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Instant Screening without Busting the Budget.

When I started my new townhouse garden in Old Greenbelt I knew enough to do three kinda permanent things in the yard as soon as possible – patios, paths, and some evergreen screening plants.  And I did all that and sat back to enjoy the view, such as it is – a neighbor’s storage area, neighbors walking on the interior sidewalk that runs across the back.   To the right, across another neighbor’s yard into the street, motorists and pedestrians looked as me and I couldn’t help but look at them.

I’d planted several Cryptomerias (Japanese Cedars) that would eventually be 25 feet or so, and at a fairly fast growth rate, no less.  On another side of the yard 5 hollies would eventually be 4-6 feet, enough to block all views.  But in the meantime, for 3-5 years, I’d be looking at these views beyond instead of AT my garden.  When the bugs went away and I finally started sitting on my patio (as opposed to the bug-free porch), I felt so exposed.  And didn’t enjoy sitting there.

But I just assumed there was no alternative but to wait, and wait and wait, until my gardening friend Iris Rothman visited.  My old pal from the Takoma Horticultural Club, Alice gardens in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC and knows a thing or two about townhouse back yards; her neighbors are even closer to her house than mine.  So when she suggested I have some lattice screening installed to hide views and create privacy just until the tall evergreens got tall enough I suddenly saw that there IS a way to get instant screening.

Except if you live in a Greenbelt co-op, which won’t allow built screening (except a small one attached to the side of the house).  But hold on – vegetative screening is a-okay with the powers that be!  So let there be plants!

Side view before instant screening.

The Mission to Acquire Plants

I hadn’t exactly budgeted for LOTS more evergreen plants, especially tall ones, so I set about to find freebies.  I wrote to the local Yahoo group to offer a couple of shrubs I’d decided I didn’t have room for in exchange for Nandinas, the taller the better, and bingo – I was given about a dozen.  Including the two big tall ones in the “after” photo below behind the chair.

Side view with tall Nandinas.

You may have noticed I painted the old weathered privacy screen, too – the same green as the chairs.  Actually it was done with a colored stain, which will fade over time but not peel, like paint would in this spot.

Before instant screening – the view to the rear.

Here’s the primary view I had from my porch and patio.  So I got to work planting the give-away Nandinas, some clumping bamboo in three pots, and then installed a whole slew of *cut bamboo by propping it up with rebar.   The cut bamboo came from some nearby public land, where it’s a nuisance.  I don’t know how long it’ll last, especially if we have snow, but it’s still pretty after two months.   And bamboo and Nandina are SO pretty together.  Seems I’m creating an Asian look in this new garden.

Rear view with instant screening.

The screening will be more complete when the Cryptomerias grow up and I’ve added some more Nandinas but in the meantime, it’s an improvement.

Another view, before instant screening.

Above and below, the view from the sidewalk between my yard and a neighbor’s.

Same view, with Nandinas and cut bamboo.


View from the back, before.

Finally, the view from the rear, what neighbors passing by on the inner sidewalk see.

View from the back, after instant screening.

Some of the cut bamboo has already fallen over a bit and needs work.  I’m eager for the living plants to grow and grow FAST because maintaining the dried stalks of bamboo is already too much like fence repair on a ranch.

Why Screening is So Important

It took sitting on my new patio and feeling exposed to the world to understand the importance of creating privacy for a small townhouse garden.  But it’s more than the conventional term “screening” implies; it’s more than blocking views looking out and others looking in.  It’s about creating an outdoor room, surrounded on all sides by walls.  And where there are no actual walls, a wall of plants will do the trick just fine.  Isn’t that why courtyard gardens are so appealing?

More Screening in the Front Yard

Once I’d caught the screening bug, I couldn’t stop.  My front yard is not only just as exposed as the back, but the view from it is of a parking lot!  So, as soon as I can I’ll be planting 10 ‘Emerald Green’ Arborvitaes and one pyramidal blue Juniper (variety to be decided).  Photos coming soon!

*About the cut bamboo:  There’s no danger that it might root and become a huge invasive problem.  I’ve researched this issue and it’s apparently a botanical impossibility.  In fact, bamboos are really hard to transplant, even with their roots intact.  Growing bamboo in the ground isn’t allowed by my co-op, and I wouldn’t do it even if it were.   I do have a few bamboo growing in pots – some clumpers, which tolerate containers better than spreading bamboo does.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Never, ever, ever plant bamboo. “There’s no danger that it might root and become a huge invasive problem. I’ve researched this issue and it’s apparently a botanical impossibility.” WHAT? Let me introduce you to my neighbor’s yard: a small line of bamboo, originally intended to screen a garage, completely overran it in a few years. It almost killed an ancient oak tree. Starting around May, several hundred shoots emerge and grow, I kid you not, a foot a day. If they are not trampled when young and soft, they will grow several stories high, harden, and lean into my yard. Their canopy will become entangled with wild wisteria, honeysuckle, and every other vining invasive. They will continue their march into other yards. And the screen bamboo provides? — The bare stalks let you see right through. I understand concrete barriers sunk several feet into the ground might contain them, but “a botanical impossibility” of invasion? I beg to differ.

