Privacy Without “O-fence”

Suburban yards are places for families and friends to relax, perhaps enjoy a barbecue, and watch children and pets play safely. Privacy is important.

No wonder, then, that suburban homeowners often decide to plant a “privacy screen.” Hedges of trees or shrubs, planted as living “green fences,” are as common in suburbia as the lawns they typically surround.

But too often, these hedges are made with invasive plants that spread themselves into natural areas causing ecological harm. Top offenders include privet, Japanese barberry, forsythia, bamboo, and burning bush. All of these plants are recognized as invasive species and should be avoided.

Forsythia is not a good choice for a privacy screen
It spreads by underground runners into neighboring areas and is very difficult to remove
Bamboo is even worse
It really cannot be controlled!
Burning Bush
Burning bush may look good for a minute
Burning Bush
But it spreads by seed to wooded areas and replaces native plants
Japanese barberry
Japanese barberry, now banned in several states, spreads by seed into vacant lots, woods, and roadsides and actually increases the population of ticks carrying Lyme disease!

The good news is that the need for privacy does not require bringing any of these offensive plants onto your property. There are so many better choices!

In the Eastern US, the most popular privacy screen by far is Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), also known as Northern White-cedar. Favored by builders and landscape maintenance companies, a row of inexpensive and readily available Arborvitae is often planted along the property line as soon as a new house is built.

Straight rows of Arborvitae are a common sight in suburbia

Though Arborvitae is a much better choice than any of the invasive plants mentioned above, it is not the only — or best — option. In areas populated by deer, Arborvitae is extremely vulnerable.

Deer “prune” Arborvitae into weird shapes
There is no privacy when the deer are done

Here are some alternatives – beautiful evergreen trees and shrubs, native to the Northeast, that make ideal privacy screens. And because they are native, they also offer value to native birds and pollinators!

American Holly (Ilex opaca) makes a dense, evergreen privacy screen and has the bonus of tiny flowers for pollinators in the spring and beautiful berries that add winter interest to the landscape.

American Holly
American Holly may be pruned into a hedge
American Holly
Berries on American Holly feed winter birds

Rhododendron is another good choice for privacy. When European settlers first explored the Eastern US, they struggled through massive stands of Rhododendron maximum that formed impenetrable evergreen thickets. Why not use that same feature now as an effective screen? Our native songbirds love to hide in a thicket!

Rhododendron in the wild
Rhododendron screening a fence

Inkberry (Ilex glauca), another native evergreen, grows quickly and has shiny, dark green leaves that form a dense screen. More winter-hardy than boxwood and growing taller, Inkberry is a great hedge plant.

Red Twig Dogwood and Switch Grass
Inkberry in a mixed border with Red Twig Dogwood and Switch

The very best privacy screen, though, is not a row of one species of plant, but a forest! The Northeastern US was once predominantly forest, and many of the plants in those forests are still the best plants to grow here. In suburban yards, we can mimic the beauty, seclusion, and peaceful quiet of a diverse forest simply by planting more stuff! And a bigger variety of
that stuff is inspired by our native forests!

Maybe it’s time to reconsider our approach to the “privacy screen.”

Hedges can be great, but they can also be visually boring and ecologically sterile. There is no law requiring homeowners to mark their property boundaries with a row of identical plants. Just because your property line forms a rectangle doesn’t mean your landscape has to be one. A diverse mix of plants – native trees, shrubs, grasses, and perennials – planted in masses makes a landscape interesting, lush, ecologically valuable, and very private.

evergreen trees
Contrasting approaches – the mixed border of deciduous and evergreen trees on the right offers more interest, and more privacy, than the hedge on the left
white pine, arborvitae, spruce, juniper, and Rhododendron
A mix of White Pine, Arborvitae, Spruce, Juniper, and
Rhododendron completely screens a house from the road

If you already have a hedge or a fence along the property line, consider planting inside it using a mix of native trees and shrubs that change with the seasons. Start with the corners.

Trained landscape designers tend to avoid square corners and straight lines in their designed plantings. You can do the same thing. Map out curved beds that soften the corners and bring more plants further into your yard. Plant taller shrubs at the back, and choose flowering shrubs and perennials to plant in the foreground where you can enjoy them.

Fences along two neighboring properties meet to form a hard corner that is softened, and completely screened, by a curved planting of mixed trees, shrubs, and perennials

So, consider creating a privacy screen that looks more like a forest than a fence. By planting more plants, and a bigger variety of plants in more of your yard, you will have more privacy, more seasonal interest, less lawn to tend, and more habitat for birds, butterflies, and fireflies.

