Ah, for a quiet Sunday morning in summer. Do you yearn for your own little oasis, without the buzzing of lawnmowers, the whining of leaf blowers, the impatient honking of car horns? Most of us can’t surround ourselves with acres of woods or fields to gain privacy. But with the right landscaping we can all create our own small havens and shut out the rest of the world, at least for a while.
Planting for Privacy
Maybe the street is your biggest problem. Or the neighbors. Or that rental down the street. Here are some strategies for creating your own little oasis. You might not be able to shut off all the noise, but you can soften it, and keep all the cars and people out of sight.
What Kind of Planting Suits Your Needs?
Depending on the level of privacy you want, the architectural style of your home and property, and what features are already present in your landscape, you can create privacy with a formal hedge or an informal screen or mixed hedgerow of plants. To deter wandering animals or intruders, you might want a dense, thorny barrier screen.
The high green wall of the classic privet hedge is ubiquitous on eastern Long Island, especially in the Hamptons. A tall hedge effectively blocks the view of your property from the street and from next door. It helps keep windblown sand and salt from blasting your flower gardens. A hedge also very neatly delineates property lines. In a formal setting, it works quite well.
Basically a row of closely planted, carefully sheared plants (usually shrubs but sometimes trees), a formal hedge needs careful shearing several times a year to maintain its neat shape. Ideally, for longest life, a hedge should be sheared with the top narrower than the bottom, so all parts of the plants get enough light. Otherwise the bottom can become sparse as years pass. Eventually the hedge may need to be cut way back to rejuvenate it.
Classic hedge plants include, of course, privet, but also arborvitae (which deer will likely graze), hollies, Leyland cypress and for a lower screen, cherry laurel or “skip” laurel (two forms of the same basic plant in the cherry family, less often attacked by deer but no longer immune as it used to be.
For a looser, more relaxed, maybe even colorful look you’ve got more options. In an informal screen the plants can assume their natural forms without a lot of fussy shearing. The look is softer and looser. Did you know that privet, when left unsheared, takes on a billowy form? It also blooms around the Fourth of July here, which may or may not be appealing. A screen of shrubs, while not a solid wall, can offer other benefits, such as flowers and easier maintenance. Many shrubs are deciduous, losing their leaves in winter, but if you don’t use your outdoor space a lot during the cold months, that might not be a big issue. Evergreen shrubs and trees, such as junipers, spruces and white pines, will be green all year. Some good candidates for informal screens include viburnums, bridal wreath spiraea, summersweet (Clethra), ninebark (Physocarpus), peegee, or panicle, hydrangeas (deer favorites in many gardens, though in my experience less likely to be attacked that the classic blue macrophylla hydrangeas), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) and lilacs. If it’s a barrier you’re after, rugosa roses, with their thorny stems, are a good choice (though deer, perplexingly enough, love to eat them). For a spring-to-fall screen you could also plant a row of tall ornamental grasses. Just bear in mind that the plants will need to be cut back close to the ground in late fall or early spring.
Whatever kind of hedge or screen you consider installing, one plant to avoid at all costs is running bamboo. Bamboos are beautiful and romantic, they sway in the breeze and deer don’t eat them. But running bamboos are impossible for homeowners to control. Unless you plant it in a pot, it will get away from you. Bamboo can pop up yards away from where you plant it. You can sink metal edging strips into the ground around it and bamboo will get underneath it and pop up on the other side. It’s insidious. The only possibly feasible solution I’ve ever heard is to drive a very sharp spade deep into the ground on either side of a stand of bamboo in fall, to sever the runners. But better to avoid the hassle in the first place.
Writer, editor and author Anne Halpin has published 17 books on gardening and related subjects and edited many more. She has been living and gardening on the East End of Long Island for 23 years, and has cared for many private gardens here.