How Do I Create a Privacy Hedge? Part I: Parameters
Signed, Privacy-Seeking Newbie
Dear Avant Gardener, My property borders a road my living room window looks directly at the neighbor's house across the street. I'd like to make the property feel more private and I'm interested in using plants to create a low-maintenance, attractive hedge (rather than looking out at a fence from my couch). The distance from the house to a low retaining wall along the road is about 30 feet. The area faces southeast and gets a decent amount of sun, with four medium-sized trees (mostly maples) providing shade. I'd like to fill in 125 feet of road frontage with a hedge. What’s involved in planning such a hedge? What types of plants and how many will I need? I’ve never landscaped before, but I’d like to try to do this myself. Could you suggest specific plants native to the area that won't be eaten by deer and will give good coverage within a couple of years? If you could also tell me how many I might need, where I can buy them, and even how to plant them, that would be amazing! — Privacy-Seeking Newbie, Hudson Valley (NY)
Congratulations on identifying the #1 attribute of a restorative landscape in your first foray into gardening: Security. According to research by Douglas Kent and his students at Cal Poly Pomona’s Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, gardens must encapsulate to promote health and a sense of wellbeing. Kent and his students found, from a review of past studies and their own original research, that a restorative garden shields one from the chaos of the outside world. The hedge you’re imagining will definitely do that, shielding you from prying eyes and the audible and visual interruptions of cars driving by. To encapsulate year-round, you’ll want your hedge to consist of shrubs – woody plants that remain year-round – including evergreens at key points.
Visibility into the immediate environment also contributes to a feeling of security, according to Kent, something to consider in designing your hedge. For example, you’ll want a sense of openness between the house and the hedge. If you already have foundation shrubs, the 30 feet between the house and the retaining wall may start to feel cramped as the hedge plants mature – and “low-maintenance” means minimal pruning. Consider removing existing foundation shrubs.
Planning: Key to maximizing impact
You’re also absolutely correct that putting time into planning will result in a hedge that contributes more to your wellbeing. In fact, thoughtful planning is so important – and so often neglected – that I’m going to devote this article to fleshing out the parameters of your hedge to maximize its impact on your health and wellbeing. Next week, I’ll address the details of how to create a hedge that fits the resulting parameters for less than $2,500.
Let’s look the rest of Doug Kent’s 10 design attributes of a restorative landscape to flesh out the list of parameters for your hedge. Kent’s list provides a research-based framework for creating places that contribute to health and well-being. Note that all 10 elements relate to structure, not plant palette. As Larry Weaner, author of Garden Revolution and founder of the New Directions in the American Landscape (NDAL) said during a workshop I attended recently,
“I’m not a plant geek. I’m interested in creating places. I think about plants last.”
Because they work independently of plant palette, Kent’s design attributes are as relevant if you live in Hawaii, Santa Fe or Georgia as in New York State. They are also relevant to planning landscapes of any size–from a hedge to an entire residential lot to a large park.
Douglas Kent’s 10 design attributes for a restorative landscape
Security – Encapsulate while revealing immediate surroundings
Accessibility – Stable ways to move through the landscape
Choices – Various ways to interact with the space
Comfort – Opportunities for rest, if not relaxation
Meditation – Places that make you pause and think differently
Sun/shade – Thermal comfort by offering options
Stimulation – All senses: Feel, sight, hearing, smell, taste
Ambient noise – Rhythmic natural noises (chirping, water falling, leaves rustling)
Water – Audible and within reach
Views – From inside the house extend benefits, draw people outside
How many of these restorative aspects can we work into your hedge? (You’ll be surprised.)
Views–and meditation, stimulation, ambient noise
After security, the restorative landscape attribute you seek is views. You want to look out from your living room at plants, rather than a fence or the neighbor’s house. In saying you want multiple plants, you’re evidently imagining something more visually delightful than the typical row of arborvitae that’s often specified for privacy hedges. For the view to delight year-round, you can include shrubs that flower at various times and/or have interesting berries or fall color.
