Our gardens often represent a place of escape - escape to nature and away from distractions. Many of us dream of that perfect green utopia, getting lost in nature, enjoying plants and the wildlife they attract. We've never needed to be soothed by pleasing greenery more than we do now.
However, we often live in suburbs or cities with near neighbours. Those neighbours are the very people who've helped keep us sane during lockdown, but sometimes we need privacy to enjoy the serenity that the outdoor life can offer.
Here are some ideas to enhance the solitude of your surroundings.
It may be that there's just one or a few offending obstacles to your enjoyment of the space - a neighbour's ugly extension or an overlooking window. In this case some judicious choices of fast growing plants could work wonders. My favourite choices for spot privacy are clumps of evergreen bamboo and that wonderful tree the Acacia Dealbata. It's a fast-growing, compact and evergreen tree with delightful ferny leaves. And early in the new year it produces masses of fragrant yellow flowers. It likes full sun, well-drained soil and a sheltered spot. It can grow to 5m with a spread of 2-3m so it's the perfect city or suburban dweller.
2 Shade sail
Use a retractable canopy or fabric sail to create a temporary canopy from spying eyes. A garden sail will improve any plot by adding excitement, provide some shade or even shelter from rain showers.
It may be that you situate it solely over an outdoor dining space but if you plan it carefully and pull it taut, it could also add a wonderful architectural or sculptural shape to your plot. You can also be adventurous with your colour choices - a navy colour may be reminiscent of enjoying times on the high seas!
3 Add a pergola
Pergolas are a useful multi-purpose garden feature. As architectural constructs they can be lovely to look at, they're the perfect host for a ton of plants such as climbing roses, honeysuckle, wisteria and clematis which need something to clamber over. They can create a place of shade for a sunny day. And when combined with appropriate planting they create the perfect private spot in an otherwise overlooked garden.
4 A good fence
The most obvious way to create privacy in a garden is through erecting a fence. This will help define your garden space, create a backdrop for garden development, provide shelter from the elements and shield you from curious neighbours and passers-by.
Fences also help with security and keep your animals inside and other people's pets out. And they reduce the noises from nearby roads or talkative neighbours!
Some of the advantages to using a fence as your first means of privacy is that they can be purchased relatively cheaply, wooden ones are often home-grown and made in Ireland, they are adaptable in that they can be set at different heights, you can paint them or use wood-stain to ensure they fit with your garden decor and they're of soft appearance.
They're also the ideal surface to grow climbing or rambling plants on and erecting a fence made up of a series of panels is the perfect satisfying DIY project. If it were my choice I'd always go for wooden fences over concrete or steel as they're much more appealing in garden settings.
How high can you go? Class 5, Part 1 of Schedule 2 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 provides that the construction of a wall or fence within or bounding the curtilage of a house is exempted development, subject to certain limitations, including that such wall or fence does not exceed 2m, or in the case of a wall or fence within or bounding any garden or other space in the front of a house, 1.2m. So now you know!
5 Try reducing noise using an ill-reputed conifer...
Planting dense foliage in your outdoor living space can provide an attractive and versatile way to decrease sound and traffic noise levels. And noise-reduction landscaping is economical and the best way to improve your peace of mind and the environment. It also creates habitats for many creatures including nesting birds.
Scientific boffins have worked out that planting two or three rows of sound-absorbing plants can effectively reduce noise levels by more than seven decibels. The ideal noise barrier hedge is dense and tall enough that you can't easily see through or over it. The effect is bolstered by planting vegetation in multiple rows and multiple tiers, such as an overstory of tall trees, an understory of tangled shrubs, and a ground cover.
But one of the most successful noise reducers is also one of gardening's greatest villains. The Leyland Cypress will become a tight, dense barrier for view, absorbs sound or wind reduction when planted as a hedge. It's a very fast-growing tree achieving up to a metre's growth each year. I feel it has no place as a hedge in a garden, unless you keep it to a maximum of 3 or 4 metres and trim it carefully - sides and top each year to stop further growth. If you do this you'll have a wonderful neat green backdrop and a great sound barrier. But only if you keep it in check.
