Green Scene

Maximum-Security Landscaping

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Personal security is always on our minds, especially at home. We double-lock our doors, arm our homes with security systems and motion-sensor lights, and even install bars on our windows. But not many of us think about landscape design as a way to protect our homes from intruders.

The right plants, in fact, can provide an effective additional layer of security. Planting and maintaining our gardens for security can enhance an attractive landscape by opening clear sight lines across the property or by screening areas that we don't want exposed for all to see.

Shoring up your property's defenses does require some planning, time and, yes, money. Here are some guidelines that I use when developing a landscape design with security in mind.

One of the most reliable ways to secure your landscape is to plant thorny thicket hedges, which can create impenetrable barriers. They provide security at the edge of properties or in dark corners close to the house where a prowler could enter. If you don't require a tall barrier, keep shrubs pruned to three feet or lower for good visibility. Elevate tree limbs at least eight feet above the ground so you won't walk into low-hanging branches and poke yourself in the eye.

Shrubs provide privacy, but they can also give cover to unlawful activity if they get too big, and you might have to remove or cut them to keep areas secure. Foundation plantings should be kept low. Use dwarf conifers, such as bird's nest spruces; low growing shrubs, such as English yews and globose blue spruces (Picea pungens), also known as "Glauca Globosa"; or thorny plants that stay small, about three to four feet high and wide. One shrub that people aren't likely to hide behind, with its tight mass of thorny leaves, is Rotunda Chinese holly.

Shrubs should not cover windows, as that can allow an intruder to enter your home unseen. A common mistake is covering windows from the outside so that others can't see into the house. In fact, this creates a security risk because you can't see out, and intruders can stand between shrubs and windows, peering in without being seen from the street.

If you're designing shrubs as hedges, or accents in flowering borders, there are several types that are likely to wound intruders, including hardy oranges (Poncirus trifoliata), pyracanthas and devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa). Don't plant these where children play, climb or dig with their hands. These shrubs can draw blood. Thorny plants tend to collect trash and leaves, so make sure you wear gloves when removing debris that gets caught in the branches.

Always ascertain a plant's growth habit, or size at full maturity, before buying it, making sure it is in scale with your house. Some homes can make do with a single row of hardy oranges, which can reach 10 feet in height. For others, more extensive planting might be required, such as an entire grove of devil's walking sticks. As with all plants, growth depends on sun and type of soil.

Pruning these thorny shrubs, of course, poses a special challenge. Be sure to wear thick gloves, long sleeves, long pants and sturdy shoes. Remember that selective pruning yields the best results. Cut one-third of the oldest wood out, leaving the lower, younger growth. It can be time-consuming to prune a hedge this way, but it is without a doubt the best method. Low plants, such as Rotunda Chinese hollies and Virginia rose (R. virginiana) might never need pruning if planted four feet apart.

The following are several other ways to secure your property.

-- Fences or walls. Think about security when erecting walls and fences in your garden. It might dictate where they are installed and how high they should be. Securing an area requires complete enclosure and possibly a structure eight to 10 feet high. Most local building codes allow only six to seven feet, unless you obtain a variance. Vines on walls can help discourage graffiti.

To minimize the possibility that your barriers will conceal intruders, consider picket fences, lattice with large openings, walls with open patterns or another see-through design, such as chain link.

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