Creating privacy in city gardens

If your garden looks out over an ugly urban landscape, don't scream — just screen
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Avenue of copper beech
An avenue of pleached copper beech makes an effective screen
Garden designers talk about the merits of using borrowed landscape, which is fine and dandy if you are surrounded by idyllic views of green pastures and sculptural trees. If you live in town, however, chances are that your outlook is more high-rise flats or the neighbour's extension — a view you would rather block than borrow.

"Privacy is the major issue for my London clients, because it's the most emotive," says Patricia Fox, of Aralia Garden Design. "I have a client who is obsessed with privacy and we've had to literally barricade her garden. It is overlooked by her neighbour, so the surveyor estimated the height of the neighbour's window, and I worked out a way to screen it out, by creating a double hedge.

First we're installing a two-metre evergreen hedge, and then we'll plant a pleached (trained) evergreen hedge inside that, which has two metres of bare stems with two metres of tree foliage on top. So essentially she will have a four-metre evergreen boundary.

For the hedge we're using yew, but photinia or laurel would work well too, and for the pleached hedge, we're going for holm oak, but Portuguese laurel would be a good choice as well. If you don't mind a barrier that isn't completely evergreen, you could have green or copper beech."

Golden bamboo
Golden bamboo grows quickly to make a tall barrier
For a cheaper way of crowding out the hinterland, Fox suggests bamboo, because it costs little, grows fast and provides a lively barrier that rustles and moves in the wind. "Plants in five-litre pots are about two metres tall and grow so quickly that they will reach four metres within two years. The bamboo I use is Phyllostachys aurea, which has stems that turn golden-yellow in the sun. If you want it to bulk up quickly, plant 60-70cm apart.

"You will need to use a root barrier so it doesn't run all over the place, and you need to keep it irrigated, or else plant in a relatively moist spot."

Conifers are the easy screening option, but a solid wall of green or gold fir is bulky, not an object of beauty and can easily grow out of control. "Avoid leylandii at all costs," says Fox, "because it's totally unsuited for urban gardens. Instead, you could plant a series of the slimline juniper Skyrocket to divert the eye from an ugly view. Think of it as a vertical that takes the eye up, rather than beyond. My first choice for a small garden is the box-leaved holly Ilex crenata, which has an upright habit, makes a nice solid screen, and doesn't take up much width, as the depth is only about 30cm."

A lengthy pergola looks good and blots out the neighbours' garden
Sometimes all it takes to distract the eye from beyond the garden is a structure that keeps the focus firmly within. In a small Regent's Park garden that garnered Fox a major design award, she erected a custom-made metal canopy that straddles the width of the space, from wall to wall; lattice trellis covers the canopy to encourage climbers.

"A ceiling of any kind in the garden anchors the space, so it doesn't visually 'leak'," explains Fox. "Even a small ceiling, like the canopy of a ready-trained parasol tree, has a similar effect. You can find holm oak, photinia or tilia, for instance, all with a clear two-metre stem, but with a head height of 30-40cm and a width of at least 1.2 metres."

There are situations, too, where you might not only want to borrow the landscape, but bring it right into your garden. "If you're surrounded by large trees," says Fox, "embrace that, rather than fight it. Choose something similar so, for example, if next door has a huge cherry tree, you could plant a more modest cherry, such as Prunus serrula, that doesn't get too big. Not only will you be bringing in a piece of the surrounding landscape, planting a tree will make your garden look larger, too."

Pictures by Clive Nichols

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