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Green screens: how to create a private garden if you have nosy neighbours

How do you add privacy to an overlooked garden in our urban homes? Gerry Daly has the answer


Privacy is one of the most valuable aspects of your garden space

Privacy is one of the most valuable aspects of your garden space

Privacy is one of the most valuable aspects of your garden space

If you're lucky enough to have a garden, you have probably been spending more than usual amounts of time pottering about in the sunshine during lockdown.

And you have probably also realised, particularly if you're an urban gardener, that privacy is one of the most valuable aspects of your space.

The feeling that you can relax in a leisurely fashion without being overlooked by neighbouring houses is very important.

But with houses being built on ever smaller sites, decade after decade, the issue of lack of privacy is more common and more severe than ever before. It is also true, very often, that the perceived problem is much greater than the real one.

In a situation where a garden is overlooked by neighbouring houses, it is also the case that the same neighbours feel they too are on view. For this reason, neighbours largely ignore problems of being overlooked and simply get used to it as part of the ambiance of the neighbourhood.

Usually, the problem of being overlooked is experienced in gardens with little or no planting. As trees and shrubs grow the problem tends to solve itself but that could mean a decade or more of waiting. The most obvious solution is to plant some trees, tall shrubs or a hedge, or to set up a fence or build a garden wall. It may be possible to increase the height of existing fences or walls, but issues of stability and safety, and possibly even planning, need to be considered.

If you can't shield yourself from the observer, hide yourself. It is easy to hide a person standing or sitting behind a modest fence; it is much more difficult to cut off a view from a second-storey window. A sitting area close to the house can be surrounded by a relatively low fence, wall, hedge or shrubs of 1.5m while, to achieve the same effect with planting on your boundary, the trees might need to be 5m or more in height. The space should open away from the screen on one or more sides.

Imagine standing in a bus shelter with your back to the rear wall and facing the road along which the bus will arrive. The area in front of the shelter is completely open, but there is a strong feeling of not being visible due to the overhead projection of the roof. The roof is only about 1.2m wide, but because of the view in the immediate area of the shelter it doesn't feel claustrophobic. The same principle can be used in gardens, for instance, by adding a pergola that is closed at the back.

The area of ground made private by a pergola can be increased by tilting the 'roof' upwards at the front at an angle of about 30 degrees.

Although a pergola may have its joists as much as 50cm apart, and this might be criticised as being too open, that is not the case. The effect of the joists, even set quite far apart, is enough to break the line of sight or at least to make it less attractive to peer through. Also, the roof can have climbers supported by the joists and creating denser cover.

Trees afford the best screening of all, with shrubs planted close to the area to be screened and taller shrubs and trees at the boundaries. The trunks of trees form a back wall with the limbs from 2m above the ground floor trained to extend outwards, like the roof of a pergola, or as in the bus shelter principle. Obviously, though, this is not an immediate solution!

If your property is rented, one cheapish solution, landlord permitting, is to increase your privacy by adding trellises to the top of the boundary walls another is to add free-standing screens in front of your sitting area.

What to do now

  • Though the restrictions on gardens open to the public have lifted, many places have opted to remain closed for the season as their best displays of rhododendrons, camellia and pieris have finished. Check before you set of to visit.
  • Unfortunately, all this rain has not yet staved off the drought. With a hosepipe ban imposed in some areas, it's important to be careful about using scarce water resources - by reusing washing water, for instance, and using water only on young plants that have not fully rooted.
  • The oriental poppy is a tremendous plant for this transition period between spring and early summer. It has an outlandish flower that can be 20cm across and fully open in the sunshine. A very soft plant, it dies back quite quickly in summer. Plant some spreaders such as hardy geranium and catmint beside it to fill the space.

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