6 Use water
My current guilty secret is that I've been watching the Netflix series Selling Sunset. It's an awful reality show based on the notion of Gucci-clad stiletto-heeled estate agents selling multi-million dollar homes in Los Angeles. I watch to pick up design tips (squirm) and I found one! A gorgeous home was positioned near a busy motorway and the hum of the traffic took away from the enjoyment of the outdoor space. The estate agent's solution? Build a waterfall! And she wasn't wrong.
You can divert attention from any offending noise by introducing a water feature. It needn't be a great gushing fountain - the smallest trickle of water can be very relaxing. Simple pump and water reservoir kits allow you to recycle water so a plumber isn't required but you may need an electrician to safely connect up the pump - water and electricity is a dangerous combination when not properly installed.
Water trickling through a jet over polished cobbles or pieces of slate can be extremely effective. Reclamation yards can be great sources of unusual and good quality fountains. And if space is really tight, consider installing a small water feature on a garden wall.
For oriental simplicity and serenity, the Sozu is a type of water feature found in Japanese gardens. It consists of a hollowed out bamboo tube - water trickling through causes the tube to tilt downwards, making a gentle knocking sound as it touches the bowl - the tube then swings upwards again. Traditionally used to scare deer from grazing plants, there's something deeply hypnotic and restful watching one of these in action.
7 Pleached hedge
Pleached or espaliered trees are often used in formal, town gardens to create extra height around the boundaries of the plot without running into local planning authority issues.
The drawback is that unless you're skilled enough to grow and train them yourself - and it can take up to five years to begin to see the results you require - they can be expensive.
These trees have clear stems, usually up to 1.8m tall (think of a lollipop with a cubed top) which allows enough space beneath their canopies for planting.
Many species of trees can be trained this way but favourites include Carpinus betulus (Hornbeam), Photinia Red Robin, Tillia europaea Pallida (Lime), Quercus ilex (Evergreen Oak) and Acer campestre Elsrijk (Maple).
If your garden is big enough and has an open aspect, choose your place of recreation in the area that's least overlooked - this could be the patio directly outside your house, or it may be that your secret quiet spot is down the end of your plot. Last year, I worked with Dermot Bannon, creating a garden for his new home. Early in the process he decided that his place of escape would be in the undergrowth - he'd discovered a quiet spot beyond a weeping birch tree.
It was there that he created a pavilion, a rustic seating area and an outdoor bath. His retreat was near the city and yet he could bathe in harmony with nature, surrounded by foliage at the end of his plot.
9 Garden room
The greatest garden escape of them all has to be having your own little haven buried deep in your plot. Whether it's a shed for pottering about in, a studio for painting or producing pots, a garden office or a Zumba fitness centre, a destination within the garden is always awesome. Forget privacy from the neighbours - get away from your own kids by building or buying an adult den!
Imagine a spot where you pretend to work from as you listen to Led Zeppelin and down some beers... or is that just me?
A great joy is the ability to model the structure in the architectural style of your choosing. Mine is in the form of a corrugated iron outback shack. You may be inclined more towards Italian renaissance style. For that real green escape, get building.
10 The perfect tree?
Evergreen magnolia for year-round privacy
A magnolia grandiflora planted in front of a shed or neighbouring structure will take the focus from the offender.
Amelanchier, a spring flowering tree
The Amelanchier has a 'vase' shape and a lovely colour which makes it a good privacy tree. You also have plenty of space light at ground level to plant other things.
The Silver birch
Silver birch has a beautiful pale bark in the winter, and a curtain of light leaves dripping down from spring to autumn. A multi-stem specimen will hide a multitude.
The yellow foliage of Robinia 'Frisia' is a scene-stealer.
With room to grow this will provide wonderful summer leaf colour and a stunning effect. Nosy neighbours won't look at anything else.