The realization takes hold for some people in a single awkward moment when they notice there’s nothing separating them from the peering eyes of all their neighbors. For others the conclusion arrives more slowly — a growing annoyance with the constant view of a dilapidated shed or discovering there’s no shade to provide an escape from the summer heat.
“People are really living in their backyards,” observes Dan McClaren, director of design for Impulliti Landscaping in Chagrin Falls. “They’re creating outdoor rooms. And, as with any room in your house, at times you do want privacy.”
While the methods vary based on the size and shape of your yard, some basic principles should guide your decisions. Whether you have just a tiny patch of grass in a tightly packed residential neighborhood or a multi-acre yard, you must always consider budget, zoning codes, proper drainage, utility lines, growing conditions and additions that match not only the architecture of your home, but also your neighborhood as a whole.
David Thorn, of DTR Associates in Aurora, stresses the importance of creating a landscaping master plan that includes an eventual screening (a term used to describe landscaping and other elements such as walls or fences that help create privacy, a noise buffer and shade) of the front, back and side yards. The plan should be installed in phases, which is easier on your budget and less shocking to the neighbors.
“If no one else in the neighborhood has any landscaping, and we develop an entire [yard] from property line to property line, it can look a little odd,” Thorn explains. “You get the framework of some of the slower-growing things established, then build off of that.”
The result is a more natural, layered look that evolves over time. Creating a long-term plan also helps homeowners avoid wasting time and money ripping out mature landscaping and screening elements to make way for future additions they hadn’t previously considered. Whether your yard is large or small, we asked the professionals for advice that’ll help you build your backyard retreat.
The small yard Since space is at a premium, choose screening that takes up as little room as possible, such as arborvitae — tall, upright-growing evergreens — or fast-growing ornamental grasses.
“Bamboo can be very invasive,” says Roger Dorer of Dorer & Associates, a landscape-design firm in Willoughby Hills, “but it can also provide a very good screen in a very narrow space.”
Other small-scale screening options range from a simple lattice panel covered with climbing roses or flowering vines to an old-fashioned garden wall built of stone, brick or wood. And though he normally eschews installing one continuous type of screening around a property, Thorn makes an exception when it comes to using a privacy wall in an urban setting.
“[Homeowners] want the security of knowing they can sit out in their garden areas and have no fear that somebody can just walk up to their property and approach them,” he says.
A wall can be an attractive addition, especially if it complements a home’s architectural style. As an example, Thorn mentions a homeowner who used the same cedar-shake singles from his Cape Cod home on the privacy wall in his backyard, pulling the architecture of the house into the garden.
Decorative gates can add interest too and vines such as clematis and climbing hydrangea work to soften a wall’s appearance. (However, McClaren advises to choose vines with care. Wisteria, for example, grows so quickly it can overtake the structure supporting it.)
Openings in a wall that allow home-owners to look out and other people to look in are often included in a wall’s design when homeowners want to feel more connected to their neighborhood. Likewise, raised planters on a wall or a fence topped with a lattice can help provide privacy with less seclusion.
“It’s a little more open, so you don’t feel so enclosed,” says Matt McCue of McCue Design Group, a landscape architecture firm in Lyndhurst.
Walls are quite effective in blocking out noise if you have the room. If you don’t, Thorn suggests planting evergreens rather than trees and shrubs that lose their leaves as a way to battle the din.
As far as shading, some small yards may be able to accommodate an ornamental tree, perhaps a flowering pear, to provide a respite from the sun. (McCue says the size of a mature tree’s canopy above ground equals the size of its root system below — a good thing to remember when determining whether you have the space for such a planting.)
But in really tight spaces, the only way to mix some green into your space may be a vine-covered pergola. Thorn recommends installing canvas panels between the beams until the vines have matured.
And while a yard’s small size may limit your options when planting trees and shrubs, you can still divide your space into distinct areas. In Boston, Thorn carved out a spot for meditation and reading in a tiny walled garden by planting an irregular curve of 6-foot shrubs. Dorer has even used large potted plants to screen small areas within a yard.
“You don’t need acres and acres to do creative things,” Thorn asserts. “Just take cues from the architecture and the scale of the property.”
The medium-size lot Of course, more acreage — even a quarter to a third of an acre — offers more options. McClaren says he likes layering plant material in these spaces; maybe a mix of pine, spruce and ornamental trees fronted by smaller, lower-growing shrubs.
“Aesthetically, it’s much more pleasing to the eye than the straight line of shrubs” — or, for that matter, the straight line of sentinel-like pines. Selecting items with different bloom times and bark textures helps create year-round interest instead of just a plain green wall.
Mounds of earth artfully planted with greenery can also protect people and plantings from the wind. (Thorn points out that evergreens, a common choice for screening, actually have shallow root systems that make them susceptible to being downed in a storm.)
“Some mounding can look incredibly natural, as if it were always there, and some can look incredibly artificial,” he says. The best, he adds, mimics the topography found in the broader development, although subtle changes can be made to produce a desired effect.
For those areas within the yard that require a continuous enclosure — a swimming pool, for example — McClaren recommends a 4-foot-high wall or fence softened by plantings on the inside or outside. The fence is usually high enough to satisfy city codes, yet low enough to afford a view from the house to the property line.
Black aluminum fences even seem to disappear in the plant material, notes McClaren. On smaller lots, fencing the pool may mean enclosing the entire backyard so there is more open area. Pool equipment can then be hidden behind plantings.
Many times, homeowners moving into a new development are intimidated by the prospect of being the first on the block to start landscaping and screening their yards. Don’t be. “If you’re one of the first, you can set the precedent,” McClaren says.
A multi-acre yard Depending on your home’s location and outside amenities, some screening at or near the property line will likely be needed. But with plenty of space between neighbors, the focus shifts to using screening to create “walls” for “outdoor rooms,” which allow for varied and distinct spaces within the same yard.
“If you’re sitting on a private patio,” McClaren says, “you may not want to be looking at the pool, watching people splash around and be noisy.”
Coming up with a “floor plan” for these outdoor spaces is usually very challenging for the average homeowner because of the sheer amount of acreage. Many times, such ambitious endeavors are best left to the professionals.
But if you want to do it yourself, the key is creating rooms that are built to scale with the house and the land on which it sits.
“You may do a lot of the same things [as smaller yards],” McClaren explains, “but on a grander scale” — more “rooms” with more space to house more amenities such as pools, tennis courts, putting greens, various gardens, all set off with bigger trees and plants.
In this setting, screening often serves an additional purpose: bringing attention to a focal point — a sculpture, fountain, a 100-year-old tree, a spectacular view in the distance — that helps connect the “outdoor rooms” by drawing the eye and, ultimately, the viewer through the “rooms” to it.
“It’s like putting a picture frame on a picture,” McClaren says. “It kind of draws your eye inward, toward the center of that point.”