A common problem for many property owners is a lack of privacy. Having neighbors looking straight into your windows, or watching you on your porch is never a pleasant experience. When in our homes we expect to be able to drop some of the social habits and relax without being judged. Or walk around without a shirt. The difficult problem of privacy is one of the most common issues encountered when moving in to a new property, or when a new building goes up next door.
Preventing someone from looking in is one problem. What you are looking out at is another. When you are in your garden you don’t really want to see that gas station across the street, or those pylons marching across the fields behind you. There are lots of ugly views around and these not only detract from your environment, they reduce your property value. You can’t move the ugly view, but you can make sure it cannot be seen so when you come to sell your home it won’t put off potential buyers.
Then there is the issue of wind and being very exposed to the weather, especially in winter. An exposed, windy property is not a great place to grow plants in. If you have plans for a garden, perhaps with fruit trees and flowers, then some shelter from strong winds will make a big difference to their growth and your success. Windbreaks create a micro-climate that allows you to grow a much wider variety of plants, not have your ornamental trees blow down, and have fewer issues with snow drifting and piling up around your house.
The needs for privacy, for screening and for windbreaks are all problems that can be solved with several different strategies, but the best solution of all is trees. Trees are basic elements in a good garden. Here at the Tree Center we have a carefully chosen selection of sturdy, fast-growing varieties that will give you the right tree for every situation.
The Value of Privacy Trees
Appearance: Nothing beats the living, green curtain created by trees. The soft green of a living privacy fence is attractive by itself and also creates a beautiful backdrop for flowering trees, shrubs and plants. Fences can look nice in a catalogue, but when installed their hard, flat look does nothing to create a pleasant living space. Many people install a ‘decorative’ fence and then find it so ugly they plant a hedge in front making the fence a wasted expense. If you do need a fence for security, around a pool perhaps, then a simple chain-link can provide the security at low cost and a hedge in front of it will bring the beauty.
Cost: Fencing is expensive. Planting a hedge or privacy screen of trees is perhaps half the cost of a fence, in part because you probably need to hire a contractor to build a fence, but you can easily plant your own hedge, so the only cost is the plants themselves. A hedge can be grown to whatever height you need, starting with the same size trees, but fences become much more expensive the taller they need to be, and if you find you need an extra foot or two you need a new fence, not just an extra year of growth.
Cost Savings: When planting towards the prevailing winter winds a tall screen of plants can reduce the wind by 75% and this will reduce heating costs for your house by 15 to 25%. Your trees could pay for themselves in a few years. Fences create turbulence and can increase rather than decrease the wind.
Maintenance: Most fences need some kind of maintenance because from the moment a fence is installed it starts to deteriorate. Wood begins to rot and vinyl becomes brittle from the light. When you put in plants, they begin to grow and a hedge gets better with age, while a fence gets worse. Hedges do need clipping but that is a pleasant, healthy activity compared to painting and of course the cost of the paint itself.
Wildlife: Hedges and windbreaks provide valuable spaces for birds to nest and feed in. Larger windbreaks provide cover and refuges for other wildlife, perhaps including locally endangered species.
Choosing Fast Growing Privacy Trees
The Choices: There are four main types of plants used for privacy. They all have advantages so your choice may depend on a number of factors.
- Evergreen Conifers. In this group we have all the familiar evergreens like Pine, Cedar and Cypress. For screening Thuja is especially useful, with Thuja Green Giant being a great tree when good size and rapid growth are what you need. Thuja Emerald Green is similar but more useful for shorter hedges and cooler regions.
- Broad-leaf Evergreens. These plants have ordinary leaves but they do not drop in fall so the plants are green all year round. Nellie Stevens Holly and American Holly are both great plants for a tough hedge, with the spiny leaves giving extra security. In warmer region Wax Myrtle is a fabulous choice and will grow by the sea or in sandy, exposed areas. Once established it will grow very rapidly to make a dense screen.
- Deciduous Trees. If winter foliage is not an essential requirement then deciduous trees, which lose their leaves over the winter, can be a terrific choice too. The Willow Hybrid is the fastest thing on roots and is ideal when you need a screen in a hurry. Tri Color Willow, with its beautiful foliage in mottled green, pink and white is a great choice for a shorter hedge or screen and will really brighten up the garden.
- Bamboos. These giant ‘grasses’ with their elegant canes and evergreen leaves are great screening plants that are often overlooked. Depending on your region, they can reach 25 to 35 feet in height, particularly Black Bamboo and Golden Bamboo. They form dense clumps that need no trimming and give a very elegant and different look as well as good privacy.
Hardiness: The first thing you need to know is your hardiness zone. At the Tree Center we show you the range of zones each plant will grow in. Always choose a plant that is hardy in your zone. For a cold region Thuja Emerald Green is a great choice as it is hardy right up into Canada. In warmer regions, Wax Myrtle and the various Bamboos are fast growing and excellent choices.
Salt tolerance: If you are planting your living privacy fence along a road or highway and you live in an area with winter snow and ice you should choose plants that are salt hardy. Leyland Cypress is a great screening plant that is also salt-resistant.
Growth Rate: In many cases when you want privacy you want it yesterday. This is why some people make the mistake of putting up fences because they are seen as an instant solution. With modern breeding techniques plants have been produced that grow so fast they are almost an instant screen. The Willow Hybrid can grow 10 feet in a year, Leyland Cypress 4 feet and Thuja Green Giant 3 feet in a single year. With growth like that in just a short time you will have a healthy, thriving hedge giving you all the screening you need. If you don’t need such rapid growth then it may be better to choose a plant that grows at perhaps 1 or 2 feet a year as in the long term those plants will need less clipping to control their final size.
