Green Screens: Planting for Privacy

Gardeners can create layers of screening plants to create privacy, enclosures, and drama within the garden.

Using plants as screening is the prettiest way to block an unsightly view, demarcate space, channel traffic, or form the walls of an intimate outdoor room. A green screen can be anything from a single eye-stopping specimen to a uniform hedge, to a mixture of evergreen and flowering shrubs, to a vine-adorned fence. The type of plant that does the screening influences the overall personality of a garden as well as the amount of labor required to maintain it.

Ascending Evergreens

Robust, columnar evergreens make a tidy, effective, year-round green screen.

Often, the first plants that spring to mind for screening are three evergreens: Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, Zones 6-8), and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, Zones 2-7). Each has a formal aspect and grows at warp speed; Leyland cypress tops out at 75 feet, Japanese cedar at about 50 feet, and arborvitae at 40 feet. Appealing as immediate gratification is, very tall plants can change patterns of light and shade, be difficult to prune, and, worse, grow out of proportion with the rest of a garden. For this reason, gardeners seeking a more manageable evergreen screen have more compact varieties of these trees from which to choose. North Pole® arborvitae has a narrow, conical habit and tops out at 15 feet, and Rein’s Dense Jade Japanese cedar is a choice variety that reaches 25 feet and has very dense growth.

Hedging Plants

Skip laurel has spires of white flowers in mid to late spring and glossy, evergreen leaves.

Another traditional hedge plant is Skip laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Schipkaensis’, Zones 6-9).  It grows moderately fast, is dark green and dense, thrives just about anywhere, tolerates pollution and drought, takes pruning, and reaches about 12 feet. Unfortunately, deer love it.

Deer won’t bother spicily aromatic dwarf bayberry (Myrica cerifera, Zones 7-9), an evergreen that can eventually reach 10 to 15 feet but is generally much shorter. Its loose habit is casual, but for a more formal look, it takes well to shearing. Growing in wet or sandy soils, sun or shade, it isn’t bothered by salt spray or high winds and is ideal for seaside gardens. Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, Zones 3-7) is equally tolerant of tough growing conditions but is hardier and shorter, reaching between 5 to 10 feet.

Prague viburnum is an evergreen spring bloomer with a less formal appearance when used as a screening shrub.

A uniform clipped hedge is at home in a formal garden. Informal gardens allow for looser, more textured shrubs, such as the deep evergreen Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense, Zones 5-8).  It will reach 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide quickly in the sun or part shade.  It grows in full shade but won’t produce the fragrant, creamy white May flowers that are followed by showy black berries. The equally informal All that Glows® Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is a pleasing deciduous viburnum that is tough and creates a fine screen. It takes well to shearing, has glossy leaves, and white flower clusters in late spring followed by clusters of deep blue berries that remain attractive into fall.

Screening Grasses

Feather Reed Grass has a stark upright habit and creates a fine green screen from summer through winter.

Informal gardens also allow for out-of-the-box thinking.  How about a screen of ornamental grasses?  Drought-tolerant, deer-resistant switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a tall, airy, native and some cultivars can reach up to 6 feet or more. The award-winning ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind,’ Zones 4-9) is vertical with olive-green blades and soft panicles that top out at 6 feet. It grows quickly in a single season. Another grass with a vertical appeal is the classic Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), which reaches 4 to 6 feet. It’s upright green panicles age to warm tan by fall and remain attractive through winter.

Or how about grasses and shrubs in combination? Deer-resistant blue fountain or clumping bamboo (Fargesia nitida, Zones 5-8) reaches 10 feet tall or more.  Clumps are dense, but the thin. Erect canes have a linear appearance that contrasts handsomely with bold, broadleaf evergreens in the foreground, such as Beale’s mahonia (Mahonia bealei, Zones 6-9)–a deep green shrub with prickly evergreen leaves that grows up to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide. Another complement would be Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 6-8), which grows to 6 feet or slightly more and spreads to 5 feet wide. Fragrant yellow flowers bloom in the earliest spring. (Click here to read more about Oregon grape holly.)

Mixed Screens

Mixed screens, comprised of varied plant material and media, provide continuous appeal.

