Now that we all tend to use our gardens as outdoor rooms we like to enjoy the same privacy outside that we enjoy in the kitchen or in front of the television. We don’t want to see or hear our neighbours and we don’t want them watching or listening to us. Plants can help.
In new gardens, all that separates us from our neighbours may be flimsy panel fences. Vertical feathered boards make a more solid barrier than horizontal lap panels, but kids will always peep through the cracks and conversations can be clearly heard.
Quick climbers can provide a visual barrier and deaden sound. We need dense growth and almost instant action so climbing nasturtiums, runner beans, the tougher morning glories such as ‘Grandpa Otts’ or ‘Star of Yalta’ (not the relatively sparse ‘Heavenly Blue’) and lablab bean are much more effective than sweet peas.
Ipomoea 'Grandpa Otts', runner bean 'Moonlight' and a perennial climbing nasturtium, Tropaeolum speciosum
In the long run, look for something more permanent and, if there’s space, planting what is in effect a hedge in front of a panel fence can work very well, combining solidity and sound absorption with a good visual barrier.
Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is especially good used in this way and I’ve also seen yew and star jasmine (Trachelospermum) work well. Spine-free hollies such as Ilex ‘J. C. van Tol’ would be worth trying too... But never plant Leyland cypress in this situation - they get far too big, far too quickly; although Thuja ‘Smaragd’ makes an effective evergreen screen. Remember, though, they’ll all need clipping.
Issues to watch out for
Many climbers such as clematis, honeysuckles and Chilean glory vine (Eccremocarpus) tend to generate most of their growth towards their highest point – so fail to do a thorough job of screening unless pruned very thoughtfully. Bamboos in pots have become popular as screens but provide more elegance than privacy and, planted in the ground, the shoots of some types may emerge through the cracks in your – or next door’s – paving. They also suffer greatly if allowed to dry out completely - which is always a risk with large potted plants if you go away on a sunny summer weekend.
And then there’s the fedge, a cross between a fence and a hedge in which ivy, star jasmine or another evergreen climber is trained through a fence to make a stout and solid screen. So if all that separates you from your neighbour is a trellis or chain-link fence, a fedge is the answer.
More from the RHS
Take a look at our advice on screening plants
Creating and maintaining living structures
How to control bamboo