Looking for a little privacy in your great out-of-doors? Many people have watched their old plants dry up in this summer of all summers. Privacy is such a valuable commodity in today's more squeezed urban environments, so let's discuss how landscaping can come to your rescue. Plants help in several critical ways, but you have to choose and use them appropriately. Let's outline the details.
Plants are great at breaking up lines of sight. We have several fine choices that will grow tall enough to block people's views of your house and its gardens. But it's not quite as simple as that. Here are some guidelines.
Start by determining the real height that you need. Will 8 feet suffice, or do you need 12 or 15 feet -- or more? If you're unsure, a "quick-and-dirty" technique would be to take a section of white plastic pipe and a few pieces of blue masking tape. Mark the pipe off in feet, and have someone hold the pipe where you intend to plant your new screen. Walk to various parts of your landscape, and keep track of the height that best suits your needs. There's no point in planting something unnecessarily tall, because it's just going to take up more ground space than it needs to.
Your next temptation will be to plant something really fast-growing. That's probably frustration waiting for its chance to bite you. Fast-growing plants typically zoom past our desired heights (and widths), and we have to start whacking them back, often several times each season. As the teenager who got to prune 100 feet of the Sperry family hedge almost weekly all summer, I learned a life lesson: Know how tall and wide a plant will grow before you plunk down your money. Luckily, all of our fine screening shrubs and small trees are sold in a variety of pot sizes. Net result: If you have more budget than time, go with large specimens. If you need to stretch your dollars but you still want quality, go with the smaller plants.
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Determine how many plants you're going to need before you go shopping. Measure the space where you'll be planting your screen carefully. For most species, you'll want to space the plants about two-thirds as far apart as they will be allowed to grow in height. If you're planting shrubs that will top out at 12 feet, set them 8 feet apart in their rows or groupings. Do ask a Certified Nursery Professional, however, for a second opinion. Some plants are more upright than others.
Best choices in screening shrubs
If you're looking for a planting that will screen at 6 to 8 feet, look at willowleaf hollies (also known as needlepoint hollies), glossy abelia (the original, old-fashioned species), elaeagnus and perhaps even butterfly roses (semi-evergreen).
If you need something taller, in the 8- to 12-foot spread, Mary Nell holly is one of the finest. And the good news is that there are several fine selections from Mary Nell in the marketplace now, collectively known as the "red" hollies. Best known of them all is Oakland holly, but we also have Oakleaf (similar to Oakland), Robin, Little Red and Festival. Waxleaf ligustrums are historically popular plants in this size range, although they're far less common now than they were 30 years ago.
For tall screening shrubs in the 12- to 16-foot range, Nellie R. Stevens hollies are tops. They're great replacements for redtip photinias that have died out due to Entomosporium fungal leaf spot. In truth, Nellie R. Stevens hollies could fairly easily be maintained at 10 or 12 feet of height. Yaupon hollies are also fine tall screening plants, whether you train them as small trees or allow them to grow as dense shrubs.
Finally, the best small to midsize evergreen trees in our area are Teddy Bear dwarf magnolias (to 15 to 20 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet wide), Little Gem dwarf magnolias (to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide) and eastern red cedar junipers (to 35 feet tall and 30 feet wide). These will require substantial ground space, but you can also plant them in double rows. Offset the plants in the rows, and you'll have a much quicker visual screen.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.