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Creating Privacy in Your Outdoor Space: Best Tree & Shrub Choices, Design Tips & Planting Advice

living privacy fence hedge - arborvitae planted in a line

You know it’s time for a privacy screen of some sort when you realize you don’t like spending time in your yard.

Maybe it’s because:

  • You feel exposed to neighbors,
  • Traffic is a regular disturbance,
  • You don’t want to look at what’s beyond your lot,
  • It’s windy and uninviting, or
  • A boundary fence isn’t enough.

If so, you have options for creating a personal and private outdoor green space with shrubs and trees, with or without a traditional fence included.

Things to Consider When Creating a Living Privacy Screen

The first thing to do is to evaluate your location. This is important because the height and spread of trees and shrubs will determine your screening choices. Your goal should be to select and position plants whose mature, natural shape will fit into your yard, so start visualizing in three dimensions.

  • Climate. Is it particularly hot or cold from afternoon sun or winter shade?
  • Sun orientation. Is there full sun, part sun, or full shade? Don’t forget reflections or shadows from nearby structures!
  • Wind direction and strength. Is it windy during the times you’d like to be out there, or would winter winds and storms damage plants?
  • Seasonal Use. If you don’t need winter-season privacy because your outdoor area is not used, a deciduous screen may be a good choice to allow more winter sunlight to reach your windows
  • Soil type and soil moisture. Is your soil fast-draining or clay? Acidic or alkaline? Does it collect runoff from rain, snow melt, or roof downspouts? Will you need an irrigation system?
  • Neighbors and neighboring structures. Will your tree block winter sunlight from a neighbor, or grow up against their structures? Will the height of a tree conflict with utility lines, or its roots with sidewalks?

You’ll want to be a good neighbor and resident, so consider your surroundings and the safety and comfort of others when selecting tree and shrub species.

REMEMBER: Tree and shrub pruning should be done to correct, enhance, or refine, not to force a square peg into a round hole.

While a wood or PVC fence is complete when it’s installed and won’t change its size, trees and shrubs are living beings that can change dramatically from year to year. You’ll want to choose plants that won’t struggle, outgrow its space or create future problems.

wooden fence used as privacy screen with sparrow perched on top

Living fences change and grow, unlike wooden or chain-link fences

Tree care professionals (such as the ISA Certified Arborists at Arbor Experts) are experienced with trees in tight and shared spaces and can advise you before you choose and plant a potentially problematic species.

Living Privacy Screens vs Fences

Like wooden or PVC fences, trees and shrubs have installation and maintenance requirements. Unlike fences, for trees and shrubs, these requirements change over time.

A fence is installed at its final size from the start, while trees and shrubs are planted small and young. What’s small when you plant it will get bigger over time, so follow recommendations for minimum spacing. This will mean less work and healthier plants in the future.

In most municipalities, fences have enforced maximum heights and minimum setbacks. Trees and shrubs generally don’t, but check with your local government or HOA about any requirements or species guidelines before selecting your trees.

Using Space Wisely

Even tiny yards can be transformed with planting design. You’ll want to enhance what exists, using the right plant in the right place. A solid hedge, like a green fence, is often the first choice people make, and a hedge can be ideal for blocking views, muffling sound, and enhancing privacy.

BUT…

You don’t need to rely solely on a hedge to create privacy.

A looser mix of plantings can make your privacy screen richer in texture, color, and seasonality. Consider a mix of heights and species that will enhance one another and give you a more complex, pleasing view.

You can also screen with a few alternating rows of shrubs of similar height. This layout would, for example, allow air and sunlight to move through, and allow groundcovers or low-growing shrubs to weave between the larger, upright shrubs.

A mix of plants also means that you can include deciduous species with fall color or winter berries, using evergreens as a backdrop to accentuate seasonal features.

A trade-off with this approach is fore- and background space. A mix of plant heights means each layer of plants is placed in front of the last, so you’ll need to add up the mature diameters of each species to estimate required space.

hedge layers

For a small area, a perimeter hedge may just reinforce a garden’s smallness and become an annoyance to you and your neighbor if it outgrows its location. If you, or your neighbor, have to shear back trees or shrubs too often, you will hasten their death by removing too much foliage and too many branches, and flowering species won’t have blooms if their buds are always cut off.

Similarly, you won’t want to plant trees right up against your boundary, where half their spread will be onto neighboring property and roots may heave paving. If your screening trees are a nuisance to your neighbor and they cut back the intruding branches or roots, you’ll be left with half trees, which can easily become hazards if insects or pathogens enter the open pruning wounds.

And don’t forget—a tree that fits in your garden will also provide you with summer shade, something a fence can’t do!

