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Block a View, the Natural Way

Since it’s winter and we’re dreaming of sandy beaches and warm breezes, I thought I would illustrate this article with tropical plants.  The principles are the same, and it’s more fun.

First: you need something you want to screen. Perhaps it’s an alley or road; maybe you just want privacy between your home and your neighbor’s home; maybe you live next door to someone who has 30 inflatable Halloween decorations.  In this case, this house bought in 2014 has a swimming pool which is visible from an adjacent road, which is at higher elevation than the pool.  The desire is for more privacy.

2) Consider the scale of the planting and determine the long-term maintenance requirements.  People often buy plants for a screen that are fast-growing (which is good), but get too tall for the location (which is bad).  It’s bad because the planting becomes out of scale for the property, both physically and visually, and impossible to maintain properly.  Consider the ultimate width of the plants and don’t plant too close together or too close to buildings, property lines, etc. When you come shopping, we will give you spacing advice.

An example of a frequently poorly sited plant for screening is your friendly neighborhood Leyland Cypress. They grow fast, up to three feet in height per year.  I was just talking to a friend whose neighbor planted Leyland Cypress on the property line.  It’s now 12 feet across (half on each side of the line, which vexes my friend), and can get to 40 or 50 feet high (unless it blows over first.)  Leylands also get problems with bagworms, and in a severe infestation you won’t be able to reach high enough to control them without hiring a commercial sprayer.

In our tropical example, the homeowner decided to use Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens).  It’s fairly fast growing, which is one of the reasons it’s commonly seen in our area sold as a houseplant.  It gets taller than you would want for this spot: fifteen feet high or so at another location at this house; but it suckers, so you can take out the older canes and leave the younger ones to maintain the height and density of the screen. Although it suckers, it doesn’t run like bamboo, it makes a reasonably tight clump. Photos below are 6 months after planting.

3)  Consider deer resistance and cultural factors, such as disease issues.  In our Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area, deer are a big factor in any decision. A screen doesn’t do a lot of good if it’s heavily grazed for the first 6 feet. For our tropical example, there are no deer to worry about.  But roving gangs of palm-loving sheep and goats necessitated the erection of a fence around the property.  Another shrub that is frequently used to screen in our area is Photinia, or “red top,” which is prone to a couple of leaf fungal diseases which really disfigure the plant.  I wouldn’t plant it and I don’t ever recommend it.

4) Other factors: do you need it to be an evergreen plant? Are flowers or berries important to you?  Thorns: good or bad in your situation?

4)  Consider your time frame; how long will you be in the house? A screen will be useful to you in a few years, or be a benefit when you sell the house.  Get started this spring.  Time will pass quickly and in a few years, that junked car next door will just be a memory.  This is the Areca Palm screen after 3 ½ years, from both sides of the wall.

As far as hardy screening plants that meet the above criteria? Here is an article from our woody plant folks to give you some ideas.

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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