By Bev Johnson

Master Gardener

There are times when you need some privacy in the yard. The question is what kind of fence should be put up? The first thing that comes to mind is an actual privacy fence made of wood, stone, or now, plastic. They are usually quite expensive to put up and wood fences need constant care. 

A living fence may be a cheaper, and often more attractive, way to go. Using shrubs, small trees, or even perennials like grasses that change with the seasons, living fences offer varying levels of privacy. They can provide food for birds, pollinators, wild-life and habitat. 

Whether one wants a loose screen-like wall or a solid hard-to-see through hedge, the biggest challenge one will face will be sure the plants choosen are right for the climate and the conditions your site has to offer. It is always harder to grow anything in dense shade than in sun or part shade or part sun.

These tips come from Minneapolis landscapers, Frank Fitzgerald, Douglas Owens-Pike, and Bob Harvey from an article in the Northern Gardener.

Common lilacs make great green walls but get thin and leggy in part shade. Birch, willow trees, and hydrangeas need lots of water. It’s no wonder gardeners throw up their hands and just plant arborvitae, yew, or juniper, and say the heck with it.

Lilacs are the top pick for a dense, tall hedge. Instead of the old-fashioned lilac, use a dwarf one. They are easier to control, have a fine texture, and they can sheared right after they bloom into the desired shape you want. Tinkerbell has pink flowers and Miss Kin has purple; mix the two together for an eye-catching or maybe eye searing, hedge. Another lilac, Miss Canada, a Chinese lilac smells great. She blooms all the way to the base and is also easily shaped.

For a more informal fence there are the flowering, small, fruit bearing trees like serviceberry (AKA June berry), chokeberry, chokecherry and viburnum. Do pick a native viburnum as they often do better over time. Downey viburnum will get 10 feet tall. Eastern wahoo is a native shrub that can be trained into a small tree. She will get about 25 feet tall and spread about 10 feet. She has brown-gray bark, olive green leaves, and purple flowers that turn into an odd red seedpod and a showy fall color.

Dogwoods make good living fences. Gray dogwoods tolerate drought and shade well and tend to have a dense habit that is easier to manage than the red twigged variety. Red needs lots of water and does well in damp spaces. The grays sucker and both of them tend to spread.

If one has a dark area you want to lighten up, look for Centerglow or Dart’s Gold in the Golden ninebarks. They do need quite a bit of sun to keep their color. If they are to go in a shady area, plant them closer together than if they are in a sunny spot.

Hydrangeas are a mid-sized option if you have part shade. Tardiva, Little lamb and Limelight will work well. Or layer them with a viburnum if one has the room. Do remember that hydrangeas, to do well need almost daily watering in hot weather.

Go to local nurseries to see these plants in person, as it were. One will also get good suggestions and information for the plans. Sharpen the shovel, a hedge will take a lot of hole digging.