If you have a very small space, it may be that your yard becomes a viewing garden where you enjoy it from indoors through your windows, or from a small outdoor seating area. Or you may shrink your lawn area and enclose it with a mixed border of evergreen and deciduous species. First spend some time thinking about how you use, or would like to use, your garden.

Planting Your Privacy Screen

How you plant your screen is an important consideration. Screening doesn’t mean cramming shrubs very close together to get an instant fence of plants.

If you invest in a dense hedge, you won’t want to have “missing teeth” along it where individual plants have died from being too close together, and you won’t want to add understory plants where the mature spread of a tree will shade them out.

You don’t have to use the maximum spacing suggested by the mature spread of a shrub or tree, but you’ll want to leave enough room to allow sufficient branching for stability and photosynthesis, and for the natural pest control that enough air movement and sunlight provide. Check with a nursery professional or the Certified Arborists at Arbor Experts for suggestions about healthy spacing.

For a row of evergreens, it may be easier for you to dig a single planting trench first, and then position each plant along the length before backfilling. Pro tip – stagger plants in a W pattern, rather than planting in a straight line. They’ll form a denser hedge without noticeable thin spots.

For a looser mix of trees and shrubs, installing the largest species first in individual planting holes will give you an idea of future sun and shade areas.

Best Plants for Privacy Screening

There are many trees and shrubs that can be used to create a living screen here in the Dayton area. However, there are some we most highly recommend. Below are our favorites – they’re hardy, beautiful, easy-care and grow well in our environment.

  • Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’
  • Taxus x media
  • × Cuprocyparis leylandii
  • Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’
  • Viburnum species, such as V. trilobum, V. carlesii and V x burkwoodi.

western red cedar needles overlapping to create a privacy screen

The needles on a Western red cedar overlap to form a beautiful, green privacy screen

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’)

This native arborvitae hybrid is fast-growing to 18’, which makes it useful for smaller gardens and as a screening hedge. It is neat in appearance and often substituted for Leyland cypress.

Characteristics

  • Medium size, eventually grows 60’ high and 20’ wide, but easily kept smaller by pruning
  • Reddish brown bark
  • Sprays of fine, medium green, scale-like leaves and small cones
  • Slight leaf fragrance
  • Likes acidic soil
  • Tolerant of full sun and part shade, prefers some protection from very hot afternoon sun

Because it puts up with pruning, ‘Green Giant’ used for a screen can be planted as close as 7’ apart.

‘Green Giant’ is generally considered pest- and disease-free, but it may experience the same insect pests and pathogens common to evergreens, including bagworm and scale.

Learn more about the ‘Green Giant’ Western Red Cedar in our Tree Dictionary>>

Leyland cypress

Leyland cypress trees can grow pretty tall, so ensure you have enough room for them to grow.
By W.Baumgartner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Leyland cypress (× Cuprocyparis leylandii)

The Leyland cypress is a column-like evergreen with flat scale-like leaves. Widely used, it makes a tough privacy screen or windscreen that grows best in full sun.

  • A fast grower that can be pruned to shape
  • Grows to 60-70’ high and 15-20’ wide
  • USDA Zones 6 to 10
  • Full to partial sun
  • Acidic or neutral sandy clay loam
  • Salt tolerant

You will want to plant these at a minimum of 4’ on center for a fast screen.

Greater spacing will take longer to fill in, but will also mean less pruning (there’s more room for natural growth) and increased air circulation between each plant.

Green Panda Bamboo (Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’; F. dracocephala)

green panda bamboo in a small pot

Green Panda Bamboo ready to plant By Remilo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This hardy, clumping, non-invasive bamboo makes a beautiful privacy screen or accent in the garden.

Its form is strikingly architectural when mature, with dark red stem sheaths. Clumping bamboo is a low-maintenance plant that can be pruned any time.

  • Green Panda is a fast grower that will reach about 10’ high by 8’ wide
  • Hardy to Zone 4b
  • Its foliage tends to remain dense right to the ground, so you won’t need understory plants to hide bare stems
  • This plant does best in full sun to partial shade
  • It prefers evenly moist conditions, but will not tolerate standing water
  • Tolerant of a range of soil pHs, but grows best in rich, well-drained soil
  • It is highly tolerant of urban pollution
taxus media (viridis yew) planted to create a privacy screen

The ‘Viridis’ Yew
By Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Anglo-Japanese yew (Taxus x media)

Anglo-Japanese yew is a very popular hybrid between English and Japanese yew species. It’s an evergreen with short needles that are dark on top and light on the bottom. It grows in zones 3-7 in acidic soils.

