Screening plants: creating your outdoor sanctuary


Imagine looking out from your backyard to views of rolling hills or the ocean. Nice, but let’s face it, most of us live in a suburb and are looking onto a fence and neighbouring houses. It’s time to reclaim your privacy and create the outdoor sanctuary you’ve always wanted

We asked landscape designer John Storch of A Total Concept for his best screening solutions.

How important is screening in designing an outdoor space?

Most of us and our clients live in suburbia, so screening is an integrated part of every design we do. Getting the balance right between creating privacy and wind breaks for a client, while maintaining views and not creating something too tall and obtrusive, is an art in itself and an important consideration in almost every design.

A big problem is clients wanting the biggest pool they can fit into their property, with little consideration for beautification and access and for hedges and screening around the pool. Educating most clients is necessary to get a balance between aesthetics and what they desire.

What are your favourite screening plants and why?

I have many favourite screening plants, each for very different reasons. I love Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’ (slender weavers) because it is bullet-proof. It only needs watering and the top cut off several times a year and that’s it. With careful design, this plant can be used for both tropical gardens as well as more formal gardens when it’s planted as a hedge.

Camellia japonica and C. sasanquas are my favourite type of hedge; if you have the time to wait for the plants to grow, I don’t think there is a better long-term dense hedge. This plant has glossy light to dark green leaves, flowers in all colours and shapes, and is suitable for both formal and informal gardens. Once established, this plant grows into a very hardy hedge that will last lifetimes.

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘James Stirling’ would be my favourite quick-growing hedge. It looks great within three years and has unusual, variegated leaves that contrast beautifully with other plants in the garden.

What are the best plants for creating a dense privacy hedge?

In my opinion, Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’ (Slender Weaver) and Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Leightons Green’ (Leightons conifer) are the best choices for creating a dense hedge near a pool. We’ve had great success with both of these species and when maintained correctly, they create dense effective hedges that grow within just several growing seasons. Dollar for dollar, all hedging plants can be purchased around the same size for the same cost, but these two plants seem to be the best value due to their growth rate and density.

What are some quick-growing plants suitable for screening?

There are numerous varieties of Pittosporum tenuifolium including Silver Sheen, Green Pillar, James Stirling and Screen Master that create good dense and quick screens. However, these plants are less hardy and it’s not unusual to see a hedge with a hole in it from a plant that’s died. Often I refer to these as the “developer” plants because established, large plants are inexpensive to buy. They’re also quick to grow so they look great in a very short time.

Murraya paniculata (Orange Jessamine) is a very reliable plant that grows to 4m and can be used as a hedge or as a solitary plant for privacy. It is a popular choice as it is quite fast growing and hardy, plus it has pretty white flowers. As trends in plants have changed over the years, Viburnum odoratissimum (sweet viburnum) has replaced previously popular plants such as orange jessamine and Abelia grandifolia (glossy abelia) as the go-to hedges.

There are many types of lilly pillies suitable for hedging and screening for most areas of Australia. Some varieties are susceptible to an insect called psyllids, which creates dimples on the leaves and can disfigure the plant. I have found the growth habit and rate of growth to be variable even within the same cultivars of these plants. I find varieties of Syzygium luehmannii and Acmena the most reliable for their shape habit and growth rate, which can save on pruning time when the correct one is chosen for the situation.

What’s a good choice for a single screening tree?

Callistemon viminalis (weeping bottlebrush) is perfect if you want to screen a two-storey house. This is a small tree with hanging foliage that can reach a height of 6–10m. It’s an attractive and reliable tree and being native, it attracts wild birds such as rosellas and lorikeets.

When limited with space between the boundary fence and a pool, what do homeowners need to consider?

The main things to consider are the width of the space you have available for plants and the invasive nature of the roots. You need to consider the width of the area you have between the pool and the fence. Many plants can make great screens but in time, some may outgrow the space. Murraya paniculata (orange jessamine) and Viburnum odoratissimum (sweet viburnum) are both great, hardy, quick-growing plants, however when they are pruned too heavily in order to fit in a narrow space, they become unsightly. Both need between 1.2m and 2m to grow aesthetically. If the plant outgrows the space it may become difficult to maintain and you may have restricted access of your pool surrounds as a result.

The invasive nature of the roots is another consideration. Some plants such as Ficus benjamina (weeping fig) and Schefflera arboricola (dwarf umbrella tree) can be great screening hedges but their roots are very invasive and seek out water. These plants are best to avoid planting near a pool as their roots can find and destroy any leaking pool pipe, terracotta sewer or stormwater pipe.

The bulky nature of roots grown by some plants such as Syagrus romanzoffiana (queen palm or “cocos palm”) can grow so dense that they can physically cause damage to plumbing. While I haven’t heard of a plant cracking a concrete pool, I have seen them buckle and delaminate fibreglass pools. Another thing to consider is thorns or skin irritants next to a pool where people will have bare skin. Some plants, such as Bougainvilleas, have thorns and others, such as Ficus benjamina, have a milky sap that is an irritant to the skin. As a result, both of these plants are not good for a poolside area.

What are some structural screening options?

Laser-cut patterned screens in timber or Corten steel are highly desired at the moment. There is a huge range of patterns available, however keep in mind that pattern trends change, so this look can date quickly. Timber or steel-framed wire trellis is a more long-term solution that won’t date with changing trends. These structures provide a frame to grow a sturdy climber over which can act as a colourful feature, privacy screen and a windbreaker.

Plants such as Trachelospermum jasminoides (Chinese star jasmine) and Pyrostegia venusta (flame vine) are rampant climbers that carry cascades of white or bright orange tubular flowers, which is a dazzling spectacle when in full flower. Vertical green walls are also coming of age and can be very effective and aesthetically pleasing if the irrigation, fertilisation, soil medium, aspect and plant selection all come together. If they don’t you’ll be pulling the wall down in a few months and wondering why!

How high can these structures be built on or near the boundary?

Heights for any structure near the boundary vary from state to state and regulations should be checked with your local authority. For the most part, heights are restricted to around 2 metres to reduce visual bulk and respect neighbours’ views and their access to the sun.

Tell us about some projects where you overcame a screening issue. How was this achieved?

As most of our clients live in suburbs with neighbouring properties, screening is an integrated part of every design we do. In some projects we have installed huge plants, which have been transplanted from other projects or purchased from suppliers, by crane and in one case by helicopter to create instant screening between neighbours. We have organised for hedge roots to be laser cut and pools to be hand dug next to existing hedges, and the hedges then shored for the duration of construction. Every project has its challenges with screening and there is always a solution. I guess that is where our expertise comes to the fore —advising clients on what options are available and resolving their problems cost-effectively.

To see more projects and advice from John, visit A Total Concept’s Company Profile

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A Total Concept

Originally in Poolside Showcase Issue 26

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