Enjoying outdoor activities without being noticed is an issue urban and suburban residents face every day. Cramped housing makes it difficult to get out of the view of neighbors. Fencing may be the most common way to add privacy to a back yard, but it certainly isn't the only way. Particular shrubs, trees and vines can add privacy while beautifying your back yard.
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Basic Privacy Structures
Fences are made of various materials and in various heights. So you can customize the appearance of your fence without sacrificing on style. Living fences of shrubs, trees or vines can be colorful and ecosystem-friendly privacy structures that dare to go against the flow of typical homeowner choices. A complete fence isn't necessary if privacy is your only goal; you also can put fence panels or living plants along the corner of your patio or deck, or simply along one side of the outdoor area you frequent.
Several evergreen species make ideal privacy hedges or screens. Among them are American arborvitae, also known as white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). American arborvitae is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 7. Several cultivars of it are available, and their sizes range from a few feet to 40 feet tall. Eastern red cedar, hardy in USDA zones 2 through 9, also can reach 40 feet tall; several cultivars of this species have different shapes and heights. Eastern red cedar's leaves and cones, which look like berries, are somewhat toxic when ingested.
Decidous Flowering Shrubs
Flowering hedges can make a more interesting privacy screen. Depending on your plant selection, the flowers may appear in spring, summer or fall. Several kinds of lilacs (Syringa spp.) form fragrant, flowering hedges and come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Meyer lilac shrubs (Syringa meyeri), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 7, become a densely branched hedge reaching 8 to 12 feet tall. Another option is butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), which can reach 6 to 10 feet tall and offers long, conical flower clusters that attract butterflies. Butterfly bush is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9. Another possibility is rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), which produces large single- or double-blooms in a variety of colors. It can reach 8 to 12 feet tall, although more compact varieties are available. Rose of Sharon is hardy in USDA zones 5b through 9a. All three of these shrubs are deciduous, which means they are not effective privacy hedges during winter in most areas. Butterfly bush and rose-of-Sharon are considered invasive in parts of the United States; plant them with caution, and remove their offspring that grow where you don't want them.
Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) and holly (Ilex spp.) are broadleaf evergreens that can be used as privacy hedges. Hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, glossy abelia is somewhat deciduous in its lowest, or coldest, USDA zones. It offers showy flowers from spring until frost and can reach 8 feet tall; several cultivars of it are available. Holly creates a dense, evergreen hedge, and several holly species and cultivars exist. Depending on the variety, holly is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 11. The species and cultivars range in height from a few feet to more than 40 feet tall. Some varieties take well to trimming and shaping. Known for its broad leaves and berries, holly is often used for decorations during the winter holiday season. When eaten, holly berries can upset the stomach.