Artfully Planted Privacy

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 26, 2007

The need for privacy in the garden isn't quite as dire as in northern Europe, and it is tempered here by a culture that equates openness with neighborliness. But as landscape designers will tell you, when homeowners seek their help, screening is at the top of the list.

Bigger houses, smaller lots and the draw of spending more time out of doors contribute to a strong wish to remove the looming house next door from the equation. The trouble is, most people don't seek professional advice about planting for privacy, and the best solutions can seem counterintuitive. We have gathered here some examples that will clue you in.

The privacy mania often sends people to the Leyland cypress, a hybrid conifer that grows as much as three feet a year. But this is usually a mistake, for reasons explained on Page 7.

Hedging, like fencing, can be a highly effective tool, but as anyone who lives within the privet-hedge compounds of the Hamptons will tell you, clipping takes work and skill.

So what do the pros know? Screening works best when it doesn't feel like screening. That's tough to achieve when you have a row of evergreens or a monolithic stockade fence screaming "Look at me."

For most people, and their sites, a gentler blindfold will do the trick. Rather than seek to blot out the world -- which, if you are living next to an apartment building or McMansion, is nigh impossible anyway -- the key is to provide partial screening as well as focal points that will turn the eye inward to one's own space.

A focal point can be something as simple as a lovingly shaped specimen tree or a large decorative pot, planted or not. The more structured and coherent the internal elements of the garden -- the narrowing line of a path, the horizontal "bones" of a wall, a grouping of chairs -- the more the scene within asserts itself, allowing you to zone out the distractions without.

Freed from putting trees in a row, you can group plants into layers and mix evergreens with deciduous trees and shrubs as well as perennials and grasses. This makes the greenery much more interesting and alive than with evergreens alone, even if you give up some winter privacy.

Screening in Layers

Sandra Clinton, head of Clinton & Associates landscape architects in Hyattsville, thinks of plant groupings of three layers as an alternative to a hedge. In an expansive setting, the rear screen might be of shade trees that reach 70 feet in maturity: oaks and maples, for example. The middle layer, rising to 30 feet, might consist of hemlocks and big hollies. The front screen might be of small trees such as dogwoods, amelanchiers or redbuds. As the size of the setting is reduced, the plant material is scaled back, but the three-layer principle remains. You could gather Southern magnolias and hollies as a rear layer, crape myrtles as the middle one and shrubs to the fore. In an even smaller garden, Clinton suggests a back layer of clustered Foster's holly, a middle layer of shrubs such as pieris, mahonia and viburnums, and then leafy perennials in front of those, perhaps hostas, hellebores or ligularia.

That was her approach in the Chevy Chase Village garden pictured on the cover. The reworking of the garden in 1999 and 2000 created a patio that was by necessity elevated and looking out to a busy corner. Restrictions limited the fence height to just 36 inches. Creating a private space seemed an impossible task, and yet it is achieved so well that the owner can lie in a chaise close to the fence and feel totally secluded.

Clinton designed a stained cedar fence with layered plantings on either side. Outside, she clustered two different holly types: Foster's holly now growing to 18 feet and Nellie Stevens at 12 feet. Most are outside the fence, but some are inside, blurring the fence line. Small to medium shrubs, from oakleaf hydrangeas to leatherleaf viburnums, further blur the margins without overpowering the space.

I think the most ingenious element is the screening of plantings not from the inside out but the outside in, achieved with a medley of green textured plants of different forms. This composition is so interesting but simple that one forgets that it is there to keep the passerby's eyes out of the garden.

Private but Neighborly

One of the most difficult screening challenges is to screen houses in a neighborhood where they sit just a few feet from each other. In Charlottesville, landscape architect Gregg Bleam screened a client's side yard with a new path and a simple, semi-open white fence built on a masonry foundation that took care of a grade change. A garden shed, rebuilt as a study, provides a striking focal point. Toward the front of the property, the fence yields to a clipped hedge of hornbeams, cheaper to install than such a handcrafted fence and capable of heights not permitted with structures. It is clipped to keep it neat and in bounds.

The adjoining house is just a few feet from the property line. Putting a solid fence in such a narrow side yard, Bleam said, would have created something oppressive both physically, with reduced air movement, and visually. "When you step back it appears more solid than it is," he said. "And it is more interesting than if it were solid boards." Similarly, the clipped hornbeam hedge is more engaging than evergreens because it changes through the season. The dead leaves have a tendency to hang on in winter, and the twiggy hedge remains as a veil if not a screen.

Secluded From View

In an established suburban setting, tight quarters are to be expected. But when Gay and Tony Barclay moved to a 19th-century farmhouse near Potomac in 1982, they never dreamed that they would need to screen out the world. Today, their once-solitary vista of the distant Potomac River is dominated by colossal mansions on opposing hills.

In developing the garden, in part with Clinton and other design collaborators, Gay Barclay has positioned an arcing hornbeam hedge and, in a lower pasture, weeping willows and magnolias. But she recognized that she would have to create an inward-looking area to reclaim her sense of seclusion, and this was done on a site removed from the house in a sunken garden formed of walls and paving.

A neighbor planted eastern white pines that now, after 25 years, are tall and effective, but the lower part, the layering, is achieved with a fence made to look fashioned from found timbers. This adds to the rustic aura. Canvas shrouds are tied to the top of the big-boned arbor. This provides shading, but also would establish a model of seclusion in the city, where higher buildings might surround a lot.

Barclay, meanwhile, forges new areas and redefines older ones. "Everything I have had to do in the property is shielding," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company