There is no shame in planting hedges to cut off sight lines from our closest neighbors. Watering plants in my pajamas isn’t exactly something I want my neighbors to see. Nor do I want to have a direct view into the bathroom window of my neighbor across the fence. We all need a little privacy, and with the help of a few plants, we can all be a little more comfortable.
There are several reasons to create a hedge, border or living screen for our yards. Whether it’s noise reduction, sight reduction, privacy, or an aesthetic choice, there are many reasons for planning and planting a defining group of plants.
When planning a screen or border, it is imperative that you consider the mature size of the plants you choose. With numerous choices in plant material, there are zero excuses to be irresponsible. Consider utility lines and pipes, setbacks from right of ways or neighbors, and the visual impact to the neighborhood.
There are two traditional methods of creating a living screen — a linear uniform hedge and a staggered planting of mixed plants. Both methods have their place, depending on how large the property is and the visual impact desired.
Linear plantings can be towering or only knee-high. Sometimes the purpose of a border is not to screen off the neighbors, but simply delineate property lines. In this case, you want to choose shrubs such as boxwood, intermediate hollies, or deciduous shrubs like abelia. These are all good choices if a small to medium hedge is what you’re aiming for.
Often times, a visual screen is the goal of linear plantings. We’ve all seen lofty, thick rows of evergreen trees surrounding larger properties. These monstrosities of green walls are quite often leyland cypress — the species planted most often in the last twenty years. Leylands grow extremely fast and create a soaring border when planted en masse. These days, though, leylands are not the best choice for creating a large linear screen.
Like many plants that are popular and overplanted, leyland cypress have fallen victim to fungal and pest problems. Bagworms, canker and needle blight are the three main culprits of the species, and have suppressed the popularity of leyland cypress. And even before they began to experience problems with pests and disease, their unexpected mature size was realized. Growing to sometimes 100-feet tall, leylands are just a little much for the average homeowner.
More responsible linear screening plants include arborvitae (thuja) and Japanese cedar (cryptomeria). Growing to only about 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide, these two are great choices and have little problems with pest and disease. Green giant and Steeplechase are two common arborvitae cultivars, and Yoshino and Radicans are two good options in Japanese cedar.
For those with limited space in your yard, finding smaller and tighter cultivars is necessary. Emerald green arborvitae is a great choice, typically only reaching 12 to 15 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. Black Dragon cedar are also good, growing to about 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
“The key with small spaces is to pick plants that do not mind being trimmed,” said Tyler O’Mara, the owner of O’Mara Outdoor Solutions. “Hedging is a common practice on hollies like Nellie Stevens to get them to maintain their size. The plants take it well, and, if done properly, they will create awesome little green walls. The trick is having proper tools, maintaining those tools, and using them correctly.”
Uniform rows have their place in landscape design, and are practical when creating a screen or hedge. But mixed plantings can give depth, texture and layered color to a border. All it takes is a little homework and creativity.
Mixed borders and screens can offer year-round interest, wildlife habitat and the incorporation of deciduous and flowering plants. If you’re working with a straight line where you want to plant your plant border, staggering your plants is the easiest way to break up the monotony. If you have the room, create layers with groups of different plants.
For example, large viburnums can be combined with Burford holly, red twig dogwood, gold mop cypress and dwarf evergreen magnolia. These pairings will provide a visual evergreen screen, diverse texture, winter interest, color, fragrant blooms and habitat for wildlife.
Creating a mixed border doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Just consider the space you have, soil conditions, sun exposure, and your ultimate purpose. Are you trying to harness a corner of your property, or visually block off street traffic? Your purpose dictates your plant choices. Find a few plants you like, and build on it.
Choose a few medium to large evergreens that will serve as the backbone. Layer texture and color in by adding globe or columnar shaped conifers. Add interest with small flowering trees (evergreen or deciduous) such as dogwood, viburnum, magnolia or redbud. Camellia can grow in sun or shade, and osmanthus will provide fragrance. Semi-evergreen shrubs are good options, too, such as loropetalum and barberry.
Borders and screens are defining characteristics of our homes. They can be practical, as well as beautiful. So if a project like this is in your future, be creative and mix it up.
For those wanting to learn more about borders, screens and hedges, there is an upcoming lecture on this topic at the Tanglewood Arboretum. The Forsyth County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension will host this lecture as part of their adult education series on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 11 a.m. To register or for more information, please call the extension office at 336-703-2850.