Growing a green privacy screen

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Q: We have built an outdoor bathhouse, which includes an outdoor toilet. We love it but many of our guests find the lack of privacy troubling. We want to plant a visual screen to provide privacy without losing the outdoor feeling. The site is very shady (no direct sun ever) with some cedars nearby. The soil is thin and poor… sandstone is near the surface. Whatever we plant needs to be low maintenance and provide a (quick) 2- to 2.5-m (7- to 8-ft.) visual barrier. One plant that comes to mind is bamboo, but there are so many kinds to choose from! What suggestions do you have (bamboo or otherwise)?

Between the aforementioned bathhouse and the actual house lies the septic field, which was, of course, completely dug up during construction. Right now it’s a flat dirt patch. The site is shady — during the peak of summer it receives only dappled sun for a couple hours a day; during the rest of the year it receives bright light, but no direct sun. The soil is friable to at least 30 cm (1 ft.) deep; the septic system waters it uniformly all year so drought tolerance is not really a big consideration. The area is about 9 by 21 m (30 x 70 ft.). We do not want to mow it – frankly, the less we need to do to maintain it, the better. We are looking for something akin to “contractor grass” (contractor grass is a blend that greens up right away while starting a more established, slower-growing lawn), which produces a wooded meadow rather than a lawn. Obviously, the roots should not clog our septic field. What suggestions do you have?

In regards to using bamboo, I would suggest Fargesia (syn. Arundinaria or Sinarundinaria) murielae or F. nitida. These are clumping bamboos. Plant in a raised bed about 60 cm to 1.2 m (2 to 4 ft.) wide and space plants about 60 to 90 cm (2 to 3 ft.) apart. You might want to consider using some ornamental grasses, such as Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass) or Miscanthus sinensis cultivars (eulalia or maiden grass). These grasses become dormant in winter, and their buff-coloured stems are still decorative and continue to provide screening unless bowed under heavy loads of snow. In March, cut the stems to the ground, and the plant will send up fresh new shoots. Both grasses also have interesting flowerheads.

For economic reasons, I would seed the larger area of the septic field with a blend of perennial ryegrass and fescue. This blend should have a larger proportion of fescue, which tolerates shade and drought with minimal maintenance. The perennial ryegrass would germinate first to give quick green. Another option might be Carex (sedge). It tolerates some shade and does not die back or change colour. One of the fastest-growing sedges is the variegated Carex ‘Ice Dance’, which spreads quickly in moist soil. It reaches 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 in.) high. Set plants 45 cm (18 in.) apart to fill in quickly or farther apart to save some expense. Keep the area well weeded until the sedges fill in and can out-compete the weeds.