How’s that for a win-win-win-win?!

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Halloween Horrors!

Scary Invasive Vines

Ghosts, skeletons, and zombies! It’s Halloween, and our neighborhood is overrun by scary creatures playing trick-or-treat. 

But look carefully. The most terrifying monsters in our neighborhood are the ones strangling our trees! Invasive vines are real-life ‘serial killers’ — stealing food, water, and light from trees, and leaving ghosts, skeletons, and zombies behind.


You’ve seen these vines doing their evil deeds. Our roadsides are infested with them. Our woods are being devoured by them. They cause trees to fall onto roads and buildings, costing taxpayers, utilities, highway departments, parks, and private property owners billions of dollars in property damage, clean-up, and removal. Even worse, in forests, meadows, and wetlands, these vines are replacing the native plants essential to maintaining biodiversity –the insects, birds, and animals in our ecosystem.

Three of the most destructive vines in our region are Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, and the ever-popular English Ivy.

Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
Porcelain Berry (Ampelopsis glanduosa)
English, Irish, or Persian Ivy (Hedera spp.)

All of these vines belong on other continents. They are invasive here because they have no natural controls in North America and, therefore, are able to aggressively out-compete our native plants. 

So, how did they get here?

Gardeners! All of these killer vines were imported and planted here intentionally because gardeners found them attractive. European colonists introduced English Ivy as early as 1727. Oriental Bittersweet was introduced as a garden plant in the 1860’s, and Porcelain Berry was brought to the US from East Asia as an ornamental ground cover in the 1870’s. These plants had no commercial use or food value for humans or animals — they were planted solely for decoration. To be fair, gardeners back then had no idea what horror they were unleashing on the Eastern US. But we can learn from their mistakes.

Oriental Bittersweet is invasive from Maine to North Carolina and west to Wisconsin and Missouri. It is fast-growing and easily overwhelms native vegetation, both on the ground and in the tree canopy. Its enormous vines, up to 4 inches in diameter, can strangle, and even uproot, mature trees and shrubs. 

Oriental Bittersweet vine choking a tree 

Porcelain Berry is invasive from New England to Virginia and west to Wisconsin and Iowa. It is extremely aggressive on roadsides and other disturbed areas, as well as along forest edges. It runs along power lines, and often brings them down in storms. Porcelain Berry kills by completely enclosing shrubs and trees, stealing all available light, until the smothered plant dies.

A young spruce tree struggles under a mound of Porcelain Berry
It’s too late to save these trees and shrubs from Porcelain Berry

Ivy is a serious problem for us at the Nature Center, and we have warned about its dangers in earlier posts. See Evil Ivy Over Everything here. Where Ivy has escaped gardens in the US, it has destroyed vast areas of woodlands, reducing vibrant and diverse local ecologies to monocultures with no value at all for birds, insects, or forest animals. In suburban landscapes, Ivy causes enormous damage to trees, fences, and wood siding.

 Ivy, the Boston Strangler

So, what have we learned from these gardening mistakes? According to the National Park Service, of the 1200 invasive plant species currently documented in natural areas, almost two-thirds were intentionally imported and planted as ornamental plants. Until recently, all three of these killer vines were still being sold and planted in gardens. In 2015, Oriental Bittersweet and Porcelain Berry finally were recognized as threats to the environment, and legally prohibited for sale and distribution in New York and a number of other states. English Ivy, however, has somehow been given a pass, and is still legally sold in every state except Oregon. Unfortunately, hundreds of other ornamental plant species, already known to be invasive, are still being sold and planted by gardeners all over the US. Legal regulation of invasive plants lags way behind the science.

So, what can we do to help? First, remove and destroy these three killer vines wherever you can, and be sure that the vines and berries go into the trash – not into brush piles or compost where they can easily spread further. 

Next, before buying or planting any ornamental plant, do a quick investigation. It’s easy! Enter the name of the plant you’re considering into Google, or another search engine, along with the word “native” to quickly find out where the species originated. Plants native to your region are safe and beneficial to the ecology.

If the plant you are considering is not native to your region, do the search again, adding the word “invasive” along with the plant name. Websites devoted to preventing the spread of invasive plants will come up in your search and warn you if a plant is a known threat to our environment. Here is a sample search for the common landscape plant, Burning Bush.

Collectively, home gardeners have a huge impact on the environment. The most obvious example of their power – for good and for ill – is the horror of almost 1000 invasive ornamental species damaging our ecosystem. Our gardening forebearers made some terrible mistakes and unleashed these scary monsters on us. We can do better.