  2. Diana, not to worry! The only living bamboo I planted was safely in pots, and the rest of the bamboo I used was DEAD, which is why it’s botanically impossible for it to sprout new roots and spread. Think of bamboo flooring or window blinds sitting on the ground; it’s really, really not going to spread.
    Your reaction is a good one, though, and I wish everyone knew about the potential of bamboo to be a horrible problem – if it’s planted in the ground.

  3. Thanks, Alan! I’d probably be too nervous to do that, and I KNOW my neighbors would be too nervous, so I think I’ll stick with bamboo in containers. LOVE the look of bamboo, though, and I think it’s underused (safely) for screening.

  4. It’s quite easy to keep running bamboos from spreading with just a yearly “rhizome pruning”. I won’t enter into a debate on this here, but concrete barriers are not the only solution (or even a good one). Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet about how “invasive” bamboo is — yearly maintenance is key.

    I do like your temporary solution though. 🙂 If the canes require too much work to keep upright, try creating tripods of three of them. Tie at the top with zip ties or radiator hose clamps.

  5. Christopher, I asked around at a nursery trade show I attended last week (MANTS) and was told that indeed it cannot be done (cut bamboo taking root), at least here in the Mid-Atlantic. I quoted you and everyone said well, maybe in Hawaii but not here. I also checked with local horticulturists.
    And having dug up 6 small bamboo plants to grow in pots and seen two of them die already, I have to agree with what I was told about the difficulty of transplantation. Their root system is very different from that of shrubs, at least the ones I’ve ever grown. I was told the clumping kind of bamboo is much more amenable to being uprooted and planted in pots than the creeping kind.

  6. I mentioned this to you before, but it most definitely IS NOT a botanical impossibility for cut bamboo shoots to root and grow. Bamboo also transplants from division of the rhizomes just fine thank you very much.

    I have rooted cut stems of golden bamboo myself and transplanted plenty of it in my day. Rooting stem cuttings was a very common method of propagating golden bamboo on Maui. One client requested it to remind him of Vietnam. Go figure. Within three years he had started calling it Damnboo.

    Now you do have to try to make it root from cut stems by cutting as close to the ground as possible where root buds are more likely to be and then give it the right conditions for rooting. Transplanting it is just like moving a large shrub successfully.

    In your case you probably don’t need to worry about it rooting. I’d check anyway come spring just to be sure.

    It’s a great idea for instant screening. Bamboo isn’t all bad. There are plenty of clumping bamboos in the 8 to 10 foot range that will work in home landscapes very well. It is the runners you need to stay away from.

  7. Susan I think those nursery people at MANTS just haven’t tried. I will admit that the climate in Hawaii is the optimum greenhouse conditions and there is a natural advantage.

    I think we need to ask a bamboo grower and at the same time ask how they propagate most of their stock, by division or tissue culture. You have to wait for seed for about a hundred years.

    I just took a division off one of my new clumping bamboos about two months ago and it didn’t bat an eye or shed a single leaf. Next they’ll be telling you, well maybe in NC they can, but not here.

    Bamboo would actually be a hot topic for the Rant.

  8. Lauren, thanks! I’ve gotten some great suggestions from readers, so blogging is paying off.

    Coming next? Posts about the much larger garden I’ve just adopted because I’ve already run out of space. It’s just two doors down, an end unit, which I avoided buying because I thought it would be too large for me. Ha! Fortunately, my neighbor is fine with it (obviously, not a gardener).

  9. Susan, what about leylandii cypress for evergreen screening? I garden 5b/6a and planted a couple. Despite several years of drought and some not so benevolent neglect these guys are troopers. In just about five years, the one planted in an exposed northeast location has grown from a potted size of 3-5 feet to well over my head and about six feet wide. And have I mentioned gorgeous?

    Love watching your garden grow. Thanks

  10. Rhea, I prefer a couple of the alternatives to Leylands – esp Cryptometeria and several varieties of Arborvitae. I’m also using 5 hollies in this back garden, eventually to be 4-6 feet. The Cryptomerias grow surprisingly fast, seemingly no matter how much sun. And they’re nice to the touch.

  11. Deirdre, my last house was a bungalow, too, and I LOVED my front porch with its view of the street. In my new house the front faces a parking lot, no actual passersby. SO my need for front-yard screening is brand new to me. I hear ya!

  12. We moved into a charming craftsman bungalow with a sweet front porch, and my husband immediately wanted to plant a huge hedge so we couldn’t see or be seen. I have fought him tooth and nail. I have planted strategically placed shrubs and trees so we don’t have to look at the neighbor’s garbage cans or messy side yard, and passers by can’t look straight into our front window, but I LIKE to sit on the front porch and exchange greetings with my neighbors as they walk their children and/or dogs. If I “vant to be alone” I sit on the back deck.

    I do love freebies.

  13. I understand the need for screening as I live on a corner lot and have a wire on wood fence in the backyard that borders the street and the side between my neighbor and myself.

    You did a great job for temporary screening.

  14. Congrats on your lovely private garden! You have done an amazing job. It never occurred to me to poke dead bamboo into the ground! — I have put in two crepe myrtles at strategic spots between my neighbor’s porch and mine, and to deflect some road mouse and activity as I am in a bus route. They grew very quickly, are extremely hardy, and bloom beautifully!

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