Why Screening is So Important, and How to Get it on the Cheap

| January 28, 2013 | 4 Comments

When I started my new townhouse garden in Old Greenbelt I knew enough to do three kinda permanent things in the yard as soon as possible – patios, paths, and some evergreen screening plants.  And I did all that and sat back to enjoy the view, such as it is – neighbors’ storage areas, nd people walking by on the sidewalk that runs across the back.   To the right, across another neighbor’s yard into the street, motorists and pedestrians looked as me and I couldn’t help but look at them.

I’d planted several Cryptomerias (Japanese Cedars) that would eventually be 20 feet or so, and at a fairly fast growth rate, no less.  On another side of the yard 5 hollies would eventually be 4-6 feet, enough to block all views.  But in the meantime, for 3-5 years, I’d be looking at these views beyond instead of AT my garden.  When the bugs went away and I finally started sitting on my patio (as opposed to the bug-free porch), I felt so exposed.  And didn’t enjoy sitting there.

I just assumed there was no alternative but to wait, and wait and wait, until a gardening friend came to visit.  She gardens in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC and knows a thing or two about townhouse back yards; her neighbors are even closer to her house than mine.  So when she suggested I have some lattice screening installed to hide views and create privacy just until the tall evergreens got tall enough I suddenly saw that there IS a way to get instant screening.

Except if you’re part of GHI, which won’t allow built screening (except the ones attached to the side of the house).  But hold on – vegetative screening is a-okay with the powers that be, so I say let there be plants!

Side view before instant screening.


The Mission to Acquire Plants

I hadn’t exactly budgeted for LOTS more evergreen plants, especially tall ones, so I set about to find freebies.  I wrote to the Greenbelters Yahoo group to offer a couple of shrubs I’d decided I didn’t have room for in exchange for Nandinas, the taller the better, and bingo – I was given about a dozen.  Including the two big tall ones in the “after” photo below behind the chair.

Side view with instant screening.


You may have noticed I painted the old weathered privacy screen, too – the same green as the chairs.  Actually I used a colored stain, which will fade over time but not peel, like paint would in this spot.

Rear view before instant screening.

Above is the primary view I had from my porch and patio.  So I got to work planting the give-away Nandinas, some clumping bamboo in three pots, and then installed a whole slew of *cut bamboo by propping it up with rebar.   The cut bamboo came from city land, where it’s definitely not wanted.  I don’t know how long it’ll last, especially if we have some real snow, but it’s still pretty after three months.   And bamboo and Nandina are so pretty together.   I seem to be creating an Asian look in this rear (garden-side) garden.

Rear view after.

The screening will be more complete when the Cryptomerias grow up and I’ve added some more Nandinas but in the meantime, it’s an improvement.

Other side view, before.

Above and below, the view from the sidewalk between my yard and a neighbor’s.

And after.


View from the rear sidewalk.

Finally, the view from the inner sidewalk at the rear of the garden.

And after.

Why Screening is So Important

It took sitting on my new patio and feeling exposed to the world to understand the importance of creating privacy for a small townhouse garden.  But it’s more than the conventional term “screening” implies; it’s more than blocking views looking out and others looking in.  It’s about creating an outdoor room, surrounded on all sides by walls.  And where there are no actual walls, a wall of plants will do the trick just fine.  Isn’t that why courtyard gardens are so appealing?

More Screening in the Front Yard

Once I’d caught the screening bug, I couldn’t stop.  My front yard is not only just as exposed as the back, but the view from it is of a parking lot!  So, as soon as I can I’ll be planting 10 ‘Emerald Green’ Arborvitaes and one pyramidal blue Juniper (variety to be decided).

*About the cut bamboo:  It’s dead, not living. I’ve researched this issue with local horticulturists and a bamboo specialists and there’s no danger of it taking root, coming back to life, and becoming an invasive menace.  Growing live bamboo in the ground isn’t allowed by GHI, which is a good thing, and I wouldn’t do it even if it were.   I do have some bamboo growing in pots – clumpers, which tolerate containers better than spreading bamboo does.



Category: Our Gardens

About the Author ()

Susan Harris started this blog and the Greenbelt Maryland Youtube Channel in 2012 to get to know her new community and have some fun. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she still blogs for the popular blog Garden Rant. Susan's primary projects in retirement are DC Gardens, a nonprofit media campaign promoting public gardens and gardening in the DC area and Good Gardening Videos, a nonprofit, ad-free website for curated gardening videos.

Comments (4)

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  1. Michelle says:

    I’ve been on the lookout for cryptomeria trees since seeing them on this site but haven’t seen them for sale. I’ve checked Behnke’s and Home Depot. Any chance you could share where they were purchased? Thanks!

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