Neil Sperry

Need some privacy for your backyard? Don’t build a barrier, plant a landscape screen

Somebody called my radio program this past weekend. They needed a privacy screen for a backyard that is only 25 by 40 feet in size. That’s really tiny. Fortunately the house behind them is a one-story building, so at least their screen doesn’t have to be really tall.

I get this kind of inquiry a lot. It’s not that we’re hermits. It’s just that no one wants to share all the private family times with all those around them. We need some way of screening out the rest of the world, and we’re hoping it’s not just more walls — more cubicles like the ones we look at all day.

I thought it might be refreshing to discuss some of the options you have in privacy screens based on needs, plant sizes, landscape spaces, design tastes, and other things that might pop into your mind and mine. I vowed to write this in a way I’ve never addressed this topic before, so here comes a stream-of-consciousness discussion of privacy screens.

Know how tall your plants need to be when they’re mature. Easiest way? Take a piece of PVC water pipe out in the yard with you. Put a piece of blue tape at every foot and number them. Stand at a window or out on the patio – wherever you’ll be wanting the privacy. Visualize which foot marker best identifies the height your plant needs to grow, then add one foot for good measure.

Make a list of the best several plants that grow to that height at maturity without a lot of heroic pruning. Don’t choose plants that grow twice as tall as you need and then plan on pruning them regularly to keep them in bounds. Choose something that grows to the height and spread that you need.

Set your plants out at spacings approximately two-thirds as far apart as they will grow tall. That’s the general rule of green thumb. Columnar types, should you choose those (there aren’t many good ones), would be planted more closely, but the two-thirds rule is usually best. That means a screen growing to 9 feet tall should have plants set 6 feet apart.

It doesn’t have to be a straight line of one kind of plant. Maybe it’s clusters or groupings. That would be natural. That would be cool. You could use a cluster of five shrubs of one type and a curved sweep of seven shrubs of another type with a very different texture of its foliage and growth form. Perhaps you might plant a small evergreen tree between the two types. (Teddy Bear magnolia comes to mind.)

Maybe berms could work to your advantage. They’re little hills that rise and fall naturally out of your landscape. You could plant toward the tops of them to give your plants an extra 12-18 inches of height. But don’t plant right at the summits of the hills — plants normally don’t grow that way in nature. They grow where water drains — down the sides.

In extremely narrow spaces you could use espaliers or vines. Espaliers are shrubs or small trees that are trained two-dimensionally to grow flat against walls. They break up the starkness of the fence or wall and reduce noise in the process, but they take up very little horizontal space.

If you do end up pruning some of your privacy plants, do so carefully. Try to maintain their natural growth forms if that’s at all possible. If you prune them to square shapes you defeat the purpose of using shrubs to have a more natural look to your landscape. If you prune them “back” repeatedly they will eventually lose vigor because you’ll be cutting off new growth time after time, almost punishing the plants for trying to grow. And don’t taper your plants inward toward their bases. That keeps sunlight from reaching those leaves and they’ll eventually fall off leaving bare stems behind.

These are random, but they’re plants that I’ve used or seen used effectively as privacy screens. I thought they might give you a some new ideas.

Italian jasmine

This deepest green evergreen shrub arches gracefully and grows to be 4 to 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Therefore, it’s great atop a retaining wall or berm where its form will add to the flow.

Regular nandina

It’s Nandina domestica. No cultivar. Just the plain old species, and it grows to be 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It makes a dandy screen if you cut the tallest canes back to the ground every January. Do one-third of them each year to keep the plants from growing leggy. Need something taller? I have an old variety called Umpqua Warrior. It grows to be 8 to 9 feet tall and makes thickets of fine-textured, reddish-green leaves with lovely smaller berries. You rarely see it in nurseries, but it’s available online. I love this plant!


You knew I’d get here. For regular screens to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide: Willowleaf (also called Needlepoint, but don’t let the name scare you off). For slender screens to 10 feet tall and 5 or 6 feet wide: Oakleaf or Oakland hollies (very similar). For tall screens to 10 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide: Nellie R. Stevens hollies. Hollies are the best replacements for disease-ridden redtip photinias. Hollies, as well as the other plants mentioned, do well in sun or shade.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.