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Need to screen off your neighbors? Here's how to grow a green privacy barrier

Piper neesianum forms a wall of dense green
Piper neesianum forms a wall of dense green Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

We all need a peaceful space for quiet contemplation. One option is using plants for privacy and screening out unwanted noise and lights for a yard of any size.

What should you look for in choosing plants for privacy? The plants need to grow quickly and provide a dense screen of foliage, while not dropping tons of leaves, flowers, or fruit, or becoming an overgrown, out-of-control nuisance.

A fenced yard may be both a blessing and a curse, because depending on where you live, you may be required to keep the fence free of foliage. Even if that's not a requirement, it is a good idea to do so anyway in anticipation of future fence maintenance. If this is a non-issue, then there are any number of plants willing to overtake your future fence-trellis.

Passion flower vine (Passiflora) entwines and covers a fence in a frighteningly brief time. Stand near it for long, and I fear you’d become trapped. The flowers, of course, are stunning, unearthly, and beloved by bees and butterflies. You may get lucky and get actual passion fruit as well. I inherited a passion flower so overgrown that it choked out and smothered any plant near it. Little sun could reach anything trying to grow beneath its ever-reaching tendrils. It was a sad day — actually many sad days — when I had to remove that monstrous passion flower; biomassive comes to mind.

An option is building a trellis near your fence to support vines like passion flower, but ensure there is sufficient space between the two for you to trim back this enthusiastic climber.

Bougainvillea will also rapidly form a dense cover, but its thorns are a nightmare for gardeners. If your aim is a security barrier, bougainvillea may be for you, but be prepared to prune it wearing a suit of armor. It has drawn too much blood from me.

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Piper neesianum produces small flowers. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Yards from where I write this stands a huge wall of green, freestanding and beautifully dense. It’s Piper neesianum, planted at Fairchild in 1998. From a distance, it could be mistaken for a ficus hedge, but does not seem bothered by all the problems that plague Ficus benjamina, like whitefly, thrips and scale. This Piper was wild collected in Guatemala — such a romantic image of the plant hunter in action! Disappointingly, it is not commonly cultivated, but is sometimes offered at our plant sales so keep an eye out for it there.

Florida privet, Forestiera segregata, can be employed as a privacy hedge, and has the native advantage. It also tolerates coastal salt spray. Native wild coffee, Psychotria nervosa, makes an excellent screen, and as long as the lower areas receive sun, they should stay flushed out with foliage.

Bamboo is a tempting screen plant, but be careful. Clumping bamboo should be fine, but running bamboo is to be avoided as the latter has a reputation for running wild over its own and even neighboring properties. It’s a good idea to buy from a bamboo specialist nursery to make sure your bamboo is properly identified.

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Bambusa vulgaris 'Wamin,' common bamboo, is anything but common. Kenneth Setzer Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Bambusa vulgaris — common bamboo — is a fast-growing, clumping bamboo, and has been cultivated into some wild forms lest it become too common. The rhizomes spread horizontally at a very slow rate, so won’t invade. Planted along (but not directly against) a fence, bamboo will grow tall with lower parts unbranched. The foliage should become denser up high, thus providing privacy where your fence ends. This also blocks unwanted light from passing cars and other activity.

Fairchild has an extensive bamboo collection for you to judge them for yourself. Bambusa textilis var. Gracilis is another nice option with thinner stems nicely suited to a narrow garden area. Both bamboos prefer full sun to partial shade.

If your living situation is less permanent and you don’t want to dig, or for apartments and efficiencies, consider hanging potted plants with a trailing habit onto a trellis or fence for a moveable privacy barrier or create a vertical bromeliad wall — hmm, maybe this is a decent topic for another column.

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.