Privacy fences are often an essential feature of the urban or suburban yard, and they may even play a role on some rural landscapes. They work in both directions. Firstly, they screen out unpleasant external sights and sounds that would otherwise impinge upon the senses. Secondly, they screen your movements from the prying eyes of neighbors. Learn about fence materials if you want a solid structure; the present article is about looser structures composed of living materials.
It isn't a question of needing to "hide" anything behind privacy fences (although that may be necessary if you have bad neighbors). It's just that few of us want to live under a microscope. Even good neighbors don't enjoy feeling obligated to wave "Hello" every time they step outside, as if needing permission before continuing on their business. "Good fences make good neighbors" is an old adage made famous by Robert Frost's poem, Mending Wall (regardless of the different interpretations of that poem). And whether referring to boundary lines or privacy fences, it is just as valid today as ever.
Just don't take privacy "fence" literally. For a privacy fence does not have to be a hardscape fence, although hardscape privacy fences do hold an advantage over their softscape counterparts on two points:
- Speedy results: building wooden privacy fences or PVC vinyl fences for privacy, or masonry walls furnishes instant screening. Whereas you will have to wait for plants to grow high enough to provide privacy.
- Yard maintenance: well-built privacy fences or walls will rarely need to be tended to. Plants, by contrast, need to be watered, weeded, etc.
Nonetheless, planting "living screens" is often preferable to erecting masonry walls or wooden or vinyl fencing, whether you're landscaping a patio or a property line. Bamboo hedges, for example, commonly serve as such living privacy fences (see my FAQ on bamboo plants for more information). Privacy fences composed of plants -- whether maintained as hedges or deployed less formally -- enjoy a number of advantages over their hardscape counterparts, including:
- Their beauty in terms of color, form and texture.
- Seasonal variation in some cases, ranging from spring flowers to autumn foliage.
- Fruit production in some cases, which can attract birds or even be edible for humans.
- The shape of some shrubs can be controlled by pruning, effectively rendering them works of art (hedges).
- Zoning restrictions don't apply to living screens as frequently as to hardscape walls.
On Page 2 we'll take a closer look at using living screens as privacy fences. For, once you've decided on a living privacy fence, a number of other decisions need to be made...