Although good fences make good neighbors, privacy can be created with less cost and greater beauty by planting a hedge. The right hedge anchors a landscape and offers a natural backdrop for foreground plantings, effectively screening from prying eyes and pleasing your own. Not every plant is suitable for the role of a living fence, however. The best choices for privacy hedges should be evergreen, dense and have a manageable height.
Also called wax-leaf privet, Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum) is one of the most widely used evergreen shrubs used in hedges. It is a quick, compact grower, reaching 12 feet, and is easily sheared to lower heights. Japanese privet produces white flowers among the glossy oval leaves in springtime, and the flowers develop into small, dark fruit that birds enjoy. Privet grows in most soils, is not bothered by many pests or diseases, and can be grown in USDA zones 7b to 10a. Although privet is ideal for privacy, it does require maintenance; if shaped into a formal hedge, it must be trimmed two to three times a year. Additionally, the flower scent may not appeal to many people, pollen is heavy and seedlings can be invasive. The berries and leaves are also poisonous. Shear off flowers while trimming in springtime, and many of the drawbacks will be prevented.
Dwarf Japanese Holly
Usually identified with Christmas, many hollies are becoming increasingly popular in home landscapes. The best variety for an attractive privacy hedge is the dwarf Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). A tough, drought-resistant shrub, the Japanese holly can be left untrimmed to form a naturally rounded shape or pruned for a more formal effect. There are many varieties of dwarf Japanese holly. Some varieties only grow 8 inches tall, but 'Convexa' will grow to 8 feet. The wide 'Rotundafolia' is suitable for larger yards, growing up to 12 feet tall. With rich, dark green leaves, this flexible shrub is extremely cold hardy and is beautiful in snow. Japanese holly has a rather slow growth rate, which is ideal for formal hedges, but will not offer quick coverage.
Pyracantha, literally 'fire thorn' in Latin, will stop any trespasser in his tracks. In addition to dense, evergreen foliage, the dark green leaves hide sharp spurs on the previous year's growth. Although there are many varieties, two make fine privacy hedges: 'Navajo' and 'Mojave'. 'Navajo' will grow to 6 feet high and 8 feet wide, while 'Mojave' grows 10 feet tall. Other than the size, both have nearly identical characteristics: moderately fast growth, oval, evergreen leaves and showy, deep-orange berries in the fall. Pyracantha takes shearing and trimming well, will adapt to many soils and is hardy to USDA zone 5. This thorny shrub can be susceptible to fireblight and scab, but 'Navajo' and 'Mojave' are resistant. Give pyracantha plenty of room, and if you decide to keep it sheared to a smaller size, wear gloves and eye protection.