Living Screens

With the right plants, a hedge can add elegance and privacy to your yard.
Edwin Marty

When Jen and Neal Jackson moved into a house in Homewood, Alabama, the old fence surrounding their side yard didn't add much to the overall feel of their landscape. However, it did help create an ideal play area for their children, as well as all the neighbors' children. So the Jacksons contacted local garden designer Terry Slaughter to find an alternative to the old fence without losing the practicality of the secure play area.

Terry suggested replacing the fence with a living screen, and the Jacksons immediately loved the idea. "Instead of just having a fenced side yard," Terry explains, "we created a small, intimate space that gives a yard a lot more options than having one big open field does." With everyone in agreement, the next question was what type of plants to choose.

Points To Ponder
The most important considerations when deciding what shrub to use as a screen are the growing conditions. It doesn't matter how great a shrub looks when put in the ground. If the plant doesn't have appropriate growing conditions, it won't continue to look good, so there's no point in using it.

The Jacksons' house is nestled into a grove of tall pines and receives a limited amount of sunlight. The side yard is actually part of a utility right-of-way with heavy clay soil that gets a little more sun but has some drainage problems. With these primary considerations in mind, Terry began looking at the other concerns the Jacksons had. They definitely wanted a hedge tall enough to keep the children and their toys inside. They also wanted something that would create a solid screen so they wouldn't have to constantly worry about cleaning up toys. Finally, the Jacksons didn't want anything that would need special maintenance.

Good Plants for a Living Screen

  • American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) MS, LS, CS
  • Burford holly (Ilex cornuta) US, MS, LS
  • common guava (Psidium guajava) TS
  • English yew (Taxus baccata) US, MS
  • Japanese cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera) MS, LS, CS, TS
  • Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum) MS, LS, CS, TS
  • 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly (I. 'Nellie R. Stevens') MS, LS, CS, TS
  • tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) LS, CS, TS
  • wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) MS, LS, CS, TS

 

The Selection
Terry suggested using Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) for the screen. This shrub is perfectly content with the given growing conditions and satisfies the homeowners' other requirements. The selection 'Bright 'n' Tight' Carolina cherry laurel is a versatile, hardy plant with dense foliage that can take heat, drought, and wind. While it will grow faster in full sun, it can thrive in partial sun and, therefore, won't require as much trimming. It can also take a variety of pruning techniques, either formal or informal, giving the Jacksons some options in the future.

They planted full-grown shrubs to give their yard a finished look and provide an enclosed space for their children to play. Then they pruned them back to create an instant solid screen from the street. While it would have been cheaper to use smaller plants and let them grow in, the Jacksons felt their needs merited a full-grown hedge.

The maintenance is minimal. A yearly topdressing of compost and some watering during the dry months keep the shrubs happy. Twice a year, they trim the laurels at a slight angle, keeping the bottom of the hedge a little wider than the top to make sure the bottom gets enough light to continuously produce healthy new foliage.

Create the Best Hedge

  • Use stakes and flagging tape to get a sense of how large the screen needs to be.
  • A tall screen far from the house won't block the view from inside but will still provide privacy.
  • Close to the house, a tall hedge can make you feel claustrophobic and prevent light from getting in. Use gaps or fluctuations in the height of the screen to limit this problem. Creating a door or windows in the hedge also helps.
  • Don't put a tall-growing shrub under a window, or you'll be pruning unnecessarily for years to come.
  • Use a tall hedge around a large yard and a shorter one around a smaller yard to create an appropriately scaled design.

Good Plants for a Clipped Hedge

  • 'Bright 'n' Tight' Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana 'Bright 'n' Tight') US, MS, LS, CS
  • Burford holly (Ilex cornuta) US, MS, LS
  • English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens 'Suffruticosa) US, MS, LS
  • English yews (Taxus baccata) US, MS
  • glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) US, MS, LS, CS, TS
  • Japanese holly (I. crenata) US, MS, LS, CS, TS
  • littleleaf boxwood (B. microphylla) US, MS, LS, CS, TS
  • wintergreen barberry (Berberis julianae) US, MS, LS, CS, TS

"Living Screens" is from the May 2004 issue of Southern Living.