Planting A Green Screen

By Cindy Gilberg

Privacy is the number one reason people want a fence or screen in their landscape. They can escape the outer world and have their own space, a quiet oasis. And of course there is always that undesirable view to obscure—the neighbor’s trash cans, playground, doghouse, etc. In many neighborhoods, the prevalent plant that many properties have as a screen is the invasive plant species bush honeysuckle. It is a problem because of its prolific growth that crowds out and prevents the growth of native plants, which greatly reduces the available habitat and the biodiversity of our region.

In general, most people do not want to remove mature bush honeysuckle on their property because it provides privacy by screening the view of neighbors. Privacy and screening is a valuable aspect of landscaping and since many municipalities have codes restricting the height of fences, plants are the answer. A planted hedge offers a dynamic solution, a visual screen that adds an aesthetic vertical element to the landscape. Many native plants are attractive choices to use as alternatives to bush honeysuckle.

There are a few basic ways to create a screen or hedge. The classic method is to choose one species and plant it in a closely spaced straight line. This achieves a very formal look and essentially the same as putting up a fence (a green one!). If space allows, add another layer by planting two species together, a taller one to the back with a lower border of another species in front. This layering effect adds more dimension, interest and diversity to the scene. In this scenario, an example is to plant small trees such as serviceberry or dogwood (Cornus spp.) that have little or no foliage at the ground level. The next layer could be one of the following shrubs—beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) or fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘GroLo). Simple, yet functional and formal.

Another approach is less formal and offers more diversity, both aesthetically and for habitat. Plant a mixed border that functions together as a screen by planting a variety of species. This more informal, natural look is the result of staggered lines and groupings of plants of different heights rather than a straight line of one or two species. By filling the vertical view from the ground layer (shrubs) to the higher level (larger shrubs and small trees) a green screen is created. As the scale of the landscape increases, so too can the list of species to be planted. Repetition of certain species will create rhythm and reinforce some formality to the planting.

Yet another option for screening is to strategically locate one or more trellises to obscure an undesirable view. Note that heavy vines, such as trumpet creeper (Campsis), require a trellis of heavier construction while lighter weight vines such as native yellow honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) or native leather flowers (Clematis pitcheri, C. versicolor, and C. crispa) are appropriate with smaller trellises. Some very effective and attractive screens have been designed that use a combination of trellises, shrubs and small trees. Regardless of the style you choose, when working under a utility line be attentive to the mature height of the tree species prior to making a plant list.
Beyond screening objectionable views, hedges are essential in creating outdoor garden ‘rooms’. Planted screens are used to outline a secret garden and separate an outdoor room. Obscure the view into the next space, thus creating a sense of mystery and curiosity of ‘what is around the corner’. Accentuate passages through the screen with an arbor and/or a gate.

For specific cultural information on native plants the following resources are available.
Shaw Nature Reserve (www.shawnature.org) has online the Native Landscaping Manual-Chapter 4 “Landscaping with Native Plants” which has many plant lists for various landscape uses, including those recommended for hedges. Missouri Department of Conservation (www.mdc.mo.gov) has “Tried and True Missouri Native Plants” that includes many of the shrubs and small trees useful for screening.

Cindy Gilberg is a horticulturist and Missouri native who writes, teaches and does consulting and design work in the St Louis area. Her work focuses on native plant landscapes in both traditional and natural settings. Email: cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.
For more information about these organizations: www.shawnature.org and www.mdc.mo.gov.