It’s that time of year again – the leaves are disappearing and views you had forgotten about are making themselves known again. This fall, get started on that living fence to keep your privacy, sanity, or simply to shield you from the winter winds. If you have the space, here are my top five choices for taller screening evergreens:
A native pioneer who is perfectly happy in less-than-ideal soils (so long as it’s not soggy), it’s great for birds if you get a female plant so you’ll have blue berries decorating them. Foliage can be deep green or blue-green and bark is a nice red-brown to weathered silvery-gray when mature. Deer tend to not like Junipers (yep, despite the name, this is a Juniper); it’s also a safe bet for sun-soaked, drier spots.
Chinese Juniper left, Rocky Mountain Juniper right
Chinese and Rocky Mountain species are both great choices that can be used just like our native species. Berries on the Chinese Juniper are larger and more of a pale green/gray, but both are equally unappealing to deer and tolerant of hot sun and drought. Foliage is green or blue-gray.
Unique foliage texture and rapid growth make these a fine choice for something different. Rarely bothered by deer, they grow rapidly and sturdily to attain heights similar to Leyland Cypress but without the issues of dieback, vulnerability to wind, or excessive width.
While there are a plethora of varieties, the selections and hybrids of Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) like the common ‘Green Giant’ are the most useful for large-scale screens. There are now golden-yellow forms, though, if you prefer to jazz it up a bit with some color. In either case, they grow fairly quickly and have lovely soft, fern-like foliage which offers great visual texture. Deer usually leave them alone, and their tendency toward having a single leader makes damage from wet snows unlikely.
Another diverse group, hollies make the winter months cheerier with red berries and glossy leaves. Though their leaf spines don’t always deter deer, the pricklier varieties are pretty safe. If desired, they’re easy to maintain in a classic “Christmas tree” shape, though they do not need to be pruned if a more informal look is appealing. If berries are important to you, remember to check on pollination needs as you choose a variety, since some need to be pollinated by males of the right type; others are self-fruitful and don’t need to be pollinated. Birds do enjoy holly berries, but they prefer other foods first, so you can enjoy them for most of the winter before they start being eagerly consumed.
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Don’t need a multi-story evergreen to block a view? Trying to “green-up” a fence or make a hedge you can still (almost) see over? These are five of my best picks for those smaller spaces where plants needs only be about human height but still lush enough to provide privacy or a barrier to traffic. Though many people make a screen out of only one species, mixing them would make for more year-round interest and better resilience against unforeseen challenges. As they say, variety is the spice of life!
Also known as Osmanthus, this holly look-alike is related to the Fragrant Olive that is a popular sweet-scented houseplant. These gift the garden with a late-season surprise of fragrant flowers, typically between Halloween and Thanksgiving. They’re white and fairly small, but their scent can carry clear across the yard. Leaves can be solid dark green, edged in cream or marbled in a pale yellow-cream with pinkish new growth. Growth is slower than some other screening evergreens but their dependability and season-extender flowers more than make up for it. You can prune if you wish to give it a formal look – I’ve seen hedges made out of Osmanthus, like by the National Zoo – but you can also just let it do its own thing and it will still form a nice, even, dense shrub.
Reliable and common, varieties like ‘Schipkanesis’ (typically just called Skip Laurel) are great if you just want to cover a fence or form a living fence that’s not too tall. Varieties like ‘Majestic Jade’ are a bit bigger and good for blocking a neighbor’s new addition or the noise from a busy street. Scented flowers appear briefly in spring, but the most popular feature of these plants is their adaptability and usefulness as hedges.
A diverse group, hollies have plants in any size a gardener could want. Mid-sized varieties offer good screening choices with dark glossy foliage and, often, the benefit of berries each winter. Japanese holly and Inkberry holly have spineless leaves and black berries; Chinese holly and Blue holly have minimal spines and red berries; and various hybrids offer more pyramidal shapes, leaves of varying prickliness and red berries. Don’t overlook the two benefits of spiny plants – they keep deer from eating them and they keep people from going where you don’t want them to.
Best in part shade or full shade, their lush foliage reminds you of more tropical plants with their larger size, gloss, and yellow spots. Female plants produce bright glossy red berries for the winter if a male is around to pollinate them. Unassuming, they’re great to pair up with other foliage plants for good variety of textures – try the soft needles of Yew or Plum Yew, the lacy plumes of ferns or the daintier leaves of boxwood.
We think of them for their flowers, but most will grow tall enough to serve as a screen. Perhaps a bit slower to fill in than the above choices, their spring or fall flowers are a real treat when little else is going on in the yard. Keep them looking their best by providing shade in the hot afternoon hours and, if possible, morning shade in winter. Harsh weather might blast some flowers now and then, but typically they put on a show unhindered, and mild weather can even encourage some flowers to open in the middle of winter.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer