Courtesy of This Old House
There was a time you could kick back in glorious solitude right in your own backyard. Then the family next door cleared some trees on their lot. And on the other side, the neighbors’ new master suite includes a second-story deck with nice views—into your yard. Suddenly, you feel like you’re living in a fishbowl.
As larger houses occupy smaller lots and the demand for outdoor living areas grows, privacy is at a premium. And it’s not just about prying eyes invading your space—you may want to shield yourself from sunbathing neighbors and block out their chatter.
There are myriad ways to add privacy in the landscape, from putting in perimeter plantings to building fences, stone walls and garden structures. Property-line plantings can provide year-round screening and are typically not restricted by municipal ordinances limiting height. Where space is tight, as in a side yard, fast-growing columnar evergreens like Italian cypress and arborvitae or a sheared privet hedge can provide a simple solution for separating adjoining yards or blocking sight lines out a kitchen window.
1. Plant a new privet hedge. Create a trench 2 feet wide and two feet deep, then space individual shrubs about 12 inches apart. Water deeply and frequently the first year, using drip irrigation. To thrive, these deciduous shrubs require a temperate climate and a homeowner willing to wield sharp shears as often as needed. In larger yards, plant a mix of deciduous or evergreen trees, shrubs, and perennials. This creates a more naturalistic look, especially if you layer plants, grouping them in odd numbers. Stagger evergreens in the background, and in the foreground step down the height with deciduous material to provide texture, depth and color.
2. Plant deciduous shade trees. These generally grow from 25 to 60 feet high, depending on the species, and they provide a good way to obscure a neighbor’s view from a second-story window or terrace. Positioned over a deck or patio, the canopy provides privacy and shade in the summer. In the winter, the bare branches allow the sun to shine into the house.
3. Container Gardens for Decks Potted plants such as arborvitae or clumping bamboo can be positioned to create a green screen around a raised deck seating area. Ideally, pots should be raised up on casters or made of lightweight materials so you can easily move them for parties or deck repairs.
4. Create Attractive Fences and Walls. Newly installed pools, patios and playgrounds may require a visual buffer in a hurry. A 6-foot solid board fence is the quickest way to add year-round screening—just be sure to check local building codes regarding fence heights (and any other restrictions). It may also be the best solution in a side yard, where space is tight, since fences have a smaller footprint than plantings.
5. Improve on plain Fencing. Board fences come in various styles to complement the architecture of your home, and you can stain them to match the house. But while a privacy fence might solve the problem, it’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing solution. To break up the mass of a board fence you might add an open lattice or baluster top, and plant flowering or evergreen shrubs in front to soften its solidity.
6. Enhance a Fence With Stone. Another option is to mount a shorter, 3- or 4-foot lattice or picket fence on top of a 2- or 3-foot stone wall. The wall, from a distance, is high enough to disrupt sight lines, while the openwork fence screens without feeling claustrophobic.
7. Use Masonry Walls Together With Ornamental Ironwork. Similarly, a masonry wall of stone or stucco that rises 5 or 6 feet high feels less oppressive when windows are cut into it. Often, ornamental ironwork can decorate such openings. Some landscape designers search garage sales for unique fencing to incorporate into yards. You might consider repurposing an old cast-iron fence section as a trellis for vines, fitting it with brackets to secure it to the side of a house. While new ironwork can look generic, salvage has an old look that adds charm.
8. Get Creative With Panels and Pergolas. Defined areas like small patios, outdoor kitchens and decks are generally easier to screen than a whole yard. By building an enclosure around them, you can re-create the intimate feeling of eating or entertaining indoors, while still enjoying beautiful weather. Enclosures can be as simple as a slatted-top wooden pergola over the patio, covered with climbing vines, or a pair of fixed lattice panels along two sides of a raised deck. A more expensive project might include a prefab iron gazebo surrounded by potted vines and hanging baskets to fill some of the gaps.
9. Using Lattice, Wood Panels and Ornamental Ironwork. Screens made from lattice, shutter-like louvered wood panels, or sections of ornamental iron with anchoring posts can be set into the ground to enclose a cozy corner or make a U-shaped enclosure that preserves desirable views. For maximum flexibility, consider placing the post ends in lightweight planters with wheels; to anchor them, add concrete plugs to the feet or set the posts in gravel. That way, they can be moved around to create more open space when you’re entertaining.
10. Use Fountains to Mask Noise. Even if you’re not literally seeing eye to eye with the neighbors, you might still be close enough to hear their conversation. Or you may be bothered by intrusive traffic noise or buzzing AC compressors. In such cases, adding a fountain to your privacy plan can mask unwanted sounds with pleasant white noise. These range from plug-in units that sit on a table or hang on the wall to custom designs that become a major focal point in your landscape. Keep in mind that flowing water becomes louder the farther it falls and the more tiers it travels over. It’s possible for a fountain to be too loud, which is just as disruptive as the noise you’re trying to hide. But all fountains have a recirculating pump, so if you get an adjustable one, you’re sure to find a sound level that’s soothing.