Get Growing: Creating a private sanctuary

In the Seattle garden of Daniel Sparler and Jeff Schouten, shorter evergreen trees placed in the foreground grant privacy while preserving light and space.

In the Seattle garden of Daniel Sparler and Jeff Schouten, shorter evergreen trees placed in the foreground grant privacy while preserving light and space.
Erica Browne Grivas

One definition of sanctuary is “a place of refuge or safety.” For many of us, our gardens are places of sanctuary — at least mentally. Just spending time among my plants transports me to a calmer emotional state but digging in the dirt and hauling a few things is even better. However, my garden could be even more restful with a little more privacy, and perhaps yours could, too.

I have not perfected the art of designing for privacy. From my patio, although I am surrounded by greenery, I can see neighbors on three sides lining the perimeter. Importantly, they can see me as well, meaning I try not to be in my bathrobe very often. As we live closer together, a sense of privacy becomes more imperative.  There’s just something about a feeling of personal space that allows you to let your psychic walls come down for a minute.

Another reason for wanting to increase a sense of privacy in your garden is to increase visual cohesion and the illusion of garden as a protected enclave. Think of your garden as a stage set. Set designers move mountains with lighting and props to direct your eye to the world they’ve created center stage, blurring away the set structure, light cans, and sandbags. Whether your style is modern minimal, English border or tropical maximal, your design will have a stronger impact if it’s all you see. Seeing your neighbor’s hot tub, soccer tent, or kayaks will not help.

A privacy toolkit

The first step is to assess any unwanted views you’d like to block from your main hangout spots. Keep in mind you don’t really need to make it Fort Knox. It’s easier to block the sightlines from the places close to the house you use the most than to try to block two-story buildings on three sides. Lining our fence with 20-feet tall arborvitae is not practical and would make things really dark in here. In contrast, I only need a barrier at about eight feet high to camouflage the house of my lovely neighbor to the North while sitting on my patio. Standing views would need a taller block.

Don’t forget to preserve attractive views you’d like to borrow rather than block, like one neighbor’s mature hawthorn tree gracing our fence to the north.

Think about whether you need privacy 365-days a year or primarily in summer. For the former, you’ll want more solid coverage in evergreen plants or materials, while the latter could be a trellis covered with annual vines, a vertical wall planted with greens or strawberries, or even a deciduous plant with gorgeous winter structure, like a Japanese maple (Acer japonica), or Corokia cotoneaster.

Very often a scrim is all you need — offering just a hint of separation that blurs the edges without the heaviness a solid wall adds. In plants, Verbena bonarensis and Gaura lindheimeri fill a space gently holding your attention close with dancing pompoms, or in materials, you can hang streamers, sheer fabric, or add structures of lattice, cattle panel, or carved metal.

To gauge the height you need You can take a bamboo stake or broom and hold it between you and the unwanted view. Also note the width. Let’s say the height is eight feet. There are many ways to get there, with varying widths and opacity.


  • A three-foot high container planted with a five-foot high plant. (Make sure the plant you choose won’t outgrow the container.)
  • Artwork, perhaps an eight-foot tall wooden Sasquatch.
  • A trellis panel in-ground or in a pot covered in vines.
  • A canvas “sun shade” strung atop two-by-four posts
  • An apple, witch-hazel or camelia espaliered between fence posts.
  • An arbor or tuteur (pyramidal trellis)
  • Hanging an all-weather decorative fabric panel or mesh canopy
  • Carved Cor-Ten rusty metal panels

Some of these solutions are faster than others. If you dream of a jasmine-covered trellis, plant the star jasmine, but add some annual runner beans, thunbergia or sweet peas to fill in for the next few summers. No trellis? Run vertical lines of twine from eye hooks to the ground for the vines to climb.

Boxwood is a popular hedging plant, but glacially slow to mature. Some plants that bulk up pretty quickly include large ornamental grasses, hydrangeas, the aforementioned arborvitae, and Cryptomeria, which I find more interesting.

Lastly, if you there’s just no way to block the Elephant Car Wash sign from your line of vision, you can embrace it — framing it and matching colors to it, or you can do what I call an HOV, or “Hey! Over Here!” by creating a beautiful sideshow that calls attention in the foreground, whether of the plant or Sasquatch variety. If you have a stand of sunflowers down and to the left, who’s going to mind the elephant looking over the garden?