Privacy Trees

Privacy is the #1 need in many new gardens. It is hard to create a charming garden with a highway right beside it, or when you are overlooked from all sides by homes. Perhaps you have a ‘less than beautiful’ view in one direction, or strong winds and storms sweep in in certain seasons. For many gardeners moving onto a new property or if you want to improve your existing outdoor environment, making the right decisions about privacy planting comes first. Once you have made a sheltered, secluded place, you can relax and enjoy the tranquility, and your plants will also welcome the shelter and warmer temperatures created in spring and fall.

Why Plants are the Best Choice for Privacy

  • Walls and fences are the only practical alternative. These may be fine for protection up to about 6 feet, but above that they quickly become prohibitively expensive. 
  • Screening something you don’t want with a giant fence is often just replacing one eye-sore with another, and many people end up planting along a fence anyway.
  • If you need security, a cheap chain-link fence with planting inside it makes a lot of sense and is the best approach. If you don’t need security, you can just forget about the fence and rely entirely on plants. 
  • Privacy trees are better noise screens than any wall, and they calm the wind, eliminating the strong gusts and wind-tunnels hard surfaces create. They also catch the snow during a storm and reduce drifting.
  • If you make good choices, privacy trees outlast any fence, and need less long-term maintenance. They improve with age, while fencing begins to deteriorate from the first day you put it up.

What to Look for When Choosing Privacy Trees

Choosing can be confusing, so here are some basic questions to think about before looking at the range of plants available.

  • Deciduous or Evergreen? – for the very fastest growth, deciduous trees are the best choice, but you sacrifice winter privacy. Even bare branches slow the wind and catch snowl. Maybe you don’t need privacy in winter? After all, you might not be in your garden from October to April. . .
  • Natural or Trimmed? – for the neat look of hedges, you do need to trim regularly, at least once a year, and twice is better. The faster-growing the plant – and many privacy trees are – the more you need to trim, and the bigger a job it is. Maybe you can hire a contractor, which saves you the work, but if not, you will need some good tools, plus ladders or platforms. This decision is a big one, and you need to settle the question at the beginning, because it affects both the choice of plant and spacing you use when planting, so it’s hard to change your mind later.
  • What is my climate? – the cold-hardiness and drought-resistance of plants varies hugely, just as climates do across this huge country. What works in Oregon almost certainly won’t in Texas. Check your hardiness zone, and your heat zone too. Do you regularly have long dry periods? If you do, then drought resistance will be a big consideration.

The Most Popular Privacy Trees

Evergreen Trees

Since ‘evergreen’ is often the most popular choice for privacy trees, here are the ones most widely used, with some information to help you choose.

Emerald Green Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’)

This is the tree of choice for all zones below 5, right down into zone 2, although it can be a good choice in zones 6 and 7 if you have cooler, damp summers. Best for shorter screens, below 15 feet, it isn’t a rampant grower, but it makes steady progress and forms a durable planting. The very best choice in zones 2, 3 and 4.

Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

For warm to hot dry zones, this slender, upright tree with very dark-green foliage, is your top-choice. Extremely drought resistant, it grows 2 or 3 feet a year to a height of 30 or 40 feet, staying about 5 feet wide. It is naturally very neat, although it can be trimmed too. Hardy to zone 7, it is happiest with sunny, dry conditions and well-drained soil. Look for ‘Swane’s Gold’, a gorgeous but rare form with golden foliage, or ‘Glauca’ for a bluer look. 

Juniper Trees (Juniperus species and varieties)

Offering many choices, from rich green to silvery-blue, Juniper trees of different types are available for both very hot and dry situations, or for cold ones too. Trees like the Spartan Juniper (a form of the Chinese juniper, Juniperus chinensis) are multi-purpose plants for screens or hedges, in ordinary to dry, sunny locations. The Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) has some great varieties, like ‘Skyrocket’ and ‘Blue Arrow’ that are perfect for slender screens in limited places. Go native with the eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), which is an American tree with some selected forms (‘Taylor’ is a good one), that are neat, tidy, and make very tough and resistant screening even in zone 3.

Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii)

Once very widely planted, this large evergreen is still an excellent choice where size matters. Growing 3 or 4 feet in a year when young, it soon becomes 60 feet tall and 20 feet across, so give this one plenty of room. It grows best in zones 6 to 10, but in hot and humid warmer zones, like the South and Florida, it can have some disease issues.

