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Excited by new trends in outdoor living and a desire to connect to nature, people are extending their indoor living areas outdoors – using their decks, patios, porches and balconies as serene, private retreats with the help of container grown plants.
If you’ve always wanted to create a little oasis, but you’re living in close proximity to others or don’t have the space for traditional garden hedges, why not use strategically chosen plants to create the retreat you long for?
When you’re trying to create a private space with container plants, you must carefully evaluate the view you wish to block at eye-level – standing and seated. Can you achieve what you want by merely obscuring the view, or do you need to completely block it? Remember, it’s not always about straight lines of hedging – strategically placed groups of containers can work just as well.
Once you’ve decided how you wish to achieve a sense of privacy, it’s time to look at plant choices and assess them carefully. Container plants need more from gardeners, as they are utterly dependent on the soil, fertilizer and water we provide, and how regularly we provide it. They are also often ‘front and center’ in a design. It’s a tough environment and we need tough plants.
When looking, try to find plants that exhibit several of the following characteristics:
With those characteristics in mind, let’s look at a few suggestions for some of the best container plants to create privacy in your outdoor oasis!
Shrubs are terrific choices to create privacy as they are often well branched, have an exciting flowering season (sometimes with scent!), and can bring a sense of traditional hedging to a small space. When grouped with smaller container plants or layered with other shrubs, they provide the backbone needed to make more from less.
One of the most important characteristics to look for in container shrubs is the mature size – including width. You don’t want to be crowded off your patio by a mature shrub! Consider cultivars that have a more 'columnar' shape if you’re short on space but still desire privacy such as Black Tower elderberry; or use dwarf cultivars in large containers – such as Pee Wee hydrangea – to give the feeling of larger plants without the width.
Glossary: 'Columnar' refers to any plant with a tall, cylindrical shape.
Some shrubs like Elderberry or Hardy Hibiscus are quite happy to pruned into the shape of small trees, adding a 'canopy layer' to your private retreat – with flowers! Make sure you research when it’s best to prune your shrub so you don’t end up cutting off the potential flower buds.
Along with flowering often comes scent. Fragrance will add an intoxicating effect to any garden, but is particularly noticeable in a small, enclosed space. Consider planting a few scented shrubs to stagger bloom time and keep that scent throughout the season.
When the autumn arrives, chances are you’ll still want to use your private retreat. Planting shrubs with good fall foliage and autumn or winter bark color ensures you’ll keep bringing out the drinks and candles until temperatures really drop.
Hydrangeas are a beloved garden shrub with large clusters of flowers that are great for inside vases. They maintain a great branching habit, and often sport good fall color. Hydrangeas make wonderful container plants but require a generous hand with the watering wand. Consider mophead varieties for consistent structure – particularly the everblooming cultivars such as Everlasting Noblesse; or use large panicle hydrangeas like Limelight to create a generous amount of privacy and pizazz. Tolerates part-shade.
Butterfly bushes are true to their name, attracting an outstanding variety of winged insects to your private retreat. Pruning them back hard in the early spring will ensure a strong structure, but if space is an issue, you can use dwarf cultivars like Buzz Hot Raspberry; or create mini-trees with larger cultivars by pruning out lower branches and encouraging a bushier shrub at eye-level. Drought-tolerant.
With its sweet, summertime scent and a strong, bushy habit, clethra makes a terrific shrub for your shadier private patio. Plus, the foliage will turn bright yellow when autumn turns summertime cocktails into mugs of mulled cider. Ruby Spice is a cultivar with pink tinged blossoms shaped into mini-bottlebrushes. Great for lines of ‘hedging,’ but needs a bit of space. Moisture lover.
Native to the edges of Northeast woodlands, elderberry is a wonderfully versatile shrub that is beautiful throughout the seasons in foliage colors of green, gold and nearly black. Enjoy the panicles of edible flowers in spring, then use the berries in summer to make jam or homemade wine. When pruned, Black Lace elderberry makes an outstanding small tree for privacy and interest, but cultivars such as Black Tower showcase that beautiful dark foliage in a smaller, more vertical shape. Moisture lover.
With long, reaching stems, weigela can get out of control on a small patio quickly, yet it brings foliage, flower and scent to the garden. Thankfully there are lots of new dwarf cultivars that can give you the vigor and look of classic weigela without the bulk. Try Dark Horse or My Monet. Drought-tolerant.
Add a tropical note to your private patio with large, colorful blooms while also adding the privacy-enhancing structure of Hardy Hibiscus. It’s a tough shrub with remarkably delicate blooms and responds well to pruning shears. For even more appeal, choose a cultivar with black or variegated foliage such as Kopper King or Showtime.
