When I was housesitting in Seattle, writing my first book of deer-resistant plants, most plants in the neighborhood were familiar. However, garden management was quite different from that in my country garden. Back home on Sonntag Hill, on five acres, if I wanted to screen an undesirable view, I had the freedom of space. Here in the city, properties were defined by hedge clippers.
I was fascinated by the tidy hedge of English laurel across the street. What did it take to maintain that tight growth? Then one day, I witnessed my neighbor spending hours trimming the 50-foot long hedge that bordered his corner lot. Maintaining it at a well defined 10-foot height took a few days of labor, some of it on a ladder.
Older gardens are the perfect place to observe how shrubs grow. In one Nevada City garden that is familiar to me, Pyracantha was planted many years ago to screen the house from the street. While “The Western Garden Book” notes that this thorny shrub is best when “allowed to grow naturally,” the space in this city garden could not support a wide growth habit. Maintenance became a costly necessity.
Mature height and spread is information easily obtained for most plants. Consider both before you choose a shrub. If it helps you envision the effect in your garden, flag the area that plant may need for optimal appearance. Not every shrub may be trimmed to fit the space.
Fragrant sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is a wonderful choice for limited space. An evergreen that deer usually leave alone, it matures at a 10-foot height and 6-foot spread. Powerfully fragrant flowers open in spring, but this shrub may surprise you with fall fragrance, too.
Being a cook, I would not be without a bay tree (Laurus nobilis), which grows more like a shrub when it is pruned a bit. An evergreen very tolerant of shade, the attractive foliage creates a dense screen. I have an unpruned 30-year-old specimen that is now 12 feet wide and as tall as its age. The deer browsed relentlessly when it was young but do not touch it now, though it branches well within reach.
If deer are not watching your choices, one of the fastest growing and most water-efficient upright evergreens for screening is Rhanmus alaternus, Italian buckthorn. Heavy snows may cause some damage, but prune it back and it will quickly recover. Full sun to partial shade are good exposures. Mature growth unpruned may be as wide as 10 feet with a 12-foot height.
One of my favorite deer-resistant shrubs for a lower screen is Mexican orange (Choisya ternata), an attractive evergreen that doesn’t get much taller than 8 feet with a similar spread.
An evergreen I love that the deer rarely browse is the leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum). Buds for spring bloom begin to form by fall, adding interest to the long, heavily veined leaves during the winter months. In my garden, these harbingers of spring are undaunted by the cold temperatures we have been experiencing. Buds appear to be anticipating that first warm spring day.
White flowers are clustered in large heads in late April and early May. Its size requires lots of space if allowed to grow naturally with a 12- to 18-foot spread (perfect for the quail to hide under!) and 10- to 12-foot height. Grow it in semi-shade. If mulched, no summer irrigation is needed once established.
When you are choosing a shrub for a screen, evaluate how much time you want to spend controlling the growth in the years ahead. Remember, if you have to hire someone to do the pruning, this may add a significant cost to your garden maintenance budget. Most shrubs are more attractive when they mature if they do not have to be pruned to fit the space.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom,” now available locally. For more information about foothill gardening, or to contact Carolyn with gardening questions, visit www.carolynsingergardens.com.