Thuja Green Giant (Thuja standishii x plicata)

The fastest evergreen there is, edging out Leyland Cypress for speed, this tree is capable of 5 feet a year with care, when young. Perfect for areas with moderate temperatures, in zones 5 to 9, it has the advantage of not usually being bothered by deer. Hugely popular both as a screen and for clipped hedges, it will quickly become 30 to 40 feet tall and 12 feet across if untrimmed. 

African Fern Pine (Afrocarpus gracilior)

If you live in Florida, southern California or around the Gulf, in zones 9 to 11, you might want to consider this interesting evergreen tree, with narrow, rich-green leaves and pendulous foliage. It grows quickly into a tree 30 to 50 feet tall, and 10 to 20 feet wide, and makes a lovely screen. Drought resistant when established, and obviously happy in heat, it is also salt resistant, and great along the shore. Definitely a serious privacy tree candidate for the warmest zones.

Holly Trees (Ilex species and varieties)

Other evergreen flowering trees can be used for privacy, but for versality, toughness, and the ability to grow in both sun and shade, Holly Trees take some beating. These are evergreen flowering trees, with rounded, deep green leaves and often red winter berries too. Among the many varieties, including hybrids, there are trees of just about any size to match your particular privacy needs. Generally you need to live in at least zone 5 for them to be a viable privacy choice. An exception is the Blue Hollies (Ilex x mererveae), which will grow in zone 4. These have names like ‘Blue Prince’, or ‘Blue Girl’, but in colder areas they are not suitable for screens over 6 feet, although they may grow to twice that size in warmer areas.

For a slender, lower screen, the Sky Pencil Holly is a great choice. This is a form of the Japanese Holly, Ilex crenata, which has smaller leaves than many others, and is very tolerant of different soils. If solid green is not your thing, then consider using one of the many variegated varieties, with green and yellow leaves, instead. Remember to include a couple of male trees in your planting if you want winter berries. Those that carry berries are female, and almost all need a suitable male companion to carry a decent berry crop.

Deciduous Trees

If you do prefer something deciduous – and don’t dismiss the idea without thinking it through – there are some great choices. 

Hybrid Willow (Salix)

All willow trees are renowned for fast growth, but hybrid willows – there are several different ones available – grow as no other plant can. 10 feet a year is common, so for the fastest possible screen, they are simply unbeatable. Remember though, that most will reach 40 feet tall, and be 10 to 20 feet wide in just a few years, unless you trim regularly. They are certainly the quickest way to get privacy, but within 25 years problems often develop, so your screen won’t last too long. If you have room, plant something more durable and slower-growing in front, and plan on removing the willows once the main screen begins to do its job.

Ginkgo Tree (Ginkgo biloba)

This tree is remarkable tough all the way from zone 3 to zone 9, so it can be used anywhere in the country. It is resistant to urban conditions and rewards you with a brilliant wall of golden yellow in fall. Free of pests and diseases, and a steady grower, you can rely on it for a long-lived and durable wall of beautiful summer foliage. There are forms with tighter, more upright growth for restricted spaces, while untrimmed ‘normal’ trees can be 30 feet across, and 50 feet high in time.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia hybrids)

For a fast-growing colorful privacy screen, especially in hot and dry areas, the taller forms of the Crape Myrtle are unbeatable. Hardy from zone 6 or 7 on, they revel in tough conditions, thriving in urban settings, poor soil, and drought. They can be relied upon to give a solid screen of green leaves, brightened by flowers for months in a wide range of colors, from white to pink and into reds and purples. There are many, many available, and all the taller ones make great screens – just check the height works for your needs and start planting.

How Far Apart Should They be Planted?

With so many possible trees, a ‘rule of thumb’ for spacing is useful. Remember that the goal for privacy is for the plants to form a solid screen within a reasonable time, perhaps no more than 5 to 7 years. A good rule is to take the maximum width and divide it by 4 for a clipped hedge, and by 3 for an untrimmed screen. For a plant like Leyland Cypress with a mature width of 20 feet, that would be 5 feet apart for a hedge, and 7 feet apart for an untrimmed privacy screen. For special forms that are naturally very narrow, but tall, remember that plants do need some room, so 2 feet apart should be an absolute minimum for all but the smallest trees. 3 feet apart is more appropriate for most narrow plants, such as Thuja Emerald Green.