Organic Gardening

Screening Plants

The dozers have been working for 4 days to clear leggy pines, dead trees, poison ivy, honeysuckle vines and ancient barbed wire fences to make room for our new house.  There will be still more underbrush to clean up when they leave, but already the clearing has left our 4 acres quite exposed, with more road noise and less privacy.  As soon as the back hoes and dozers are out of the way, I will be desperate to get some large plantings in the ground.

But what to plant? What will be of substantial size, mostly evergreen, super drought tolerant, deer resistant, tough enough to stand up to strong wind and still beautiful to look at?

If the first plant you thought of was Leyland cypress, I would have to say there are far better choices!  We all love fast-growing plants and Leylands can grow 5’ per year. But after 10 years when they are 50” tall and still growing, blocking out all the sun in your yard (and your neighbor’s), and shading themselves so much that they have become thin and ugly brown at the base where you actually needed the screen, you may be wondering how much you will have to pay to have someone cut them down & haul them away.

Behind my tiny pear tree is a big fluffy ‘Yoshino’ Cryptomeria flanked by my neighbor’s narrow Leyland Cypress.

My first choice for a really big evergreen is either a ‘Yoshino’ or ‘Radicans’ Cryptomeria.  These are strong, fast growing trees that would remind you of a Metasequoia or redwood. They are majestic with weeping fingers of tiny seed pods (cones) that are gorgeous for decorating your house at Christmas.  I will be planting them in my wide open spaces (NOT near to my neighbor’s house) where they can provide a windbreak and noise barrier.

Draping seed pods of ‘Yoshino’ Cryptomeria.

Chindo Viburnum is another favorite large evergreen, growing to about 30’.  The smooth green glossy leaves are reminiscent of magnolias, but the tree is much faster growing and the leaves are even more lovely close up. Its Christmas tree shape makes it a gorgeous landscape specimen that will thrive even in part shade.

For neighborhood privacy, rarely does one need a screening plant that grows over 10-12 feet.  In fact, my neighbors may speak more kindly of me if I plant beautiful midsize evergreens that have seasonal fragrance or blooms.  Many deciduous shrubs will also provide adequate screening because their branches grow so thickly.  Along the property line where I have neighbors close by, will be groupings of some of my favorite plants.

Osmanthus ‘Fortunes’, sometimes called a false-holly, has tiny, almost invisible flowers in late summer that exude an incredibly sweet fragrance that waifs through the air in a warm breeze. These can eventually grow 18-20’ high.

‘Fortunes’ Osmanthus has tiny super-fragrant flowers in late summer.

Viburnum Macracephalum, the Chinese Snowball Viburnum, blooms with giant white snowballs in early spring well before your hydrangeas have fully leafed out. It grows to be a giant almost-evergreen shrub about 15’ high x 10’ wide over time, and will rebloom in fall if it receives enough moisture.

Junipers are tough, drought tolerant plants for areas with full sun.  Hollywood or ‘Tortulosa’ with it’s dense twisted form , and Bluepoint with its tight blueish color are great choices at 12-14’ high.  (Mid-size arborvitae such as ‘Emerald Green’ or Arizona cypress ‘Blue Ice’ will provide this effect as well, but they still grow taller to about 30’.)

Hollies are all good and many produce loads of winter berries.  Needlepoint hollies have a nice upright upright form. Dwarf Burfords grow 8-10’ high & wide, while regular Burfords get much bigger. Be sure to check the plant tags for the size that fits your space.

“Dwarf Burford” Hollies still get to be big plants with brilliant red berries all winter.

Cleyera is another glossy leaf evergreen that will thrive in sun to part shade. Somewhat like a 10’ version of the Chindo Viburnum, it too looks great year round.

If you want some yellow foliage to brighten up your border, Chamaecyparis Cripsii, the brilliant golden Hinoki cypress at 15’ high x 8’ wide, is a good choice.

For more colorful foliage, good choices are Weigela and Physocarpus.  Both are deciduous but densely branched, and leaf out early with gorgeous spring blooms. Weigela ‘Wine & Roses’ has deep burgundy foliage with rose pink blooms and grows to 7’ x 7’.  Physocarpus opulifolius, commonly called ‘Ninebark’, has deep copper foliage that contrasts beautifully with its tiny clusters of pale pink flowers. ‘Diablo’ is a large variety, growing to 8’, and has lovely peeling bark in winter.

Ligustrum ‘recurvifolium’, or wavy leaf Ligustrum, grows into a big leafy evergreen ball, 8-10’ high and 5-10’ wide. It has clusters of fragrant blooms in spring and doesn’t seem to care if you plant it in sun or bright shade as long as it has adequate moisture.

Camellias, although slow to get established, can grow to be 8-10’.  Mature specimens are fabulous in the landscape!

The ultimate Southern plant, Camellias are the star of the winter garden. Be patient as they mature.

Tips for planning an attractive screen:

— Don’t plant all one variety of anything. Besides being boring, you are likely to invite disease that destroys the uniformity of your hedge.

— Add interest by planting odd number groupings of plants that have various shapes, colors and textures.

— Planting an entirely evergreen landscape is a trade-off that limits the seasonal excitement of colorful blooms.

— Don’t do “polka-dot” plantings. For example: alternating one holly, then one ligustrum, then a holly, then a ligustrum, etc just looks like you could not make up your mind. Use a sweep of several of the same evergreen as a backdrop for a unique flowering or structural specimen.

— If deer browse your neighborhood, select shrubs they are less fond of, knowing of course that if they are hungry enough they will eat most anything. (They ate every bit of green off of my Hinoki cypress one winter!)

— Measure the space you have for planting and check plant tags for size at maturity. Baby plants are deceiving when you see them only in a 3 gallon pot! You will create a lot of work for yourself by planting a shrub that grows bigger than the space you have for it.

Winter is a great time to re-evaluate the ‘bones’ of your garden, and our mild Greensboro winter is the perfect time for planting or moving trees and shrubs.

Happy greening!


Ellen Ashley
Garden Consultant, Educator, Speaker, Writer