Shade and Privacy by Design

By Shaun Moser, Conservation Garden Park

Last week we talked about the role that trees and foundation plants play in your landscape as the “bones” of a good landscape design. Today we will be talking about perimeter plants and the key functions they serve. The most prominent feature around the perimeter of the yard in most Utah landscapes is the fence. While fencing can provide privacy from neighbors, it is rarely the most attractive feature in the yard. Additionally, when lawn abuts a fence, it’s tough to maintain and sprinklers can deteriorate the fence. The solution? Perimeter plants! They’ll not only enhance privacy, but also create an attractive living edge to the yard that provides habitat for birds and pollinators, decreases water use, and beautifies the property.

Perimeter plants act as a green fence around the edge of the property and can include shrubs, ornamental grasses, and taller perennial flowers. For these plants to play the role of a perimeter plant, they should stay within 6 feet of the property line. Trees can be placed in perimeter beds, but we considered them separately in last week’s article.

Although we most frequently use trees for privacy, they are not always the best solution. Trees provide screening from a second-story or uphill neighbor but offer little to no privacy at eye level. When choosing perimeter plants, consider the angle of sightlines you’re trying to block, then choose the plant type accordingly. Concerned about a second story window that looks directly into your backyard? Placing a row of trees along your fence line can block that sightline while providing shade. Taller shrubs create a wall of dense foliage that provides privacy from the ground up. A large shrub will also provide multi-season interest when perennial flowers die back in the winter, providing year-round interest, not just summer color.

Another concept to consider when designing perimeter plantings is the height of the individual plants. Design planting beds in layers. Place taller plants in the background (right up against the fence) and shorter plants in the foreground. For example, plant tall shrubs in front of short perennials. Most shrubs look better with a billowy perennial planted at the base, hiding the shrub’s “naked ankles.”

The biggest mistake homeowners make with perimeter plantings—is not having perimeter plantings! The second biggest mistake is making the planting beds too narrow. The larger the property, the wider the perimeter plantings should be. Although it seems counterintuitive, a wider bed is less work in the long term because the shrubs have the space to grow all the way to the ground, allowing branches to shade the soil, which reduces both weed seed germination and pruning needs. Watering planting beds with drip irrigation and topping them with 2-4” of mulch will dramatically reduce weed growth.

Next week we’ll talk about infill plants. Until then, the first classes of the gardening season at the Conservation Garden Park are now open for registration! Visit to learn more.