Creating privacy in the yard is often an essential feature of the urban or suburban outdoor space, and living privacy fences are a great option for homeowners and renters alike to create a backyard oasis uninterrupted by neighbors or unsightly views. Privacy fences can even play a role in rural areas to add lush greenery to your landscaping ideas.
Some living privacy fences are composed of trees, shrubs, or plants like bamboo, while others use sturdy fencing underneath plants to keep pets and children inside the yard's border. Loose structures can easily be made in most yards by using plants to create privacy fences with living walls.
What Is a Living Privacy Fence?
A living privacy fence is not always built with actual fencing, but rather, these fences serve as borders of lush, living plants. A variety of options can be utilized to create this type of fence in your space: Arranging tall plants, adding trailing plants to lattice, and even covering an existing fence with climbing greenery are all popular landscaping ideas for living privacy fences. Most commonly, gardeners and landscapers choose softscape options—meaning their living screen is composed purely of plants rather than including fencing materials.
Softscape fences can include options like bamboo hedges, tall shrubs, or even planting a line of evergreen trees that maintain their look year-round. You'll have more options if the area is sunny, as many shrubs and flowering bushes require at least six hours of sun per day.
Choosing plants for privacy screens, however, doesn't necessarily entail growing a hedge—or sticking exclusively with shrubs, for that matter. The "loose border" is an alternative to hedges. While hedges are usually homogeneous, a loose border can be composed of different kinds of evergreen and deciduous shrubs. If you have plenty of space, a loose border of shrubs may be a better option.
In planning for a loose border, select shrubs that will attain your desired height and width. Living privacy fences formed with loose borders should be layered for maximum effect: That is, put your tallest plant selections (like tall shrubs) in the back row, shorter shrubs and tall perennials in the middle row, and your shortest plants in the front.
Pros and Cons
A living privacy screen does not have to be a hardscape fence, although hardscape options do hold an advantage over their softscape counterparts for two reasons:
- Speedy results: Using wooden privacy fences, PVC vinyl fences, or masonry walls for privacy furnishes instant screening. A con of living privacy fences is that it may take several years for the plants to reach heights that provide privacy (unless you're willing to pay a higher cost for mature plants).
- Yard maintenance: Well-built privacy fences and masonry walls rarely need to be tended to. Plants, on the other hand, need consistent care like watering and trimming to maintain their look.
However, planting living privacy fences is often preferable to hardscape fencing thanks to their lower costs, attractive look, and customization options.
Depending on the plants you choose to incorporate into your design, your living screen may have seasonal variations from spring flowers to autumn foliage. When it comes to options like hedges, your living fence can even be pruned into any shape of your choice. An added bonus: Zoning restrictions don't apply to living screens as frequently as hardscape walls, so these options can be much easier in jurisdictions with strict fencing laws.
It's important to consider the height, width, and type of fencing you need. The care requirements for your plants will also play an essential role: If your yard is mostly shaded, plants that need partial sun are best. Likewise, a sunny backyard might cause the plants to become scorched if they are not suitable for growing in direct light.
When it comes to designing your fence, you can choose between hardscape, softscape, or a combination of both options.
Hardscape and Combination Fences
In choosing living privacy screens, remember that hardscape and softscape don't need to be mutually exclusive. Combination fences offer an actual fencing border under the plants to keep pets and children safely inside the yard without exposing the fence underneath. Hardscape fences like chain-link or masonry walls that are already installed can be landscaped with vines for a more attractive look. Climbing roses, like vines, can also be used for this purpose.
Shrubs make great candidates for living privacy fences, and there are many options for landscapers to choose from. Some shrubs can be shaped like hedges, while others can be left alone to assume their own form in a low-maintenance loose border. Consider the form of the shrub and any color varieties in its flowers and foliage.
To choose the right plants for your loose border fence, it's helpful to use similar principles to designing a flower bed:
- Place plants of the same type in odd-numbered groups. Even-numbered groups suggest an attempt at symmetrical landscape design, which doesn't suit a loose border.
- Use repetition to tie different areas of the border together. For instance, if you planted a group of three delphiniums in one portion of your middle row, repeat (with the same color delphinium) somewhere else in that row.
Hedges are another popular choice for privacy screens in small-yard landscaping where space is limited. When trimmed consistently, a hedge can serve as a true "living wall" without taking up much horizontal space. The trade-off, of course, is in the added maintenance. This is also true for shrubs with dense growth habits.
We've gathered a variety of living privacy fence options to help you decide what's best for your outdoor space.
Living Privacy Fence Ideas
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Bamboo (Bambusoideae) is one of the fastest-growing plants for privacy, with some varieties growing to maturity in just a few months. This popular choice for living fences offers an attractive, leafy green look.
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Privet (Ligustrum spp.) is another type of hedge that can be used to create dense, private living fences to block the view of neighbors and more. These plants can be either evergreen or deciduous, but for privacy, it's best to choose evergreen options that keep leaves year-round.
