Now that you’ve created a beautiful garden in your backyard or on your deck, patio or balcony, you want to enjoy it! There’s only one problem: You’ve got an unobstructed view of your neighbor’s funky garbage cans or an ugly concrete wall staring back at you. Or maybe you just want to hang out with your morning coffee without being on display for the whole neighborhood. Regardless, you need some privacy! “Installing a fence isn’t the only solution,” says Kat Auel Cervoni, landscape designer and founder of Staghorn NYC and The Cultivation by Kat. “Plants can provide screening and add a softer, more naturalistic look than fencing. They also offer the opportunity to connect your interior with your exterior space so it feels more like a true extension of your home.”
Here’s how to use nature to make your outdoor spaces more private and tranquil:
Get to know your yard.
With any planting project, the most critical information is understanding your lighting conditions, says Cervoni. Watch the sunlight in your yard for a few days. It’s important to figure out how much sun an area receives so you’ll know what plants will work there. For example, full sun is considered 6 or more hours per day. Take a picture at various times of day so you’ll have a reference when planning your layout.
Pay attention to topography, too. If you need privacy on a deck, you’ll need more height than a ground-level patio requires. Or maybe you have only a narrow planting area, such as between the house and the property line. “Some plants aren’t appropriate for small yards, so you need to get a sense of how much room you actually have,” says Cervoni.
Do some homework.
Once you understand your site, check out plants in person at a nursery or garden center or do some research online. Read the plant tags and descriptions to learn a plant’s light and water requirements and mature height and width. If you don’t pay attention, that quart-sized pot will grow into something that’s too big for your space in 5 or 10 years, creating a maintenance nightmare. Make sure perennials, shrubs, and trees are tough enough to survive winters in your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here), too.
Also, be real about a plant’s maintenance needs. You can plant a formal hedge for screening for a traditional look, but they do require upkeep. “Know going into it that if you choose something like a boxwood that you want to shear into shape, there’s going to be significant maintenance required,” says Cervoni. If you love to tinker in your yard, have at it! But if you’re more about “set it and forget it” plants, consider other more freeform hedges. For example, skip laurels or Japanese cedars grow quickly and have great texture yet require little or no maintenance.
Use good design principles.
Planting only one kind of tree or shrub such as arborvitae in a long, straight line will provide coverage in a hurry, but it also may set you up for future problems. That’s because if disease strikes, you could lose the entire screen. Or a windstorm or browsing deer could damage plantings and create a hole that’s impossible to fill with a plant of similar height and maturity, says Cervoni.
Instead, mix it up! “Creating a privacy screen with different plants, varying heights, textures and colors is more interesting and allows you to show your personal taste and style,” says Cervoni. Place trees or tall shrubs at the back of the border, layering shorter shrubs and perennials in front. Repeat plants so that the layout feels more cohesive and organized, less haphazard. Stick with odd numbers of specimens, which look better to the eye, such as 3 hydrangeas, 3 skip laurels, and 3 abelias in a long border.
Don’t forget to include plants that shine at different times of year. Evergreens provide year-round color but deciduous trees and blooming shrubs offer seasonal interest. For example, a specimen tree such as a redbud looks smashing in spring, while oakleaf hydrangeas and serviceberry bushes have stunning fall color. Trees with peeling bark, such as heptacodium and crepe myrtle, offer winter interest.
Play with the arrangement before you plant.
Lay everything out in your yard before you put it in the ground. “Stage it and move plants around so you make the design yours,” says Cervoni. Play with lines, curves, and heights. Step back and consider your layout from different viewpoints in your garden, such as from the patio or inside the house. It’s also okay to plant things a wee bit closer than recommended for instant impact. For example, suggested spacing may say 2 to 4 feet between shrubs. But planting on the closer side at 2 feet will help your border look lush more quickly, says Cervoni.
Use containers to screen small areas.
When you have a compact space, such as a tiny deck, patio, or balcony, large planters can provide tons of instant privacy, says Cervoni. For example, if your neighbor’s patio is 20 feet away, opt for 2-foot-tall planters with ornamental grasses, such as ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass, which has an upright form about 3 to 4 feet tall. Or consider miscanthus grass, such as ‘Morning Light,’ which is a fast grower with a more arching shape. Small shrubs also fit the bill. In a tight, narrow space, line up 3 to 5 tall planters with Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’, a type of holly with shiny oval green leaves and upright form.
If you’re really tight on space, such as on a balcony, grow vines to create a living wall. Look for those that cling, such as climbing hydrangeas, which are not destructive to mortar like English ivy, and types that twine, such as native honeysuckle. Clinging types can creep up a wall on their own, but twining types need a lattice to climb. Annual vines are great, too, such as Mandevilla or night-flowering vines such as moon vine.
Water, water, water.
It may go without saying, but after investing all this money, don’t forget to give your plants good, long drinks after planting and on a regular schedule, especially if it hasn’t rained in a week or so. Perennials, shrubs, and trees need water throughout the first year as their root systems get established. While you’re at it, mulch is a wise investment; lay down 2 to 3 inches around new plantings to reduce weeds, preserve moisture, prevent erosion, and regulate soil temperature, says Cervoni. Plus, it looks nice! Just don’t mound mulch up directly against the plant’s stems or trunk, which invites diseases and pests.
A garden isn’t created overnight. It takes time for plants to grow in and fill a space, and there are often welcome surprises, too, such as the hummingbirds that visit your plantings or the utter peace you feel when strolling through it after work. “A garden always changes year to year,” says Cervoni. “Watch it and get to know it. That’s part of the fun.”
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