Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 12, 2002

Planting for privacy Planting for privacy (July 12, 2002)

Creating garden rooms or adding a water element can help screen out the world

by Sue Dremann

Like a giant bird of prey, the hulking structure next door peers down into your backyard. Casting angular shadows across what used to feel like a private space, the new two-story home that your neighbor has built bears a constant reminder: You are not alone.

What's a homeowner to do when a "monster house" appears next door?

"Cleverness is in the mind of the creator," said Peggy Hinman, an Atherton landscape architect. There is never a simple answer. The most obvious solution is that you can plant trees that will screen out the offending building, or build trellises and arbors that will interrupt the sight line, she said.

Finding the right plant or combination of plants is not always easy, and homeowners need to be aware of problem areas such as shade; plants that grow fast are often weedy; trees often take some time to cover the space, she said.

Hinman recommends creating garden rooms. For example, a sitting area can be surrounded on three sides to interrupt the space. Each situation is unique. Where you place the seating can be very important. The perfect spot for a sitting rose arbor may be between you and the fence; or perhaps in the middle of the lot rather than on the edge, she said.

Besides creating a private sanctuary, one can open the room by making "windows" that can serve to guide the eye around the various spaces.

Part of maintaining a sense of privacy involves masking intrusive sounds. Adding a water element to the garden, such as a fountain can do a credible job of increasing the feeling of privacy, she said.

Landscape designer Kathleen Craig uses a variety of tools to "fool the eye into perceiving space that isn't really there, but appears to be." One way she accomplishes the illusion is by working with what she calls the positive and negative spaces. By breaking up the space into these elements, and focusing on enhancing the positive spaces, the eye is also detracted from the negatives, she said.

Craig may mix hard materials like stone in combination with other materials, or she may stagger them, weaving them in and out, away from the property line. Breaking up the space into something other than a straight line can make the space very beautiful, add depth, and avoid creating another wall.

"People get into trouble with a monoculture screen of plants. In effect, you just make another line that calls attention to the problem," she added.

Planting in layers rather than raising a wall of vegetation, Craig is careful to avoid starting only with large plants, which just creates another vertical element, she said. Using plants that provide contrast also creates interest, and breaks up the space.

"Really work around the property. Walk up stairs, look out windows, stand in the garden and really look at the space to see how you will work with the privacy issues.

"We tend to work in straight-line solutions. Focus down a bit -- like closing the focal length of your camera down. See it in sections rather than one long sweep; then you can strategically place something that is more effective," she said.

Garden Designer Janet Bell added a cork oak tree to screen out a second-story house on a client's property. It grew 5 to 6 feet a year, and quickly covered the space, she said. She also planted crabapple, which flowers in spring and adds pretty color for fall.

Other fast-growing plants are snowball plant, or viburnum, which she has seen grow up to 15 feet tall. There are many different varieties, but the deciduous ones get the biggest, she said. Butterfly bush, a deciduous-to-semi-evergreen plant with lilac-like small flowers in spires, also grew 5 feet in Bell's garden.

Bell aims for low maintenance. On a client's property, she planted Prunus ilicifolia, or holly-leaf cherry, a native plant, which is a low-water hedge-shrub. Planted in clumps, and staggered, Bell avoided creating just another green wall.

When choosing plants, it's important to consider how much time you'll spend in the garden. Mixing evergreen and deciduous shrubs, for example, can add variety, but may function as less of a screen in winter after deciduous plants drop their leaves. If you don't use the yard in winter, it might not matter, she said.

Even a single tree can break up the sight line effectively. An English walnut tree in one client's yard is the only thing between them and their neighbors. It should be used when it has a lot of room; it only looks good when it grows thick, she said. Bell also likes this tree because it requires little water and is very vigorous.

Whether a space needs sun or shade is an important consideration. "In winter, we want as much sun as we can get. A deciduous tree may help in a shady yard," said Mary Kaye, a Los Altos landscape designer. Small deciduous trees that she recommends include crape myrtle, but be sure to choose one that is resistant to mildew, she said. She also likes flowering cherry and Japanese maple. "If you want one that is straight up and rather narrow, choose hornbeam 'Fastigata'," she said.

Among the evergreen shrubs, Kaye recommends Prunus caroliniana 'Bright and Tight,' sweetshade, and Greek laurel 'Saratoga,' which can be used in cooking. There are even some beautiful clumping bamboo.

"Vines are usually limited by the height of the support structure, but if setbacks allow, trellises can help mitigate a window-to-window view. Hardenbergia blooms in February when things are pretty quiet." White potato vine and lavender trumpet vine can also be used to divert the eye, she said.

In some cases, it is necessary to eliminate some plants in order to add better choices, or to create space. Often, we are working in gardens with existing landscapes, with mature plants. Try to edit those elements to create the privacy you need, Craig said.

When choosing plants for privacy, Craig recommends talking to your neighbors.

"Privacy is rarely a one-sided solution. Discussing who will prune, access to the property, blocking someone else's view are all issues that can make a difference in whether or not you are setting up a problematic situation for the future," she said.

Craig finds that neighbors are usually amenable to working things out. "In reality, there are almost always benefits for both parties," she said.

E-mail Sue Dremann at [email protected]
Sources: Peggy Hinman Peggy Hinman Garden Design Atherton tel. 361-1997
Kathleen Craig Craig Design Associates Palo Alto tel. 324-1360
Janet Bell Janet Bell and Associates Menlo Park tel. 328-3400
Mary Kaye Mary Kaye Landscape Design Los Altos tel. 941-1332


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.