10 Ways to Add Privacy to Your Yard
Smart landscaping solutions to keep out wandering eyes and noise pollution
There was a time you could kick back in glorious solitude right in your own backyard. Then the family next door cleared some trees on their lot. And on the other side, the neighbors' new master suite includes a second-story deck with nice views—into your yard. Suddenly, you feel like you're living in a fishbowl.
As larger houses occupy ever-smaller lots and the demand for outdoor living areas grows, privacy is at a premium. And it's not just about prying eyes invading your space—you may want to shield your own view of your sunbathing neighbors and block out their chatter.
There are myriad ways to add privacy in the landscape, from putting in perimeter plantings to building fences, stone walls, or garden structures. Here, staggered wooden boards are stained in soft shades of black, yellow, green, and red. They create a one-of-a-kind privacy fence softened by shrubs in front and a feathery tree canopy overhead.
Property-line plantings can provide year-round screening and are typically not restricted by municipal ordinances limiting their height. Where space is tight, as in a side yard, fast-growing columnar evergreens like Italian cypress and arborvitae or a sheared privet hedge can provide a simple solution for separating adjoining yards or blocking sight lines out a kitchen window.
To plant a new privet hedge, create a trench two feet wide and two feet deep, space individual shrubs about 12 inches apart, and bring soil up to the branching trunk. Water deeply and frequently the first year, using drip irrigation. To thrive, these deciduous shrubs require a temperate climate and a homeowner willing to wield sharp shears as often as needed.
In larger yards, planting a mix of deciduous or evergreen trees, shrubs, and perennials creates a more naturalistic look, especially if you layer plants, grouping them in odd numbers. “Stagger evergreens in the background, and in the foreground step down the height with deciduous material to provide texture, depth, and color,” says Elliott Brundage, a landscape architect in Andover, Massachusetts.
Planting deciduous shade trees—which generally grow from 25 to 60 feet high, depending on the species—is a good way to obscure a neighbor's view from a second-story window or terrace. Positioned over a deck or patio, the canopy provides privacy and shade in the summer. In the winter, the trees' bare branches allow the sun to shine into the house.
Potted plants such as arborvitae or clumping bamboo can be positioned to create a green screen around a raised deck seating area. Ideally, pots should be raised up on casters or made of lightweight materials so you can easily move them for parties or deck repairs.
For a long-lasting container display, combine showy annuals with ornamental grasses, shrubs that change leaf color in the fall, or dwarf evergreens. Go for a mix of colors, textures, and foliage types.
Newly installed pools, patios, and playgrounds may require a visual buffer in a hurry. A 6-foot solid board fence is the quickest way to add year-round screening—just be sure to check local building codes regarding fence heights (and any other restrictions). It may also be the best solution in a side yard, where space is tight, since fences have a smaller footprint than plantings.
Board fences come in various styles to complement the architecture of your home, and you can stain them to match the house. “But while a privacy fence might solve the problem, it's not always the most aesthetically pleasing solution,” says Eric Sauer, a landscape architect in Dayton, Ohio. To break up the mass of a board fence, Sauer suggests adding an open lattice or baluster top, and planting flowering or evergreen shrubs in front to soften its solidity.
Another option is to mount a shorter, 3- or 4-foot lattice or picket fence on top of a 2- or 3-foot stone wall. The wall, from a distance, is high enough to disrupt sight lines, while the openwork fence screens without feeling claustrophobic.
A good wall begins with a stable base. In locations with lots of loam and poor drainage, you might have to excavate down 4-feet-deep, below the frost line, and install piping to drain water out of the footing.
Similarly, a masonry wall of stone or stucco that rises 5- or 6-feet-high feels less oppressive when windows are cut into it; often, ornamental ironwork can decorate such openings.
Michael Glassman, a Sacramento, California, landscape designer, searches garage sales for the fencing he incorporates into his clients' yards. He might use a $50 cast–iron section as a trellis for vines, fitting it with brackets to secure it to the side of a house. "As opposed to new ironwork, which can look generic, salvage has an old look that gives more permanence to the landscape," says Glassman.
Defined areas like small patios, outdoor kitchens, and decks are generally easier to screen than a whole yard. By building an enclosure around them, you can re-create the intimate feeling of eating or entertaining indoors, while still enjoying beautiful weather.
Enclosures may take the shape of a slatted-top wooden pergola covered with climbing vines on a patio or a pair of fixed lattice panels along two sides of a raised deck. Prefab iron gazebos can be set right on the ground and surrounded with potted vines and hanging baskets to fill some of the gaps.
Screens made from lattice, shutterlike louvered wood panels, or sections of ornamental iron with anchoring posts can be set into the ground to enclose a cozy corner or make a U-shaped structure that preserves desirable views. For maximum flexibility, consider placing the post ends in lightweight planters with wheels; to anchor them, add concrete plugs to the feet or set the posts in gravel. That way, they can be moved around to create more open space when you're entertaining.
Semitransparent structures may not provide complete privacy, but they add a lot of visual interest to a landscape and allow natural light and breezes in. “They create a comforting sense of containment and a psychological buffer,” says Stephanie Hubbard, a landscape architect in Boston and TOH TV regular.
Even if you're not literally seeing eye to eye with the neighbors, you might still be close enough to hear their conversation. Or you may be bothered by intrusive traffic noise or buzzing AC compressors. In such cases, adding a fountain to your privacy plan can mask unwanted sounds with pleasant white noise. These range from off-the-shelf, plug-in units that sit on a table or hang on the wall to custom designs that become a major focal point.
Keep in mind that flowing water becomes louder the farther it falls and the more tiers it travels over. Michael Glassman, a landscape designer in Sacramento, California, warns that it's possible for a fountain to be too loud, which is just as disruptive as the noise you're trying to hide. “The sound of rushing water might be inviting when guests arrive, but you don't want to have to yell over the din at dinner,” says Glassman, who designed the wall and water feature shown here. All fountains have a recirculating pump, so if you get an adjustable one, you're sure to find a sound level that's soothing.