Most of us in Hawaii don’t have the luxury of living on large estate-size lots or farms, where neighbors are normally out of voice range and a wave is the most common means of neighborly greeting. But living on a small lot does not mean you also must give up your privacy; with a little landscape planning, you can increase your privacy and make your lot or house appear larger.
When screens or barriers are well placed, they can break up the line of sight to a neighbor’s house or dog kennel, street view or other object you do not wish to see. Most of the screens and barriers in Hawaii are plants because of the large selection available and our tropical climate. However, building materials, such as wood, plastic, rocks and cement, are also commonly used.
Some screens are hybrid designs using building materials as a support for vines and other plants upon which they are trained. The use of screens and barriers in days past normally meant a hedge, where a single plant species was planted in neat rows. Ti leaf, mock orange and azalea were commonly used and these screens usually marked the property boundary lines. While functional, it was hard to get past the wall-effect of tall hedges.
For plants to be effective as screens and barriers, the right plant must be grown in the right location. Knowledge about growth habit and longevity, as well as maintenance needs, will go a long way in ensuring a good choice. Certain plants are great screens, but need regular pruning, while others are slow growing and years will pass before obscuring a view. Depending upon the final outcome desired, even a single plant well-positioned to interrupt a line of sight can be as effective as a whole hedge — without the feeling of a wall hedges sometimes impart. Also, the plant does not have to block the view 100 percent. Those that provide moderate screening may work just as well.
When looking out windows, the closer to the house the tree or shrub is planted, the wider the view it will block. Before planting, place a cardboard or a hoop to outline the plant’s dimension and size to provide a perspective of what it will cover. Walk around the proposed location and see how it would look from other vantage points. What will your neighbor see? How about people driving or walking on the street?
When selecting plants for screens and barriers, be sure to match intended use with other considerations. If pruning once a month is too much work, select plants that don’t require pruning very often, such as small palms, dwarf banana, dracaena and other similar plants. Multifunctional plants make great selections. When they provide fruit, flowers or color to the landscape, they do double- or triple-duty.
Keep in mind a great screen can also serve the needs of other creatures, good and bad. Few can argue about the beauty of a bird nest in a tree and their calling to each other or bees buzzing while visiting every flower. Flowering plants that provide nectar and pollen to bees are good to have, as are those that can perfume the surrounding area. It’s also a great place for insects, arachnids and lizards to explore. While most are more helpful than harmful, some can be a major nuisance, like wasps and coqui frogs. Male coqui’s have a habit of climbing trees and shrubs, calling out. Though small in size, the call is loud and clear; a bush or tree too close to the bedroom window may mean sleepless nights.
Screens and barriers can also shield criminal activities from exposure. Don’t plant trees and shrubs right up to the windows that will give cover to those hiding. Plant away from the house to block the line of sight to certain objects while keeping the view to other angles, thereby increasing the feel of spaciousness. And remember, while plants with sharp thorns or leaves around the windows are a deterrent for those wishing to get in, they could also keep you from exiting should an emergency arise. These plants also will make regular maintenance on your home more difficult.
For more information on this and other gardening topics, visit the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources website at ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit any local Cooperative Extension Service Office around the island.
Russell Nagata is the Hawaii County administrator of the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.