Sun or Shade: All recommended trees for privacy will grow well in full sun, but some will also grow in shade. Nellie Stevens Holly, Sky Pencil Holly and American Holly are all shade-tolerant species that will grow beneath deciduous trees or in the shade of a building or a fence.
Deciduous or Evergreen: The great advantage of choosing Evergreen trees is all year round protection. However they can cast a long shadow in winter. So if privacy is needed mostly in summer, perhaps for the outdoor areas you only use at that time, deciduous trees could be a better choice for winter light. Either way, the Tree Center has suitable fast-growing trees of both kinds.
Soil: Since you want the trees you plant to grow both quickly and strongly, choose plants best suited for your soil and moisture levels. Some trees do best with a good supply of water, Thuja Emerald Green for example, while others, like our Drought Tolerant Evergreen and Juniper Wichita Blue are extremely resistant to dryness once established and are an ideal choice for exposed, sandy areas.
Available Space: Some trees grow wider than others. If you only have a narrow area available for your screen you should choose a narrow, upright tree. For warm and dry areas Italian Cypress is an ideal choice, reaching 40 feet tall but only 4 feet wide without trimming. Of course the height can be controlled by clipping. In cooler regions the Sky Pencil Holly will grow 12 feet or more tall and be only 2 feet wide. It also has the advantage of being tolerant of some shade.
Mixed Planting or Single Variety: For a formal, clipped hedge it is usually appropriate to use one variety of tree. Choose the one that suits your requirements best. Single plantings give a very calm backdrop for the rest of your garden. For informal plantings that are not going to be regularly clipped, a mixture of plants gives a more natural look as well as greater visual variety. It also means that faster growing species will protect the slower ones while they develop. A mix of deciduous and evergreen plants will look different as the seasons change and create lots of interest.
Planning Your Privacy Trees and Shrubs
Obviously you will plant your screen to obstruct an ugly view or protect the parts of your garden or house that you want to keep private. There are a few things you should consider in deciding the exact location.
Orientation: If you place a tall planting to the south of your property it will throw a long shadow across your garden, especially in winter. So try to locate your screen as far away as possible. Screens planted to the north can be closer, as they will cast no shade, you will be seeing the side that grows best and you will also have the benefit of the warmth it will trap.
Restrictions: If you live in an urban area there will probably be restrictions on the height and placement of hedges and fences. Typically you must place your hedge inside the lot-line, with no part of it is over the lot line. So you will need to place the hedge perhaps 4 feet behind the line to achieve this. On street corners hedges may be restricted because of road safety and visibility issues. You may have to set your hedge 25 feet or more back from the corner, if it is over a certain height. Similar restrictions may apply along driveways too. There are usually also restrictions on the height of your hedge. 6 to 8 feet is often the maximum height allowed for a hedge but you may be allowed a taller hedge when you are beside commercial premises. It is best to check with your local city when you are planning your privacy screen to see what restrictions may apply to you. Sometimes hedges can be taller than fences, so again, hedges may win-out over a fence.
Windbreaks: If your primary goal is wind control then there are several factors to consider in placing your screen. Firstly, determine the direction of the prevailing winds. Neighbours may know or a good place to find out is your local airport or weather station. The coldest winds will probably come from the north, but it could be northeast or northwest and if possible place your row at right-angles to the prevailing wind. The maximum protection is in the area that is 2 to 5 times the height of your windbreak away from it. This means that there is a zone 40 to 80 feet from the windbreak that will get protection from a wide range of tree heights. Obviously you want the windbreak as far away as possible, but you will need taller trees the further away you go. There is very little protection when you are away from the trees a distance more than 10 times their height. The reduced wind-speed will cause snow to drop in the sheltered area behind the trees, so try to keep the trees away from driveways and areas where snow-drifts could be a problem. Equally, by dropping the snow near the trees a windbreak reduces the amount which reaches your home. The most snow is dropped in the first 100 feet past the windbreak. If as it matures your windbreak drops too much snow where it is not wanted, pruning up a couple of feet from the ground will allow the wind underneath, which will blow the snow away.
How To Plant Privacy Trees and Bushes
The most important thing to consider when planting is the distance apart. Each tree has a different final width and for a dense screen trees should be spaced slightly less than half the spread of your choice. So if you are working with a tree that grows 10 feet wide, 4 feet apart is ideal. This is also a good general distance to use to get a fast screen. For shorter hedges you can even plant with the root balls touching, but this does restrict the final height that your plants can grow to. If you have more space available for your hedge, then plant a double row, with plants 6 or 8 feet apart in the rows, and staggered in the rows, as this will give a very dense screen. This method is also excellent when planting windbreaks, where the trees are spaced more widely and may be two, three or four rows deep. Planting that way also has the maximum effect in slowing down the wind.
When planting your new trees make sure they receive plenty of water during the planting activity itself. Then water them well once a week during their first growing season and after that during dry periods. Once established many privacy trees are extremely drought tolerant and need almost no care.
Some of our privacy trees can grow very tall, so clipping is often important to keep them at a suitable height and width for your needs. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until your trees reach the height you need before clipping them. Your hedge will be denser and have leaves right to the ground in you clip it lightly as it grows. Keep the top narrower than the bottom so that light reaches the lower branches and keeps them green, healthy and growing well. Some privacy trees, like Holly, Wax Myrtle and the Willows, can be cut back very hard if needed. This will regenerate them and give you very thick growth if they should become too tall and open. However most evergreen conifers should be kept clipped from an early age because if they are cut back to bare branches they will not re-sprout. Bamboo can be trimmed at the top but if leaves are cut off the stems lower down new leaves will not develop.