  • Tolerant of urban conditions, including occasional drought
  • One of the few evergreens that can tolerate heavy shade
  • Can stand severe or regular pruning and shearing to shape
  • Best planted in a sheltered location, as winter winds can cause browning and dieback
  • Slow growing, upright form grows to 15-25’ but is easily kept to 8’

NOTE: The leaves, seeds, and bark of all yews are poisonous

Some yew cultivars have been bred to stay compact and would be a good choice in smaller yards. Ones to look for include:

  • ‘Bean Pole’ to 8′ tall and only 8″ wide
  • ‘Brownii’ to 6′-9′ tall and 12′ wide
  • ‘Chadwickii’ to 4′ tall and 6′ wide
  • ‘Sentinalis’ to 8′ tall and 2′ wide
  • ‘Tauntonii’ to 4′ tall and 6′ wide
  • ‘Viridis’ to 12′ tall and 2′ wide

Emerald Green Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald Green’ (also called Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’))

thuja occidentails smaragd arborvitae in a small pot

A young thuja occidentalis ‘smaragd’ – or arborvitae By Puchatech K. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

A neat, green pyramid shape, this arborvitae makes an excellent privacy hedge. It prefers:

  • Moderately moist, well-drained soil
  • Full sun to partial shade location
  • Protection from exposed, windy locations in colder climates

In very humid conditions, fungal diseases can be a problem, as thuja thrives in cool, dry climates. Ensure sufficient air circulation between plants to help prevent fungal problems.

Sometimes thuja suffer needle and twig blight caused by fungi. To control blight, prune off all affected branches and treat with a fungicide.

Bagworms are controlled by handpicking the egg bags and discarding them.

If your arborvitae needs to be sprayed for insects or pathogens, call a professional. The dense sprays of foliage make it difficult to reach all branches where insects and pathogens may lurk.

Viburnum species (V.trilobum, V. carlesii, and V. x burkwoodii)

Viburnums are shrubs or small trees with dark green leaves that may be oval or lobed. They feature fragrant white spring flowers that produce black fruit in the fall. Wildlife and humans both enjoy the fruit! Planting in groups ensures the best pollination for flower and fruit display (and creates the best privacy screen). Most viburnum can tolerate some drought after they have established root systems.

There are several species that are excellent choices for the Dayton area. These include:

vibernum trilobum berries against green background

The berries on the American Cranberrybush turn from red to a black color
By I, KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0

The American Cranberrybush
Viburnum trilobum

  • Native to the eastern and Midwestern US
  • Grows to 8′-10′ tall and wide
  • Rounded shape
  • Full sun to partial shade
  • Hardy to Zone 2
  • Drought tolerant
  • Withstands urban conditions
  • Attracts butterflies, bees, and birds
  • Deciduous, dark green foliage turns reddish-purple in fall
  • Decorative, edible fruit is red, ripening to black
  • Tolerates black walnut juglone (so, unlike most other shrubs, it can be planted near a black walnut)
vibernum carlesii flowers in full bloom

Viburnum carlesii in bloom

Koreanspice Viburnum
Viburnum carlesii

This species has similar tolerances and preferences to V. trilobum, but is smaller in scale.

  • Hardy to Zone 2
  • A maximum of 8’ high in ideal conditions
  • Showy white flowers appear in spring, with this species ranked as among the most fragrant
  • Leaves turn bronze-purple in fall
  • The Koreanspice viburnum’s fruits are in small bunches and are less prolific than other species
  • Good pollination ensures better fruit production
burkwood viburnum shrub flowering

Burkwood Viburnum
Image © Acabashi; Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Burkwood Viburnum
Viburnum burkwoodii

Burkwood viburnum forms a multi-stemmed shrub reaching 10′ tall by 5-7′ wide. Its 4” dark green leaves are deciduous, turning dark red in fall, but remain evergreen in mild-winter climates.

Features include:

  • 3” fragrant white flowers in spring
  • Clusters of red fruit that ripens to black
  • Rounded, sprawling form with dense branching
  • Resistance to powdery mildew
  • No real pest issues

NOTE: ‘Mohawk’ is a popular V. burkwoodii cultivar. It has some differences that make it desirable, including:

  • A more compact size that reaches a maximum height of 8’
  • Dark-red flower buds that are showy before they open into white flowers
  • Flowers have a stronger, spicier fragrance than the straight species
  • Reliable and striking orange-red fall color

Any of the species listed above, and many more available in local Dayton nurseries, will provide you with privacy screening. They will also enhance your yard by attracting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, and will provide attractive colors and textures throughout the seasons.

Did You Know?

We offer tree and shrub planting services! One of our Certified Arborists will visit your property to assess the site and recommend the trees or shrubs that are most likely to do well in your location. We purchase them from one of our partner growers, deliver them to your property and then plant them correctly to help ensure they establish quickly. We even offer a 1-year guarantee on the trees or shrubs we plant.

Give us a call at 937-233-4118 if you’d like to discuss options for privacy screening – or any other tree care needs.