl. Create beautiful deep borders to augment your screen trees for maximized depth, screening, colour and wildlife. The real payoff comes later when nude sunbathing, swimming or hanging in the spa finally becomes possible.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer.