As we begin to live closer to one another, the need for privacy and personal space in our yards and gardens becomes more and more necessary. A lower-cost and tried and true option to traditional wooden privacy fences is living walls of evergreen trees and shrubs. And aside from the disease-plagued Leyland cypress, there are many lesser-utilized trees and shrubs that thrive in our region as privacy screens that also are also low maintenance once established.
Privacy Screens for Sun
Quite possibly one of the best and hardiest plants to be used for privacy screens are hollies. For a long-lived and low-maintenance screen, it does not get much better than the dark, evergreen leaves and bright red winter berries of hollies. Of course, there are many types, but for those that work best as privacy screens, look for ‘Nellie Stevens,’ ‘Emily Bruner,’ ‘needlepoint’ and ‘oak leaf’ to name a few. These shrubs grow at a moderate rate, up to 24 inches per year, and are drought and deer tolerant once established. At maturity, each of these shrubs will reach a height of 15-20 feet and width of 8-10 feet. Hollies should be planted 8-10 feet apart on center in well-drained soils in full sun.
If you are looking for plants that thrive in narrow spaces, try ‘epartan’ juniper or ‘emerald arborvitae.’ Each of these evergreen trees are great for smaller spaces, reaching heights of 15 feet and spreading only 3-4 feet wide. If you have a dry, sandy site, ‘spartan’ juniper works best, whereas ‘emerald’ arborvitae prefers moderately drained to moist soils. Cleyera is another tough shrub for tight spaces in full sun or shade, growing 10-15 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide.
One of my personal favorites for full sun sandy sites is pineapple guava. This is a moderate-sized shrub, reaching heights of 15-20 feet at maturity, although it can also be pruned much smaller. Pineapple guava has silver-green leaves year-round, but also provides a flush of red and white flowers each spring. As its name suggests, pineapple guava also produces fruit, so is a great addition for the edible landscaper in your family.
If you already have a wooden privacy screen, but are looking for something extra, try loquat trees, which may reach 15-20 feet tall and are tolerant of sandy, acidic soils. Like pineapple guava, this plant also bears fruit, which I have heard is extremely tasty. Loquats are remarkably drought tolerant and so are great additions to xeric gardens.
Want something native? Never fear! Florida anise tree is a quick-growing, native shrub with showy, maroon-colored flowers that appear in late summer. Florida anise may reach heights of 6-10 feet tall by 4-8 feet wide and does well in part-sun to part-shade areas, though will thin out in shadier areas. Plant in average to moist soils, but once established, florida anise is said to be drought tolerant, needing water only in times of extended drought.
Wax myrtle is another native that is commonly seen growing along roadsides and is used for low-maintenance landscapes. It can reach 10-12 feet tall when left to grow on its own but be aware, however, that wax myrtle does break apart easily in hurricanes or strong winds.
Screens for Shade
I would be remiss if I left out those of you who need privacy and deal with partly shaded, or even full shade areas. Large evergreens that also provide flowers include viburnum and camellias. If you are looking for high-impact, look no further than the fall-blooming Sasanqua varieties, like ‘Setsugekka’ or ‘October magic inspiration’ each of which can reach heights of 8-10 feet tall. Lorapetalum is another excellent shrub for part-shade to shade areas. The high-impact flowers in early spring offer a fantastic pop of color when other plants are still coming out of dormancy.
Without a doubt, privacy screens of living vegetation are great additions to your landscape in that they can provide beauty and function in your small corner of the world, and help block out your nosy neighbors. And if your neighbor is the one who builds the privacy fence this spring, well then, I suppose we all know where you stand.
For more information on privacy screens, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.