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How to create and maintain a vegetative screen is one of the most common question topics I receive here in Union County. Screening adds privacy to your yard, and anything that gets you outside more often is a good thing. Screening adds to your property value by blocking wind, dust, noise, glare, and unsightly views, and by improving aesthetics. Screens create wildlife habitat (food and shelter) adding to the ecological richness of our urban forest. Unfortunately, there are some common pitfalls.
- Pitfall #1 – Poor species selection – Leyland Cypress is very common, cheap, and readily available however I never recommend it because it is short-lived here in Union County and highly susceptible to fatal, untreatable diseases resulting in a waste of time and money. I receive many calls about dying Leyland Cypress and have an entire post about it. Arborvitae is slightly more disease resistant but I still regularly see it easily succumbing to disease and do not recommend it. Pick species that are native because we know they do well in our climate and soil, or at least have a proven record of doing well here in Union County – Leyland Cypress and Arborvitae have both proven they usually don’t do very well here.
- Pitfall #2 – Planting just one species – In arboriculture and urban forestry, we stress the idea of planting a diversity of species to avoid a monoculture, which is a concentration of a single species. A monoculture is more attractive to insect and disease pests, so more likely to require plant health care (extra costs) or just simply die if untreatable (e.g., Leyland Cypress). Homeowners are consistently attracted to the simplicity of a ‘green fence’ which means selecting just one cheap species and planting them in too-tight spacing for immediate effect. I always recommend planting a diversity of species as a screen so that if a insect or disease pest comes to visit, you don’t lose your entire screen.
- Pitfall #3 – Poor planting practices – Poor planting practices are a pitfall of any landscaping project, whether it be screening, planting a shade tree, ornamentals, fruit trees, or anything else. Proper planting means choosing the right species for the right location, selecting high quality plant material, and planting it properly. You should also keep grass away from them and instead maintain a mulch bed around their root zone – a screen is a significant investment and letting turf grass invade their root space would be a mistake. Read my post on proper tree planting for more information.
- Pitfall #4 – Poor spacing – A good screen is a mix of species, staggered and inter-mixed instead of planted in a single row. Planting in a single row leads to the temptation to plant too close together to avoid gaps left between. Planting too close together means failing to give plants enough space at mature size, which leads to plant stress, which results in susceptibility to insect and disease attack. Leyland Cypress is up to 20 feet wide at maturity but no one plants them that far apart because then it takes 20 years to form an effective screen.
Full sun/blank canvas – Creating a screen in full sun is easy because many more plants that create an effective screen grow in full sun than shade. People generally pick evergreens for year-round screening instead of deciduous trees, though I recommend adding at least some ornamental trees for spring flowers. Still, the foundation of an effective screen is evergreen large shrubs or trees, whether that be with needles (e.g., pine trees) or broadleaf evergreen (e.g., holly). I recommend a variety of species instead of a green fence (pitfall #2), and a variety of sizes from tall grasses to small shrubs, large shrubs, and even large trees (if you have the space). The shorter in height the plant is, the closer to the front it should be planted and the more of them. The taller the plant, the fewer of them you use and the farther to the back you plant them.
If I were creating a screen in full sun, I would be sure to include the following:
- Small Shrubs
- Large Shrubs
- Small Trees
- Large Trees
If you have a limited budget, the easiest and most reliable ‘green fence’ here in Union County would be planting a row of holly shrubs. Holly is native and does well here despite our poor-quality soils. Even though holly is tough, you must still plant them properly and treat them right (see pitfall #3). Instead of one straight row, plant them staggered in two or even three rows which provides a more instant effect while allowing for proper spacing (see pitfall #4). Its better to have a small yard with a great screen than a bigger yard with a dead/dying screen, so ensure that you devote enough space to your screen, even if you are going with the basic ‘green fence’. There are dozens of species of holly available, so if you are truly limited on space choose a species with a narrow mature width. Burford Holly is a medium sized holly that can be planted in tight spacing, resulting in a hedge. ‘Taylor’ Eastern Red Cedar is a tall skinny version of a very tough native tree.
Screening in shade
I get a lot of calls asking how to add screening along a fence line under a row of existing tall trees. Or put another way, ‘what evergreen shrubs grow in shade here in Union County?’ The answer is simple because there are fewer species to choose from.
- Carolina Cherrylaurel
- Rhododendron – Look into Catawba Rhododendron or Great Rhododendron, though they will require you to modify the soil before planting.
- Southern Magnolia – I see magnolia growing naturally in the deep woods under a canopy of trees, so I know it can tolerate shade.
- Wax Myrtle
- Holly – Similar to magnolia, I see hollies growing in full shade in the deep woods here in Union County. Try Dahoon Holly or Yaupon Holly.