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Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and other rhododendrons can grow up to 20 feet tall and wide, but these lovely flowering shrubs can be pruned to any height or width you prefer. Along with producing attractive blooms, landscapers and gardeners can choose various colors to suit their home's design.Continue to 5 of 19 below.
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While you may expect to see blue hues on the 'Blue Princess' holly (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess') plant, this species actually offers red berries and white flowers. Similar to many azaleas, this holly is an evergreen species. It can reach up to 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide, so pruning is likely necessary unless you're working with a sprawling space.
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Viburnum flowering bushes provide year-round interest. Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is a deciduous shrub with white flowers in spring that turn into edible and attractive fruits by fall. Its fall foliage color is purplish to bronzy-red or crimson. Reaching heights of about 15 feet, the shrub is a bit taller than it is wide (maximum width of about 12 feet). Another viburnum option for a flower display isdoublefile viburnum, while Korean spice viburnum will be favored by those who seek fragrance.
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Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is a medium-sized flowering shrub, also known as shrub Althea, that can reach a height of 8 to 10 feet with a spread of 4 to 6 feet. These bushes benefit from pruning. Blooms can be red, pink, blue, purple, or white. Rose of Sharon works well in shrub borders thanks to its upright form. A row of these shrubs standing shoulder-to-shoulder forms a colorful privacy screen.
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Compact American cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum 'Compactum') branches in a dense pattern. You won't have to prune this species very much, so it's suitable for low-care loose borders. This shrub grows 4 feet tall and wide in a rounded shape, and it blooms in late spring. Its white blossoms transition into red fruits by autumn, and wild birds eat the berries. Its glossy leaves are green in summer; in autumn, they become purple to red.
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Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a great option for a fragrant living privacy fence with attractive purple flowers. This species can grow up to 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide, so pruning is often necessary (however, only about a foot of growth per year is expected). These striking floral bushes bloom in the spring for about two weeks.
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Canadian hemlocks (Pinaceae) are best known as forest trees that reach enormous heights (up to 70 feet). If you select a shrub-form cultivar, Canadian hemlocks can be maintained at the height you desire. Common cultivars include 'Gentsch White,' 'Aurea Compacta,' 'Sargentii,' and 'Pendula.' A properly pruned row of these evergreen shrubs can form a dense and attractive hedge with feathery foliage.
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Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) grows to a height of 80 feet or more in the forest. However, with pruning, it can be shaped into a well-behaved evergreen shrub. White pines make one of the tallest living privacy fence options for your home.
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Common juniper (Juniperus communis) can reach about 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide, but like other evergreens, it can also be trimmed to your liking. Juniper does best in colder climates with full sun. These coniferous evergreens offer dense growth for living privacy fences. Irish juniper also makes a great privacy screen: With a dense growth habit and narrow, columnar form, just let them stand together in a line to form a loose border, walling out unwanted sights, sounds, and overly-curious neighbors.Continue to 13 of 19 below.
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If you'd like to grow a living screen that also offers edible fruit, blueberry bushes (Vaccinium spp.) are an excellent choice. These lush bushes can reach 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide depending on the variety, and evergreen variants can be chosen based on your region.
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Evergreen shrubs, with their year-round foliage displays, are prime candidates for privacy screens. "Emerald" arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Emerald') is a small tree or tall evergreen shrub well-suited for a loose border style of living privacy fence. With its flat, long-lasting needles and dense growth habit, just let this evergreen shrub grow into the tall living wall that you need—with little maintenance on your part. Narrow and upright in form, Emerald arborvitae attains a height of 15 to 20 feet with a spread of about 4 feet.
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A shorter arborvitae variant than Emerald is 'North Pole.' This species only reaches about 10 to 15 feet in height, but it spreads about half as wide as it is tall. This needled evergreen tree can deep green hues to your space with plenty of privacy from neighbors and unwanted sights.
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Little Red Holly
Little Red holly (Ilex x 'Little Red') has a dense growth habit and compact nature, growing about 5 feet tall and equally wide. These evergreen shrubs are great privacy hedges that stay easy to prune, and they produce attractive red berries. As broadleaf evergreen shrubs, hollies make ideal screens around pools—no leaves or needles to clean up. You can easily prune holly to sculpt a beautiful, formal hedge with it.Continue to 17 of 19 below.
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If you plan to create a combination fence that uses both hardscape and softscape options, try growing a climbing plant over an existing structure. Make your privacy fence prettier with climbing roses (Rosa setigera). These plants can reach 6 to 12 feet tall at maturity, and they grow densely with full sun exposure.
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Another great combination living fence plant option is English ivy (Hedera helix). Whether you have a chain-link fence, lattice, or even a masonry wall that you'd like to make more attractive, this perennial vine will overtake it for a leafy green display. No matter how tall your fence is, this plant can handle it—English ivy grows up to 80 feet long at maturity.
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