Shrubs for Screens


Evergreen hedges are among the many impressive features of European gardens. Classic English, French, and Italian gardens feature tall shrubs, tightly clipped and trained to divide gardens into individual themed garden rooms. Few people realize that those hedges serve multiple purposes, such as a windbreak, protecting sensitive plants from cold. They even keep out hungry critters.

Here, evergreen hedges are more edging plants, green backgrounds, or devices to hide cars on noisy streets or the neighbors’ trash cans. Hedges are high maintenance. They are typically big shrubs, planted too close together, so they require constant pruning and generous water to look good. That is not a winning strategy for most home gardeners.

Instead, use screening plants, which are evergreen shrubs planted in loose groupings and spaced to accommodate to their natural dimensions. Beautiful, water-wise options include pincushions (Leucospermum) that are Protea family plants from South Africa. Softball-sized flowers that look like giant pincushions compliment their green or gray leaves. Most pincushions flower early each year, and in shades of red, yellow, orange, and pink. Typically, pincushions grow between four to six feet tall and eight feet wide or wider. So three ‘Veldfire’ pincushion plants, for example, can cover a space 24 feet long! Check each variety for its dimensions.

Important: Do not fertilize pincushions. If you are fertilizing the bed where they grow, avoid using phosphorus-containing fertilizers (look for middle letter “P” on the fertilizer label). Pincushions evolved in soils that have less phosphorus than ours have, so fertilizers with phosphorus will kill them.

Another option is Grevillea, Australian shrubs in the Protea family, which are available in every size, from low growing groundcovers to tall trees. Most Grevillea sold in nurseries have narrow leaves and some leaves are more sculpted; others more needle-like. For screening, try Grevillea ‘Long John’ which grows at least 15 feet tall by 15 feet wide and has spider-shaped flowers the color of watermelon. Grevillea ‘Red Hooks’ has toothbrush shaped burgundy flowers and grows eight to 12 feet tall and wide, while Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream,’ has orange and yellow cone-shaped flowers covering six foot tall by eight foot wide shrubs. Phosphorus fertilizers kill Grevillea as well.

Coast Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa and its hybrids) make nice background shrubs and are adaptable to many garden applications. Coast Rosemary’s common name comes from rosemary-like green, needle-like leaves and small flowers. But the two are entirely different plants from entirely different areas. Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean and Coast Rosemary is native to Australia.

Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’ is one of the largest coast Rosemaries, which at six to eight feet tall and wide, makes an excellent screening plant. Westringia ‘Blue Gem’ grows four to six feet tall by three to four feet wide with tiny lavender blue flowers, while Westringia fruticosa grows four to six feet tall by six to 12 feet wide and blooms white. You can easily hide a chain link fence behind a few Westringia.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a native California shrub common on hillsides, which easily reach 10 or 12 feet tall and wide. They have thick, leathery, deep green leaves that densely cover branches. In spring, their small white flowers do not attract much attention, but by winter, the flowers turn into bright red berries much beloved by birds. To California’s early developers, the berries were a reminder of holly, which is how Hollywood got its name.

myrtleMyrtle (Myrtus communis) is a classic Mediterranean hedge shrub in Europe. Since few of us grow formal gardens, we grow myrtle as a screen. Myrtle grows eight to 12 feet tall and wide. It has small, triangular, deep green leaves (there are green and cream variegated leaf varieties, too). Myrtle’s flowers are hardly noticeable but have a nice perfume. Its crushed leaves release a spicy fragrance.

For the fastest growing and most vigorous plants, always plant the smallest possible size. Choose one gallons over five gallons, five gallons over 15 gallons. Do not plant any of these from containers larger than 15 gallons. Design your plan with plants grouped in odd numbers; three of a kind, five of a kind, etc. Do not mix up different kinds of shrubs or alternate them. Groupings of the same plant are much more effective and much more pleasing to the eye. Space plants just shy of their maximum width, then let them grow to their natural sizes. That is the key to creating an effective, low maintenance screen for your water-wise garden.

Garden expert, designer, educator, and author Nan Sterman specializes in low water, sustainable, and edible landscapes. Nan hosts, co-writes, and co-produces opens in a new windowA Growing Passion, a show that explores the power of plants in our world. Nan is also author of California Gardener’s Guide vII, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest, and Hot Colors, Dry Garden. More information is at opens in a new