A top priority for many people is privacy. No-one likes to be on their property and being viewed by passing cars, nearby homes, or from apartment buildings. The value of a home reflects this – if you lack privacy your home will be harder to re-sell. So adding shelter and privacy is often the first piece of gardening done, and sometimes the only major part – a garden with screening, a lawn area and perhaps a couple of trees is fine for many people.
Our minds tend to jump to hedges when looking for that privacy, but hedges can be a lot of work, especially tall ones, which can be needed if your privacy issue is being overlooked from nearby buildings. So instead of thinking ‘trimmed hedge’, why not think ‘screening trees’ instead? With no trimming needed, a well-planned screen will take care of itself for many years, and once established ask absolutely nothing of you – surely a great thing in these days of us always being busy.
Choosing the Right Plant
Suitable plants for this will be fast-growing – because who wants to wait a decade or more while your screen grows? – and evergreen. While deciduous trees can often be grown quickly into a screen, all through the winter months they are pretty transparent, so the privacy is limited to summer, which is often not enough. The plants also need to be self-supporting without trimming, and they must give cover all the way to the ground. To do that you need plants that are relatively narrow and upright, because plants with broad crowns will always become bare at the bottom, there simply isn’t enough light penetrating to keep the lower branches alive for too many years.
A plant that really satisfies those criteria is Thuja Green Giant. This arborvitae is a relative of the white cedar known to many people in the north-east. A hybrid plant, it combines an Asian and an American tree, and hybrid plants are well-known for vigor, rapid growth and resistance to pests and diseases – this one is no exception, and incredible tough and reliable. Thuja Green Giant is certainly fast growing. Independent trials have shown it to be the fastest of all the evergreen trees. They usually take a growing season to become established, adding a foot or two in height during that time. Then this tree really takes off. For the next several years it will add 3 or even 4 feet a year, so that your trees will easily be 10 to 15 feet tall within 5 years. After that the growth does slow down a little, but by then you have a substantial screen.
Planning the Planting
Often, when putting in a screen, trees are planted too close together. The idea is that this will give a solid screen sooner, but it’s a mistake. Plant too close and each tree will fight with its neighbors, growing tall, yes, but not thickening up. A spindly, narrow planting is the result, which is easily damaged by wind and snow, and which remains open lower down. In fact, the bottom branches will often die in a few years, completely defeating the purpose of the planting.
The goal should instead be to develop sturdy, bushy plants, which Thuja Green Giant will do naturally, and well, if given a little room. For a screen that won’t be trimmed, it’s especially important to give each plant enough room, because they need to stay bushy, without shooting out all over the place, which crowding will cause.
Within seven years even a small plant of Thuja Green Giant will have grown to be 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide, so that 5 feet is a good planting distance apart for a screen. The young plants won’t crowd each other, and they will each develop into sturdy individuals, able to stand up alone, with dense growth to the ground, and no need to trim. You could easily extend that spacing to 8 feet, and still have solid coverage within ten years. Remember too that you don’t need a solid wall to reduce wind-flow and give privacy everywhere except at 90 degrees to the line of your screening. Not only do you reduce the cost of your investment in this screen, you get a result that requires no maintenance. Even when the plants do start to grow together, they are sturdy enough to do that without weakening and being easy for storms to break.
Usually a single row is planted, but if you have more room a double row will give you better screening sooner, and a more solid barrier to noise and wind. Space the two rows 5 feet apart, and stagger the plants, so that each one sits in the gap of the other row. They can be 8 feet apart in the rows, or even more, up to 12 feet, and you will soon have a fabulous, dense screen that needs no work at all.
Initial Care Makes a Big Difference
Thuja Green Giant will certainly grow fast, and well. But some care in preparing the planting area, and in looking after your plants during the first year or two, will still make a big difference.
- Soil Preparation – even the best soils benefit from adding some good-quality organic material before planting. Garden compost or rotted manures are best, but almost anything, from rotted leaves to peat moss, is beneficial. Dig good-sized planting holes, three times the width of the pots your trees are in and mix 2 or 3 buckets of organic material into the soil.
- Fertilizer – because it takes time for the root system to spread outwards, and for your trees to enjoy that rich soil you have prepared, applying liquid evergreen fertilizer during the first season, and even in the second one. Liquid fertilizers are much more effective on young plants than granular ones, but they are more work, so by the third season you can switch to a slow-release granular formulation that only needs one quick application a year, in spring.
- Watering – after planting your trees are still almost completely reliant on the soil from the pot that is around their roots. So for the first few months you should water close into the stem at least once a week, or more frequently during the hottest and driest part of the summer. Keep the surrounding soil damp too, otherwise your trees will have no reason to spread outwards. By the next season the roots will have spread out considerably into the surrounding soil, and you should only need to water during dry periods.