Choosing the best privacy screen plants

By Steve Boehme - Contributing Columnist

Do you live in a fish bowl? Would you like to put a curtain between your private living spaces and the rest of the neighborhood? Or perhaps there’s something unsightly next door that you’d prefer not to see?

You don’t need to cover your windows with blinds and curtains, or build a high board fence around your back yard. There are better, prettier ways to block sight lines into, or out of, your private spaces. We like to do it with plants. Choosing the right plants for privacy screen, there are lots of choices. You probably don’t need a hedge of pointy upright evergreens or a straight row of pine trees, but if you do let’s choose the right ones.

First, let’s figure out exactly which sight lines you’re trying to mask. How wide and tall a planting do you really need? Often, just one well-chosen tree or large shrub would take care of the problem, without blocking your view of the horizon or cutting off the summer breeze. Let’s actually measure the section of your property line that would need to be blocked, to get the result you want. Does the privacy planting need to start from the ground up? Is the sight line you’re trying to block actually high above ground level? Visualize the exact shape and size of the plant or plants you need. Chances are there’s a plant the right size and shape that would thrive in that spot.

If your neighbors, or street traffic, annoy you so much that you want an impenetrable evergreen hedge (perhaps with thorns?) so be it. For faster results you can “stagger” the plants. If cost is no object, you can install “instant results” sized plants. If you’re on a tight budget you can plant small container-grown examples of the same species. Space the plants the same either way. Spacing should be 75 percent of the plants’ mature footprint.

How much space do you have for a privacy planting? Norway spruce is one of our favorite privacy screen plants (and also a terrific windbreak), but a mature Norway spruce is 20 feet across at the base, and grows over 50 feet tall. This is a good choice for homeowners with larger yards, or people with small backyards who don’t need the space.

The opposite extreme is tall, narrow evergreens like arborvitae, with a footprint of three to five feet. The downside is that it takes so many plants to make an effective screen. Deer are also a problem; for deer most arborvitae are like having a salad bar open up in your neighborhood.

We like the Viburnum family of shrubs for privacy. They are dense, fast-growing and trouble-free, attractive to birds, and have a footprint of six to 12 feet wide depending on variety. “Mariesii” Viburnums have showy blooms and colorful fall foliage. “Allegheny” Viburnums are semi-evergreen and do well in the shade of larger trees.

When designing privacy plantings we always make a plan drawing. This allows us to arrange privacy plants in ways that do the most good with the least cost, and the least obstruction of views you actually enjoy. Simply blocking unpleasant sightlines and leaving the rest open may be all the privacy planting you really need.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

By Steve Boehme

Contributing Columnist