Privacy trees create interest in a landscape while shielding homeowners from unwanted attention from neighbors and passersby. A common way to install privacy trees is to buy a large number of fast-growing conifers and plant them in a straight line, often very close to one another.
Sometimes this approach makes sense. However, planting privacy trees successfully is usually more complex. A little bit of planning and expert advice pays off in a longer-lasting and more beautiful effect.
Here are three facts to keep in mind when selecting privacy trees:
1- Faster growth equals shorter lifespan and more deadwood.
Exceptions seem to prove this rule. For example, giant arborvitae grow up to 3 feet per year and can reach a mature height of fifty feet and a width of twelve feet. They can live from fifty to one hundred and fifty years. However, towards the end of that lifespan giant arborvitae become sparse and unsightly.
Arborvitae love wet, almost swampy soil. When planted in a row as a privacy screen and a windbreak, they are seldom spaced far enough apart. Often, they are planted in dry soil and never watered. After the first winter one or two dry out and die, and the others show significant wind burn and die-back. The homeowner prunes and replaces, the repeats the entire process year after year until giving up on the entire project.
If you live in the country and need a fast wind break, a patch of aspens is probably the fastest way to go about it. But once again, the fast-growing aspen loves wild places and in yards is prone to iron chlorosis, disease that prevents them from producing chlorophyll, and cytospora, a fungal infection that kills branches and trunks.
Weeping willows grow very quickly, but again, they need swampy conditions and create a lot of deadwood. Hybrid poplars are similar. River birch create beauty by the river, but put them in your yard and you will learn all about the bronze birch borer, an insect that kills weakened birch trees pronto.
2- Variety is the spice of life.
One way to create a privacy border that doesn’t require constant maintenance or die off quickly is to mix it up. Use a blend of conifers, deciduous trees, and large flowering shrubs and stagger them in a large, heavily mulched bed. That way, if one privacy tree begins to struggle or get unsightly die back, replacing it won’t throw off the whole effect.
Look to your soil and your sun and shade conditions, and to which trees actually thrive in your area. No law states that you have to take swamp-loving trees and plant them in hard clay or sandy soil and fight with them. Instead of planting ten arborvitae in a row, try including one arborvitae staggered in a bed with two different species of varying heights. Repeat as often as necessary to get the privacy you crave. If you are having trouble selecting privacy trees, consider a consultation with a landscape professional.
3- Spacing matters.
Certain fast-growing shrubs and trees are very inexpensive, especially in small containers. These include but are not limited to privet hedge, burning bush, white pine, and giant arborvitae. It’s tempting to take home a truck load of one gallon burning bush or privet and plant them a foot apart because they are small.
They won’t stay small of course. With a year or two they will intrude on one another, causing lots of die back and reducing ventilation.
Always read the planting instructions carefully and take them literally. You may feel it looks odd planting 1 foot tall and wide privets or burning bush 4 to 8 feet apart, but that is the right thing to do. Trust the instructions. By year three you will see that you did it correctly and your hedge will be perfect.
Last but not least, always dig a $50 hole for a $5 plant, especially a tree. Dig the hole so that at least a foot of space surrounds your new purchase. Mound some loose dirt and compost in the bottom of the hole and spread the roots over the mound. Have someone hold the tree straight while you fill in with soil. Mulch and water right away, preferably with some liquid root fertilizer added to the water.
Keep your new plants watered during the first season, relax, and enjoy.