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Privacy in the Garden
by Judy Nauseef - posted 06/19/17

A woven wooden fence screens the house next door in this Michigan garden. The fence, made from saplings (sometimes called wattle), has a rustic appearance. Instructions for constructing this type of fence can be found on the Internet, where it is also possible to find craftspeople who build them. Columnar maples (Acer ssp.) are planted in front of the fence and hostas, pachysandra (P. terminalis) and other shade perennials fill the ground layer.

When we are in our gardens, there are times when we may want to separate ourselves from the world outside. Sometimes an enclosed space feels right. Whether we are in a contemplative mood or just under the weather, sitting in the garden serves as a remedy. Other more practical needs, such as sunbathing, having breakfast in a bathrobe, or simply not wanting to engage in conversation with a neighbor, call for screening.

Often we really like our neighbors, but require just enough of a barrier that implies that we enjoy having them next door, but that our yard is not perpetually open for foot traffic. Fence panels and groups of shrubs work well in this situation, rather than continuous fence or hedging. Frequently, being seen in our yards is not a problem – we just do not want to engage in conversation with the neighbor.

This elegant garden includes a quiet, serene spot under a tall white pergola. The small pool adds to the sense of serenity.

In the Midwest, I have lived in and designed gardens in neighborhoods where fences keep dogs in and children safe, but are not used for privacy. Often yards run into each other and children scamper between them. Homeowners most likely use screening for areas close to the house.

Screening from Above
Sometimes we need to screen views of our garden from above. Two story homes built close together, or taller buildings behind your home, create this situation. Options are fewer. New trees and shrubs need time to grow.

Sometimes, there is not enough space to create the living screen needed. A solid roof on an outdoor living space may be an option. Or, use the partial screening of a pergola that prevents a clear view of your space. Try an unusual accessory, such as stenciled metal work.

Fence materials include wood, composites, metal and wire. In small yards, where space is at a premium and neighboring lots are very close, a structure built for privacy may be a good choice, because trees and hedging will take up more area. Grow a vine on a trellis or pergola to soften the look. Shade structures that incorporate fabric offer a colorful alternative. Retractable shades can be hung under the top of a pergola or on the sides to partially enclose the space.

The Iowa homeowner lives on the downhill slope from the rear-facing neighbor, who could look down upon her when she sat on her patio. By city code, the height of the existing fence could not be raised. The solution was to build raised-fence panels within her garden. She plans to attach outdoor artwork to the screens to match the existing artwork in her garden. The plantings include Hosta and ferns, along with tropical plants, such as coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) and elephant ears (Alocasia or Colocasia) in pots.

Pergolas and Fences
Built structures, such as fences and pergolas, offer wonderful opportunities for showcasing plants, particularly vines and climbing roses. In addition, it is possible to create microclimates for plants that otherwise you cannot grow due to excessive wind or sun or need some other type of buffer.

Shrubs, such as rhododendron and azalea (Rhododendron spp.), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and holly (Ilex spp.) will benefit from a siting like that. In other circumstances, a privacy screen creates a heat-catching location for plants that need that environment. Add a well-draining soil and you have created an area for an herb garden.

This shallow backyard with nearby neighbors includes a private patio with comfortable seating. A short willow hedge (Salix spp.), an ‘Ivory Silk’ Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), narrow leaf blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) and a Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) provide screening.

Proper Placement
It is important to remember that hedges and fences on the north and west sides of the yard will slow the movement of the snow in a storm, since the winter winds are usually from those directions. The wind deposits snow that makes it over or through the fence or hedge creating large drifts in the yard.

If this is on a patio not used in the winter, it may not be a problem. But as the snow and ice melt in the late winter and early spring, a water problem may develop. If the snow is deposited on a driveway, you will have to shovel frequently.

A generously sized, Anamosa, Iowa,-limestone patio supports a limestone wall and pergola. The L-shaped wall creates a cozy corner for comfortable outdoor furniture. The pergola is treated wood, wrapped in cedar and not stained. The stunning stenciled-cut metalwork in the screen was designed and fabricated by Parasoleil, a company in Colorado. The plants in this Iowa garden include ‘Bruns’ Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) and ‘Medora’ juniper (Juniperous scopulorum).

Design Elements
Screening serves another purpose. Fencing, hedging, pergolas, and trellises used as garden elements give structure to a landscape design and help the homeowner design garden rooms within the landscape. A pergola may serve as a focal point in the yard, creating a view and a destination. Fences and shrubbery that provide privacy may also be used to create a sense of mystery of what is behind them, to draw visitors further into the garden. Thinking of screening as an exciting addition to the landscape helps us to develop more possibilities. Our yards have both public and private spaces. Each area should be planned so that the landscape becomes a cohesive whole.

More than one area in a landscape may call for screening. An outdoor living area directly beyond the back door offers a large space for family activities, while a smaller, more intimate space in a far corner of the yard attracts smaller groups of people. I have visited many gardens with more than one seating area, each separated from the other by structures or plantings.

The gardener with this lovely secluded patio has incorporated many unique and beautiful elements. The whimsical umbrella, and the stone art pieces draw the visitor in, if you are brave enough to step on the exquisite surface. A thick planting of shrubs and trees screen the neighbors and a garden shed.

When planning structures for privacy, consider how you will be using the space. Include a large enough area for your outdoor furniture to seat your family. What activities will take place there? Will children be playing in the space? If you plan to have an outdoor grill or fire pit there, think about fire hazards and check local codes for safety regulations. If you are enclosing an area of lawn, consider installing a patio surface first. Once the fence or pergola have been constructed, adding concrete or pavers is more difficult. Check that the connection and access to the house are architecturally sound and practical. Think of privacy solutions as part of the total landscape.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Judy Nauseef and Country Landscapes, Inc.


Judy Nauseef is a landscape designer and garden writer living in Iowa. Her website is