Though you might not think of lavender as a shrub for privacy, many of the larger hybrid lavenders such as Provence can grow three feet tall. Pair this with a large container and you’ll have glorious scent and color throughout the season – lavender foliage is almost as fragrant as the flowers. Trim it back after its first bloom in spring, and it is likely that you’ll have blooms in late summer too. Drought-tolerant.
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As a bonus, they’re often drought resistant, and can do well in the harsher conditions of a container. Many are self-supporting, and when paired with a beautifully shaped container can create a focal point that is almost more ‘art’ than garden. If you’re looking for a lighter, less formal touch, adding grasses to your private retreat might be the answer.
When selecting a container grass for privacy, your first consideration should be height without the tendency to flop. There are lots of wonderful medium grasses (4-5’) that are self-supporting, but the container gardener has even more from which to choose. Small grasses (1-3’) paired with a large container might just give you all the height you need.
Grasses don’t just grow up – they grow out too. Look at the mature width of a grass and its shape. Nothing is worse than wispy foliage tickling your nose while you enjoy a late evening drink. There are many grasses with a more vertical form – like ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass – giving you height without all the bulk.
If you’re in a really small space, don’t forget to consider how ‘friendly’ your grass is. Foliage can be annoying when it tickles the nose, but it can be downright dangerous if it has a tendency to cut skin with sharp edges. Narrower, softer leaves are usually best.
Choose medium cultivars of the vase-shaped maiden grasses when choosing for containers such as Morning Light or Purple Miscanthus. Foliage is most often very narrow and comes in a variety of colors from variegated, to gold banded, to light cream. These grasses will make an effective but gentle screen, and when flower plumes appear in mid- to late-summer the effect is magical.
Switchgrasses are native, clump-forming grasses with a strongly upright habit – terrific for maintaining a privacy screen without extra bulk. They form light, airy panicles of silvery-red bloom in late summer and are well-suited to drier conditions. Choose cultivars like Ruby Red or Shenandoah Red to bring late summer color to your natural screen.
A constant favorite for containers, fountain grasses come in many sizes and add soft, colorful interest while gently screening tough views. Many are extremely colorful and work as effective accents with other perennials, such as Purple fountain grass. Large, fluffy seed heads in varying shades of soft pink and taupe add to the display as summer draws on. Some species will be hardier than others, so research this group carefully.
Feather reed grasses can add a sharp, vertical accent, or a wider, softer one, depending upon the species. Unlike other grasses, moisture retentive soil is best for this grass – particularly in containers. Karl Foerster is perhaps the best known of this group and will create strong architectural lines for your patio design.
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It’s not just about tall grasses and shrubs! There are many perennials and annuals you can use in your containers to create texture and introduce exciting colors while enhancing privacy. Plus, if you use 'risers' to create staggered heights, you can use just about any well-shaped plant to create a private garden feel.
Glossary: A riser is any object that is used under a container to add height, like a brick or upturned pot.
The key with using perennials and annuals is mixing and matching with other plants to add differing textures and heights. You can certainly use one strong perennial in a single container, such as lavender; but when you pair the deep violet spires of 'May Night' Meadow Sage with the feathery plumes of a fountain grass like 'Karley Rose' and the bright yellow blooms of 'Goldsturm' Black Eyed Susan – and then put that container in front of a larger grass or shrub screen, you’ve just upped your design tenfold!.
When choosing container annuals and perennials for privacy, look for those that have a good structure all season and are able to support their own weight against winds. They’ll be more vulnerable in taller containers than they would be in the ground.
If you absolutely can’t live without them, but they have a relatively short season of interest, you can always ‘switch them out’ with other blooming perennials or long-blooming annuals when they finish flowering. If they are perennial, you can move them to a temporary garden bed for next year, or put the entire container in a ‘holding area’ behind a screen.
If the perennials will overwinter in place, choose those whose hardiness is rated at least a zone colder than your zone. In cold climates, some great garden annuals, like canna lilies or elephant ears can be overwintered easily in a dormant state for next year.
For movement, sound and wildlife habitat, consider placing containers of long-blooming meadow favorites such as cone flower, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan or bee balm in front of containers of medium grasses (above). Add some annual seeds of cosmos or zinnia and you’ll attract pollinators while blocking difficult views with beauty.
Some well-loved, vigorous perennials such as Shasta daisies or Asiatic lilies adapt beautifully to large containers – giving you strong foliage and great flowers. When containers are grouped together with larger shrubs such as hydrangea, you can create a formal look, stagger bloom times and block views.
Try large foliage annuals such as canna lilies or elephant ears which grow vigorously and often don’t need any help from other larger plants to block views – especially when strategically placed in groups. They’re moisture lovers, so keep that hose on standby and add to the jungle effect with large ferns or hostas.
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