Shrubs that attract birds and butterflies will also enhance the view – providing surprise and movement – and opportunities for meditation. The chirping of the birds will stimulate your hearing and provide ambient noise, as will the rustling of the maple leaves. Shrubs with a pleasant scent that wafts in when you open your window or walk through your yard will stimulate your sense of smell, too.
Northeast native shrub sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) attracts birds and butterflies, as well as humans, with its summer blooms and fragrance. (photo: Jeff Holcombe)
Accessibility and comfort
To make your garden feel accessible, leave a path through the hedge to the front door. That will help make your home welcoming to yourself, as well as guests (psychologically, even if you don’t use that door). If possible, site the hedge to highlight paths leading to either side and/or back of the house.
A sense of comfort, according to Kent, can be created by adding a bench or another resting place. Adding a bench adds a sense of comfort even if no one ever sits on it, his research found. The key is to make it look as if it’s comfortable. And among durable outdoor materials, wood proved best in his tests. Compared to stone and metal, for example, wood doesn’t store solar radiation as heat. You might put a wooden bench against the house to one side of the front door facing the hedge.
Mix of sun and shade: Worth experimenting?
You say the southeast exposure is sunny and that there are several maples–which provide a lot of shade. From a planting perspective, your yard might be a mix of sun conditions ranging from sun to shade, with most being part sun/part shade (less than 6 hours of direct sun per day). I imagine the summer sun comes under the trees through the yard to the house. You’ll lose some of this light when your hedge matures–the taller the shrubs, the less light. You can determine how tall a shrub you need to block the view of the road and your neighbor’s house by having a friend stand in the yard while you look from the window. A shrub four or five feet high above the retaining wall might be sufficient to hide the road, giving you a “borrowed view” of any trees across the street. Even an eight-foot shrub may not hide the view of the house across the street.
To keep areas of both sun and shade, consider including shrubs of various heights. In addition, consider limiting the initial hedge to in front of the house – maybe 40 feet or so, rather than the entire 125 feet of road frontage. You can get a start on your immediate goals while leaving open the option to maximize the borrowed views and amount of sunshine elsewhere on the property. Moreover, a 40-foot hedge with appropriate underplanting will be costly enough, as you’ll see next week.
Choices; skip the water
Various paths through the garden, a bench to sit on, and areas of more and less sunshine give you and visitors a variety of ways to engage with the front garden. That’s probably enough choice for a shallow front garden on what must be a fairly big property, given your road frontage. As for water, let’s leave that to the backyard for now, given your low-maintenance goal.
Parameters based on Kent’s attributes for a restorative landscape
Wow, we were able to include nine out of 10 of Kent’s attributes so your front garden will nurture your health and wellbeing. (Imagine what you can do with the rest of the property!) The expanded list of parameters will make our design and plant list more purposeful:
From initial request:
Tapestry hedge of shrubs native to the Hudson Valley (NY)
Deer resistant (deer will eat anything when hungry enough)
Some evergreens, especially in direct view from windows (required for “good coverage” in winter)
Coverage within a couple of years (let’s say three…)
Added to increase impact on health and wellbeing:
40 feet long and 10 feet or less in depth at maturity
Mix of heights from five to eight or more feet
Suitable for varied light conditions, mostly part shade and shade
Year-round visual interest – flowers, fall color, winter interest
Attract birds and butterflies
Some pleasant scents
Path through hedge to front door
Visible paths to areas on either side of house
Wooden bench facing hedge
Next week, I’ll address how many plants you’ll need for your tapestry hedge and which combination meets your parameters, as well as where to find them, how to arrange them, and how to plant them yourself. (For readers in other regions, I’ll include alternative plant palettes.) You’ll be able to create this hedge for less than $2,500, including a super-cool piece of equipment that will make planting dozens of plants easy. The cost of your tapestry hedge will be far less than a 40-foot wood fence would cost (even if you built it yourself) – and far more stimulating.
Until next week,
The Avant Gardener
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