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Natural Boundaries Create Shade & Privacy

A well-chosen mix of hardscape structures and plant material can go a long way to define an outdoor room. Outdoor spaces delineated by boundaries give the eye a place to rest and the spirit a place to unwind. By establishing some structure in your backyard through plants, vines and manmade structures, the yard appears more welcoming and offers shade and privacy.


Structures such as trellises, arbors, arches, pergolas can act as portable screens or permanent dividers that form the walls of your secret garden. "Providing structure in the yard always adds a much-needed design dimension. And when you add plant material that can grow up, along, over or through it, you take the yard to a new level," says certified landscape professional Joe Lamp'l, host of PBS's GardenSMART and founder of "I particularly enjoy seeing small trees, such as a weeping hemlock or cedar, trained over a gated arbor or archway."

A trellis offers a quick and imaginative way to create an outdoor wall that can be covered with flowering vine, such as morning glory, clematis or sweetly scented honeysuckle. Anchor a trellis in a large planter, and you have an instant privacy screen that is also portable. Prefabricated sheets of lattice panels make an ideal trellis, but any flat openwork surface secured between two posts will do.

Use a vine-covered trellis or arbor to provide seclusion around a hot tub or conversation area. It also serves as clever camouflage, whether to disguise an unattractive landscape element or screen out an unsightly view. For example, you can use several vine-covered trellises to create the illusion of an archway on an unattractive wall.

Arches, Arbors & Pergolas

Arches, arbors and pergolas come in a wide range of styles and can be made of wood, metal, brick or stone. While each invokes a sense of privacy, they can also be used to mark an entry, frame a view or emphasize the transition from one part of the yard to the next (such as a veranda to the pool.)

Arbors are more substantial than arches and are typically supported by four or more posts with an overhead that may be curved, peaked or flat. Pergolas, which are supported by columns or posts with an overhead roof, can be used as flat-topped outdoor rooms or to shade walkways.

"Privacy is especially important to residents whose homes sit close to property lines," says Loralee Wenger of Wenger Design, a garden/landscape designer based in Seattle, WA. While yards may need screening from the street or from the neighbor's yard, Wenger reminds that they may also need screening from second-story windows next door. "In that case, an overhead arbor or trellis planted with clematis or climbing roses would serve as an attractive screen," she suggests.

Vining Distinctions

When cloaked in the fragrance of climbing roses, wisteria or jasmine, arbors and trellis take on a new element of attraction that awakens every sense. The type of vine you choose can set the mood for romance (jasmine or climbing roses), enchantment (wisteria, moonflower or cup-and-saucer vine), or even a tropical getaway (trumpet vine, bougainvillea or passion flower).

Vines bring visual and tactual interest to your vertical space with a variety of ornamental characteristics, by way of colorful blooms, bright berries, autumn foliage or evergreens. Evergreen vines keep their leaves intact, while deciduous vines drop their leaves in fall. Morning glories and other varieties will easily self-seed while other vines act as annuals that flower in one season and then expire.

Vines are not restricted to growing only on fences, trellises and other hardscape structures. Even trees and shrubs can serve as a support for some climbing vines. What makes one vine better suited to a support than another depends on how it climbs.

• Twining vines, like honeysuckle or chocolate vine (Akebia spp.), climb by winding their stems around any available support, though they usually require a little help along the way training the vine to its support.

• Wrapping vines, such as grapes and many clematis species, come equipped with tendrils that grab and wrap around a structure or support.

• Sprawling vines, like climbing roses, are not self-supporting. Instead they push upward in a freestyle form of climbing and will attach themselves only if their stems are tied to a support.

• Clinging vines have specialized growths that act as tiny suction cups or clawlike rootlets, clinging or grabbing hold of any surface they touch. Classic examples include Boston ivy, Virginia creeper or climbing hydrangea.

Shrubs & Planters

Shrubs and hedges are versatile choices for creating privacy barriers. Evergreen walls of boxwood, bamboo, cotoneaster, holly, cypress or yew provide year-round privacy. Lilacs, roses, weigela and other deciduous shrubs work as seasonal screens, though many offer winter interest through an intriguing framework of branches. "When designing for living walls, unless the design calls for a formal look, I prefer to create a naturalistic setting by mixing up plant material using combinations of deciduous, evergreen and conifer varieties," adds Lamp'l. "Living walls such as these provide privacy and variety with the added benefit of year-round interest."

When looking to add more height to your boundaries, ornamental grasses, Leyland cypress and other plants that are tall and narrow can provide elevated privacy. Bamboo, too, provides added height. Just be sure to install a 2- to 3-ft. deep barrier in the soil around running bamboo to curb its spread.

Living screens are not just limited to vines and shrubs alone. A row of planters or a series of overflowing hanging baskets suspended from an overhead beam creates instant privacy as well as charm. Even perennials, like tree mallow (Lavatera), fernleaf yarrow and Russian sage (Perovskia spp.), lend subtle privacy similar to that of looking through a lace curtain.

Article originally written by Kris Wetherbee for Pool & Spa Living magazine.

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