By Sarah Jackson
We know good fences make good neighbors. (Thank you, Robert Frost.)
But sometimes the best fence isn’t a fence at all. It’s a wall of trees and shrubs.
Screen trees and large hedge plants can often grow much higher than a typical fence, helping to block unwanted views of your neighbors while also adding life and greenery to your landscape.
If you’re thinking about creating a natural border or privacy screen in your yard, now is a good time to plant.
Thanks to the winter rainy season, you likely won’t have to water your plants until summer and they’ll have time to establish their roots before the heat hits.
Here are some tips to consider from local landscape experts before moving forward on your project.
Don’t doubt deciduous: Evergreens such as Leyland cypress, Emerald Green arborvitae and English laurel are popular plants for creating fast-growing, year-round screens.
But there are good reasons to consider deciduous trees and shrubs, especially if you have more space, said Ross Latham, who owns Big Trees, a tree sales and transplant company south of Snohomish.
If you want privacy in the spring and summer but don’t want to block out light in the winter, deciduous can be the perfect choice.
Often the structure of maples, dogwoods or other deciduous plants can be just enough to distract the eye from an object in the distance.
Consider specimens: A row of trees doesn’t make sense in every situation. Sometimes, a single specimen tree can be all you need.
One of Latham’s clients used screen trees in the back yard, but opted for a more mixed look in the front yard, including a large, stately Japanese maple, which doesn’t block the view but instead keeps the eye from looking across the street.
“This is a Japanese room in the front yard,” Latham said. “It almost takes the house out completely with its arms and height.”
Plant a tapestry: If you have a large area to screen, consider a mix of evergreen and deciduous plants.
One of Latham’s clients used a mix of vine maple, Bloodgood Japanese maple, paperbark maple, akebono flowering cherry and incense cedars to create a stunning display that also blocks the view of the neighbor’s backyard.
Unlike the monoculture of a traditional screen, mixed screens make it harder for pests to thrive, said Sharon Collman, an educator with the Washington State University Extension of Snohomish County.
“Building a tapestry of textures and colors can be interesting, and can frustrate the bugs and diseases,” she said.
If you don’t need a perfectly modular screen, consider planting trees in a staggered line for a more natural forest style. Expand the informal look by creating curved beds near the screen and plant smaller trees, shrubs and perennials in front.
Follow a maintenance plan: Though living fences don’t require you to paint, seal or stain them every year, many do require routine maintenance, especially if you’re trying to keep them small.
English laurel, for example, requires shearing at least twice a year to hold its shape. Wait too long, and you’ll need a chain saw to cut through the branches.
“The sooner you hedge, the more often you hedge, the easier it is,” Latham said, adding that even mixed borders will eventually need editing. “There’s no static planting. It’s never going to work forever.”
Irrigate: Most plants need a couple of years of regular summer watering to become established, especially the popular Emerald Green arborvitae, which prefers consistent moisture.
Installing soaker hoses on a timer is a good bet, especially if you’re planting numerous trees. Losing one tree in a line of 25 can be unsightly.
Also, be sure to choose plants that can survive in the soil, light and space of the area you are planting. Deep shade, for example, can be a detriment to many popular screen trees. Good drainage is important for many plants too.
Look from the inside out: If you have a living space or deck with a view you’re trying to improve, have one person from the family stand there, looking out.
Have another person stand out in the yard with a tall pole or broom handle to pinpoint exactly where you’ll need view-blocking plants.
Mark the spots where you need trees and choose the best plants for the sites.
Start small to save money: Though screen trees typically grow faster than other varieties, they aren’t bargains unless they’re tiny. An 8- to 10-foot-tall excelsa cedar, a Western red cedar hybrid, costs about $125 from Big Trees of Snohomish, not including delivery and installation. A 20-footer is about $950.
An 8- to 10-foot Leyland cypress costs $130. Emerald Green arborvitae, which rarely grows taller than 15 feet, is cheaper: An 8- to 10-foot tree goes for $75, a 7-footer for $52 and a 6-footer for $48.
Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037, email@example.com.