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Natural Privacy Screens

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    LESLIE: Well, enjoying a relaxing afternoon in your own backyard is one of the true joys of home ownership. But what if you’ve ever felt that your neighbors were getting an eyeful every time you’re out there? Well, if you’re feeling that way, it might be a good idea to create a more private area.

    TOM: And there are lots of very natural ways to do just that. Here to lay out some privacy-screening options that both look good and take you out of the public eye is a guy whose work is very much in the public eye: landscaping expert, Roger Cook, from TV’s This Old House.

    Hi, Roger.

    ROGER: How are you doing?

    TOM: We are excellent. Thanks so much for spending some time with us today.

    And I think that when homeowners think about privacy screening, they assume it’ll take a fence to accomplish that but there are some very natural ways to do a great job, right?

    ROGER: Right. Now, you’ve got to remember that a fence, usually 6 to 8 feet is the maximum height you can get out of a fence, unless you go for a variance or something like that.

    Trees grow. They get bigger and bigger. Shrubs grow and they’ll block more and more than any fence ever will.

    TOM: And then they usually don’t trigger any code concerns, either.

    ROGER: No, not at all.

    LESLIE: So, really, you can let them grow as much as they’ll allow.

    ROGER: Well, that’s the thing about trees: no one tells them to stop growing. They just keep going unless you want to do pruning on them.

    LESLIE: Well and I also feel that with a fence, you sort of create a very boxy environment that doesn’t have a very warm or personable feeling to it.

    ROGER: No. That’s the great thing about planting a screen is you can mix different colors and textures together and it really looks good.

    TOM: Well, let’s talk about that mix. What are the best choices for privacy screening?

    ROGER: Well, people get carried away with trees that are going to become too big. If you’re going to do a privacy screen, you have to figure out how deep you want that hedge to be. Do you want it to be 6 feet across? Do you have room to put in trees that are going to get 20 feet across? It’s all an investment, so you want to invest in the right tree for the right spot.

    TOM: OK.

    ROGER: There are columnar plants and fastigiate plants, which’ll stay much tighter. There are regular plants that’ll grow and be a great screen but need much more space.

    LESLIE: Mm-hmm. And of course, are all of these screening options that we’re talking about evergreens, so that in the winter season you sort of have the same effect or …?

    ROGER: It depends. Sometimes I’ll mix the evergreens in the critical spots and add some deciduous material so that we have a mix of both. In nature, you don’t find just one group; you find things mixed together. So I try to mimic that when I do a screen.

    TOM: Now, how do you plant them, in terms of the spacing? How do you plan for it? Because, obviously, the first year you plant it, you’re probably not going to have as much screen than the fifth year.

    ROGER: Well, it all depends on your wallet, Tom. I can give you instant screening; it all depends on what you want to spend.

    TOM: I bet you could.

    ROGER: It’s all up to the people and how fast they want that screen to be and that’ll determine how close I put the plants. Sometimes we’ll leave space in between so that five years down the road we have a great screen. Other people want it now; we plant the trees almost touching each other and let them fill in very quickly.

    LESLIE: But is that detrimental to the plant itself: putting them right on top of each other so that as they do grow and expand, are they crowding one another?

    ROGER: No. They’ll just grow in to each other. Some of the branches will drive back.

    LESLIE: Sort of weave themselves.

    ROGER: Right. And they’ll just become a mass and they won’t have any individuality at that point; you’re looking at one big, giant screen.

    TOM: We’re talking to Roger Cook from TV’s This Old House.

    Let’s talk about the maintenance. Are there some plants that really lay – need a lot less care as time goes on than others, when it comes to privacy screening?

    ROGER: That depends on the form and the shape of the plant you picked. If you picked a plant that’s fastigiatal – upright-growing and tight – that’s going to need less work. If you picked a plant that’s going to spread out and you don’t have the room, then you’re going to have to be in there once, maybe twice a year doing some pruning.

    And sometimes, pruning can cause problems. Arborvitae is a tree that’s used all over the place for a hedge but it’s multi-stemmed.

    TOM: OK.

    ROGER: And if you go up into that plant and, say, you want it 10 feet tall, it gets 10 feet and you cut it off, well now that plant puts out even more growth in the top of it. When it does that, you get a good snowstorm, opens the plant right up because it catches the snow and you lose your hedge. That’s not a good thing.

    There are different types of arborvitae: Thuja plicata – Western Redcedar. Single stem. It’ll grow up and it’ll never be affected by the snow.

    TOM: Great advice. Roger Cook from TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    And there are lots of tips on how to build privacy screens, online right now at ThisOldHouse.com.

    LESLIE: And you can watch Roger and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS station.

    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by Trane. It’s hard to stop a Trane.

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