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 – a neighbor’s storage area, neighbors walking on the interior 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 25 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.

But I just assumed there was no alternative but to wait, and wait and wait, until my gardening friend Iris Rothman visited.  My old pal from the Takoma Horticultural Club, Alice 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 live in a Greenbelt co-op, which won’t allow built screening (except a small one attached to the side of the house).  But hold on – vegetative screening is a-okay with the powers that be!  So 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 local 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 tall Nandinas.

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


Before instant screening – the view to the rear.

Here’s 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 some nearby public land, where it’s a nuisance.  I don’t know how long it’ll last, especially if we have snow, but it’s still pretty after two months.   And bamboo and Nandina are SO pretty together.  Seems I’m creating an Asian look in this new garden.


Rear view with instant screening.

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.


Another view, before instant screening.

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


Same view, with Nandinas and cut bamboo.



View from the back, before.

Finally, the view from the rear, what neighbors passing by on the inner sidewalk see.


View from the back, after instant screening.

Some of the cut bamboo has already fallen over a bit and needs work.  I’m eager for the living plants to grow and grow FAST because maintaining the dried stalks of bamboo is already too much like fence repair on a ranch.

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).  Photos coming soon!

*About the cut bamboo:  There’s no danger that it might root and become a huge invasive problem.  I’ve researched this issue and it’s apparently a botanical impossibility.  In fact, bamboos are really hard to transplant, even with their roots intact.  Growing bamboo in the ground isn’t allowed by my co-op, and I wouldn’t do it even if it were.   I do have a few bamboo growing in pots – some clumpers, which tolerate containers better than spreading bamboo does.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Filed under: DesignGardening How-To