Alone, evergreen Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, Zones 5-8) is ideal for a medium green screen in a narrow area.  It reaches 10 feet, but stays 3 feet wide and under, grows in the sun or shade, isn’t fussy about soil, and needs no trimming. It is sensational when alternated in a hedge with just about any shorter flowering shrub. One choice might be deciduous flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa, Zones 5-8).  Quince grows to about 6’ tall and bears pink, red, or white early-spring flowers, followed by tart fruits that can be used in jams and jellies. Its thorns deter deer, but there is a thornless and fruitless variety called Double Take Orange( aka. Double Take Orange Storm), which has double flowers of deepest orange that make it well worth growing.

Privatizing Climbers for Fences

Sometimes a well-espaliered tree, like this apple, makes its own green screen.

Sometimes, for reasons of space and time, only a fence will do.  Espaliered trees or shrubs like apples, pyracantha, and camellias (Camellia species, zones 7-9), or a woody vine, like climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, Zones 5-9), are great choices for added fence or green wall screening that goes a long way to improving the view.

Hip, Sustainable Rugosa Roses

Wild rugosa roses typically have showy, single, pink flowers that stand bright against disease resistant, rugose foliage.

If you’re yearning for sustainable, self-sufficient or fast ways to get slow food, add a hip-producing rose or two to your landscape. Don’t choose modern, easy-care types that are too highly bred to be useful. Instead start with the Asian Rosa rugosa, which is more cold hardy and drought resistant than most others along with being a great fruit producer. It’s also nearly pest and disease free, making it the perfect first fruit-producing rose of choice.

Edible Hips

I have always cultivated rugosas for their enormous fruits, called “hips”, that follow the pollinated flower. The tart rugosa fruits are some of the largest of all roses and mature to dark red in the fall. If left on the upright canes, their color pops after early snowfall.

rose rugosa hip
The large round hips of Rosa rugosa are tart, flavorful and packed with nutrients.

Rugosa hips range in diameter from the size of a nickel to as large as a quarter. The soft, astringent flesh inside is chock full of vitamins. When dried, they make an amazing medicinal tea for cold and flu. Their medicinal value was discovered by the British during World War II when citrus importation was limited. Finding a local source of vitamin C was essential to staving off scurvy in the children, and rose hips from English gardens saved the day. Since then, rose hips became coveted for jams and jellies, concentrated syrups or as vitamin rich additives to medicinal teas. Adding fresh rose hips to a quick bread or cookies also lends unique flavor and adds nutritional value.

Rugosa Growth

Rugosa roses have a more brambly growth habit in that they spread via underground rhizomes and can eventually form thickets–particularly if planted in sandy, friable soils. The roots send up canes all along the way to eventually create a large dense plant. This has made rugosas the most popular rose for creating carefree hedges that don’t need to be pampered or sprayed. Rather than planting a hedge of boxwood or some other strictly ornamental shrub, use rugosas instead. There are many cultivated varieties of this rose that bloom red, white or the common pink, you get food and flowers.

Rugosa hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife.
Unused hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Plant non-grafted rugosas bareroot in spring or from container plants any time from spring to fall. It’s advisable to start with well-rooted 1- or 5-gallon plants spaced apart at between 3 to 5 feet; good spacing allows plenty of room for each to spread out to fill the gaps quickly.

This rose is native to the coastal hillsides, sandy sea shores of China, but it has become established in many temperate, sandy locations worldwide, it grows best in sandy soils. Still it is adaptable and will grow well in all but poorly drained soils.

Planting Rugosa Roses

The easiest planting method for rugosas is to dig a trench, and amend the soil to encourage more adventurous rooting. (Trenching discourages root travel beyond the strict edges of the trench for a more precise linear hedge.) Amend the excavated soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to lighten clay or increase water holding capacity of sandy soils. Enrich it further with alfalfa meal, a favorite natural fertilizer of rose aficionados everywhere. The fertility of poor soils can also be boosted with alfalfa meal for even more nutrition at planting time.

These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach.
These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Planting just one rugosa rose in your yard is the genesis for a more extensive fruit and flower harvest in the future. Simply allow plants to become established, then either create new ones by layering the stems, or dig out more adventurous rhizomes, sever and replant elsewhere.

No other rose is as well suited to the sustainable garden, urban agriculture and the hobby farm due to its ease of cultivation, pest and disease resistance and many uses in the kitchen. So plant easy care rugosa roses for hedges and as a fruit crop that bears heartily during the hard times, and ‘tween times, when there’s little else going in your garden.