Gardening: Screening plants allow you to enjoy more privacy

Little Gem southern magnolia being used as a privacy screen. Neil Sperry Special to the

Little Gem southern magnolia being used as a privacy screen.

Little Gem southern magnolia being used as a privacy screen.

Special to the Star-Telegram

Privacy is a prized commodity in today’s squeezed urban living.

Our little outdoor retreats are conjoined at the gas grills, and we’re trying to figure ways to isolate ourselves from those all around us.

Often that task falls to our landscapes, and fences come first. Certainly, wood fencing and brick or stone walls give great visual blockage, but they’re also, shall we say, rather like prisons. Plants can step in to soften them.

Vines are your best bets for relaxing the harshness of walls. But you’ll need to know how each type of vine climbs and which will be the best match for your particular structure.

Some types of vines twine around their supports, winding around wood or metal as they grow upward.

Carolina jessamine and the various honeysuckles are classic examples. They’re great on wrought iron or spiraling up wooden trellises, but they have no way to cling onto a rock or brick wall.

By comparison, other types of vines have suction cups or root-like appendages that hold them fast against almost any type of surface. English ivy, Boston ivy and climbing fig (“fig ivy”) are all in that boat. They can climb up a solid brick wall like adhesive tape sticks to flesh. That’s fine when it comes to brick or stone, but it’s not so good when it comes to window screens or siding.

Shrubs become the next big list of privacy plants, and that’s actually where most people spend most of their time thinking. “What types of shrubs would make the best privacy hedges?” they ask.

Let’s establish a few ground rules before we start taking names.

First, a plant needs to be evergreen. It’s nice to have some kind of shrub with colorful flowers in spring or fancy foliage in fall, but if it doesn’t have leaves five months each winter, it’s probably not going to make a good privacy plant. So, it needs to be evergreen.

And it needs to be adapted. There’s no point in planting a row of some sorry-dog plant that is just going to pout that we’ve asked it to grow in North Texas soils or climate. Oh, and did I suggest that it needs to grow to the height and width that you want without a lot of repetitive pruning and training?

Do a little homework on height. Take a piece of PVC pipe marked off in 1-foot increments. Have someone hold it up out where you’ll be planting your screen, and then you sit and stand in various spots in your landscape. See how tall the plant will need to grow to offer the privacy you need from the curious neighbors’ second-floor windows. This is a critical phase in picking the best possible plant.

I’ll leave the bed layout and planning to you and your landscape designer, but we can discuss plant choices and spacing. It’s generally best to set plants about two-thirds as far apart in their beds as the heights you will be allowing them to attain. As example, if you’re planting shrubs you’ll be maintaining at 12 feet, set them 8 feet apart in the bed.

Some of the best screening plants

When people ask me to list my choices of screening plants, these are the ones I put at the top of my list.

You’ll notice that I always leave off redtip photinias (fatal disease), Japanese privet (horribly invasive) and golden bamboo (even more invasive).

I’ve also omitted columnar junipers and Italian cypress because both have fatal diseases and Sky Pencil hollies because they’re not adapted to our soils.

  • Eastern redcedar juniper. This is the native juniper you see growing in and around Metroplex cities. It grows to 35 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It’s well suited to our soils and to heat and drought. Space 18-20 feet apart, and stagger plantings to keep plants thick to the ground.
  • Little Gem southern magnolia. Best of the dwarf southern magnolias. Grows to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Leaves and white flowers in spring are half the size of standard magnolia, but plant is compact and fabulous.
  • Yaupon holly. Native to Southeast and South Central Texas, this is a glorious large shrub. Two precautions: It is often trained and sold as a small tree. That may fit your needs just fine, but be sure before you buy. Also, yaupons have their male and female flower parts of separate plants. If you want berries, you’ll need to buy a grafted female tree. Yaupons grow to be 15 to 18 feet tall and wide. Space them 10 or 12 feet apart if you’re going to let them grow unpruned.
  • Nellie R. Stevens holly. This is my personal choice. It grows in sun or shade to be 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It has lustrous, dark green leaves and very large, dark red berries on every plant. It’s available in many container sizes in nurseries, so you can find whatever you need and whatever your budget allows.
  • Willowleaf holly, also known as Needlepoint holly. This looks a great deal like Nellie R. Stevens holly, just about two-thirds as large. It has large, dark green and glossy leaves with one single point (harmless) at the end of each leaf. All plants bear large red berries that persist all winter. Mature height: 10 to 12 feet. Width: 8 to 10 feet. Space: 6 feet apart in rows.
  • Sea Green juniper. If you want something different in looks and texture, this is a great one. It grows in vase shapes to 7 or 8 feet tall and wide. It must have full sun, and plants should be spaced on 7-foot centers to allow them ample room to grow. It does not take regular shearing well.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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