Choosing a tree for privacy

Credit: Paula Grasdal



Hi, what can you suggest for a privacy tree for our backyard on the east side of the house? The tree will not get any morning sun but will get early afternoon to evening sun in the summer.

The neighbour’s windows look into our backyard. It’s a huge Vancouver Special and our house is a bungalow. We feel like we live in goldfish bowl. There is only a three-foot sidewalk and a chain link fence separating our two houses. The tree needs to reach at least 30 feet at maturity.

I have been researching a lot of trees, but I am having difficulty selecting the right tree. Please help.

Interestingly enough, I have the same situation in my yard. Although there are a number of trees that could do the job, my number one choice would be the Styrax, otherwise known as the Japanese Snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus).

Height wise, it’s perfect; however, no matter what tree you decide on it wouldn’t be without a little bit of annual maintenance on your part to ensure success. The big issue is width. Most shade trees have a tendency to offer width as well as height, and although the Styrax can grow to a moderate width, it is also a tree that can be kept relatively narrow.

Every year or two after it blooms—a multitude of white (pink is also available) hanging bell-shaped flowers—in June, I basically take a hedge trimmer to mine and shear the sides to control the width. As the tree has grown taller each year, I’ve also removed lower branches to keep it above the fence line, thereby eliminating any walk-by interference from branches sticking out. It’s gorgeous.

It’s also very easy to grow, as it doesn’t attract any insects and is not partial to any particular soil composition. It also gets a nice bright yellow fall colour!

Is it the perfect tree for you? Well, the down side is that it is a deciduous tree and therefore would offer limited privacy or screening in the winter months. It does have quite a healthy inner branching network, offering somewhat of a screen and probably enough to visually obstruct. The benefit of it being a deciduous tree would be the fact that it will allow more light indoors during our darker months.

I think you should give it a try, but if you’re looking for an evergreen then I would probably recommend the Western red cedar. They too can grow wide and therefore would require annual shearing to keep them narrow. Not a perfect solution, but based on your situation there are not a lot of alternatives.