Every landscape has problems that challenge the ingenuity of the gardener. Often, those challenges come in the form of the neighbor's picture window that turns your yard into their reality show, or the impromptu bike path made through your new flowerbed. Although any screening may seem better than none, some shrubs have characteristics that make them a superior choice.
With white blooms from spring until late fall, the glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora) is evergreen in most zones and semi-deciduous where temperatures drop below 20 degrees F. The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension named glossy abelia Plant of the Week, celebrating this adaptable and attractive shrub. The oval leaves are shiny, and may have a copper tint in fall. It will grow 6 to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, offering privacy, and prefers sun. You can trim glossy abelia, but shearing the shrub into a formal hedge will ruin the graceful shape.
Debbie Berkley, of The Dabney Nursery in Tennessee, says its top seller for a formal privacy screen is the compacta holly (Ilex crenata 'Compacta'). A variety of Japanese holly, the compacta holly has spineless, oval leaves that take shearing well. It will grow up to 8 feet tall and as wide if allowed, and the shiny leaves are evergreen. Although a relatively slow-growing shrub, this can be an advantage in a formal planting; the compacta holly will remain neat and tidy for weeks. Small black berries appear in fall. It is not bothered by many pests, but does prefer neutral to acidic, well-drained soil. Compacta holly is hardy to USDA zone 5.
Suzanne Lucas, from the American Bamboo Society, recommends umbrella bamboo (Fargesia murielae) in an article in "Organic Gardening" magazine. Umbrella bamboo grows 6 to 15 feet high, is a clumping bamboo, and makes a good choice for a privacy screen, especially for small yards or narrow areas. Although bamboo is often thought of as a tropical plant, umbrella bamboo is hardy to -20 degrees F. The leafy foliage has a pleasing, cascading effect. This plant is an elegant backdrop for many garden styles. As a clumping bamboo, this variety avoids the invasive characteristics of the running bamboos, which should be avoided. Bamboos require little maintenance, grow in average soil, and are seldom bothered by pests or disease.
There are more than a hundred species in the Pittosporum family, but the Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) is the most readily available. The Japanese pittosporum grows well in sun or shade and tolerates most soils, although it does not grow well in wet areas or during times of drought. The evergreen leaves, grown in rosettes, add year-round interest. In spring, the glossy, deep green foliage contrasts against the small, round clusters of flowers, and the sweetly scented flowers will last a month or longer. Japanese pittosporum grows up to 15 feet high, with a naturally rounded shape, and can be sheared or trimmed as needed. A variegated Japanese pittosporum, with green leaves edged in cream, is also available. Online plant reference site, Floridata, recommends it in USDA zones 8 to 10, as it's inexpensive and fast growing.