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Landscaping for Privacy, Pt. 1- Avoiding the ‘Living Fence’

Landscape designs for most suburban properties will need to address the human need for privacy. One approach would be to call the local fence company. Another would be to plant a row of tall, narrow evergreens just inside the property line. These are elements we sometimes employ as part of an overall privacy scheme, but let’s look a little closer.

Fences are great for corralling kids and pets but are less effective for screening. The typical wood privacy fence is 6’ tall (if allowed in your neighborhood). Consider that if the floor of your home sits 3’ above grade a person standing at a window will be looking right over the fence. Fences have a way of screaming “Here’s the property line right here!” and fencing well inside the property line has the effect of making a yard feel smaller.

So what about the row of tall, columnar evergreens? This is the dreaded “living fence”. Those formal, pyramidal evergreens draw the eye- and then the eye looks past them to the very thing you are trying to screen. Also, some of the plants commonly used are not very healthy or long-lived. Leyland cypress, for example, is a fast growing evergreen. It gets big. Many people, including some designers, imagine plants growing to the height they need and no taller. It doesn’t work that way. Leylands will grow about 15’ taller than the roofline of the average suburban home and wider than the space they are often given. This can have the effect of eating the yard and diminishing the visual impact of the home. The other problem is that that leyland cypress has a congenitally weak root system and when they get big they are susceptible to blowing over in storms.

I will end here to make this point: shade trees and large screening plants are like the roof and walls of a garden. These should be viewed as relatively permanent elements that should be chosen and sited with great care. It is really disappointing to put 15 years into growing plants that serve such an important function in the landscape only to have them fall apart.

In Part II, I will offer some thoughts on my approach to landscape design for privacy.

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