The 8 best perfect-for-privacy garden trees
Do you need trees for privacy?
Perhaps you have a neighbour’s window over-looking your garden? An ugly view or a street-lamp? The days of planting gloomy conifers to prevent people peering in are over – they can even be illegal if they get too tall.
The Middle-sized Garden had to replace a beautiful winter-flowering cherry that died recently. It gave both us and our neighbours privacy from each other.
Here’s what you need to know about finding a beautiful tree to make your garden more private and which won’t block too much light.
How to choose trees for privacy
When you talk to tree suppliers, focus on why you really want the tree. Young trees are cheaper and often establish better – but if you want privacy soon, then consider how fast the tree grows.
If a tree is slow-growing, then mature specimens will be very expensive and young trees will take years to get to where you want them.
We were originally recommended Acer Griseum (Paper-bark Maple) as ‘the most beautiful garden tree’. It is glorious, but too slow-growing for privacy.
But planting a fast-growing tree close to your house can cause problems if the tree gets too big.
It’s important to think about its eventual shape, too. An upright, vase-shaped or tear-drop tree won’t spread its branches all over your neighbour’s garden.
If your tree’s branches do cross into another person’s garden, they are legally entitled to cut them off.
Pyrus calleyrana ‘Chanticleer’ – the ideal tear-drop shape
The shape of a tree makes a big difference to how much light it blocks. I asked award-winning garden designer Charlotte Rowe what trees she would recommend for privacy.
‘There are so many trees that it’s difficult to name one without knowing the site and what the client wants,’ she said. ‘But a tear-drop shape is a good option.’
Charlotte has often used Pyrus calleyrana ‘Chanticleer’ (including in her own garden.). It’s often referred to as ‘the perfect street tree’ because it’s easy to grow in any aspect, is windproof, generally pest-free, low maintenance and tolerates air pollution. It has beautiful white spring blossom and good autumn colour.
Evergreen magnolia for year-round privacy
Think about when you want the privacy. If it’s only when you are actually in the garden, then a tree which loses its leaves in winter may be fine.
But if you are blocking an eyesore, then you will want an evergreen for year-round screening.
We have an evergreen magnolia grandiflora directly in front of an ugly, glaring streetlamp. It has thick green leaves but doesn’t spread over the alleyway behind it, and it’s not large enough to have any impact on the neighbour’s garden beyond.
Amelanchier – the tree to replace net curtains
You may want trees for privacy from the street, especially at bedroom height. Or you may just prefer to wake up in the morning looking at leaves rather than streetlamps and houses.
Amelanchier is deciduous and loses its leaves in winter – but, on the other hand, you probably keep your curtains closed for longer in winter.
Amelanchier has a ‘vase’ shape and its glorious colour makes it a good privacy tree. You also have plenty of space (and enough light) at ground level to plant other things.
Pleached hornbeam – good for privacy from the street
‘You shouldn’t have a row of evergreens along a boundary with a neighbour if it’s going to cause any problems with their light,’ says Charlotte Rowe. ‘And that often applies to pleached trees too, depending on the situation.’
However, there’s no doubt that a row of pleached hornbeam is very much more attractive and less light-sapping than a row of towering conifers.
Garden designers often use rows of pleached trees in city gardens – although Charlotte says she is more likely to use trellis than a tree if a client wants privacy in a small city garden.
Pleached trees are a great option for privacy from a road or blotting out an eyesore. ‘Carpinus betula (hornbeam) is a good choice as an individual tree for privacy in a town garden, too,’ she says, ‘as it’s relatively fast-growing but doesn’t get too big.’
Black cherry plum – a good ornamental fruit tree for screening
You could also consider planting ornamental fruit trees for privacy. They have great blossom and beautiful leaf colour. Not all of them are an ideal shape for allowing light into the garden – the winter-flowering cherry that used to be in our garden had widely spreading branches, which affected our light (and our neighbour’s light).
So a more upright ornamental cherry would be a better choice. Black cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’) has worked brilliantly in another part of our garden to mask some railway signalling. It has staggeringly beautiful blossom in spring, and a very upright (tear-drop) habit which, so far, hasn’t blocked any light.
Crab apples – double up on privacy and fruit
Apple trees and crab apple trees can offer privacy too, plus you get to enjoy the fruit. However, many fruit trees are sold on a dwarf rootstock, so check the eventual height before buying.
A tree for screening needs to be allowed to get bigger than a normal fruit tree. Fruit trees, however, rarely get enormous, so they’re a good choice for a middle-sized garden.
I am particularly fond of my two malus hupehensis crab apples on either side of the front gate. They don’t exactly screen the road but they do give us a sense of enclosure and privacy when we step out of our front door.
Cotinus coggyria – the shrub that grows into a tree
Instead of choosing a small tree, you could consider a large shrub – which will more or less grow into a tree and will often be easier to shape. Garden designer, Caroline Garland, suggests laurel or photinia.
Another good screening shrub is cotinus. We have cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ which is more normally grown as a shrub, but has turned into a huge, glowing red tree. Everybody comments on its glorious colour.
It’s a good example of a shrub that will grow big enough – fairly fast – to give you screening. It has a beautiful leaf – a deep red which turns into a blaze of autumn gold. And it seems pretty happy with any kind of a cut – you don’t have to let it get as big as ours has.
Silver birch – beloved of ‘Chelsea’ garden designers (and me)
Silver birch has been seen so often at RHS Chelsea and other shows that some people may consider it to be a gardening cliche. But I love the pale bark in the winter, and the fact that it provides quick cover.
I have wanted a vase-shaped multi-stemmed birch for so long that I can’t understand why I haven’t bought a silver birch and cut it down, so that I’d have one by now. This would certainly be my choice for the current spot where we need screening – although the shape may not be quite right.
Think about how leaf colour will work in your garden – robinia ‘Frisia’
Trees such as robinia and acacia have glorious leaf colour, but are considered ‘suburban’, says Caroline Garland, who recommends you look again at what these trees have to offer in terms of leaf colour. ‘I think they’re ready for a revival.’
We have a robinia ‘Frisia’ at the back of our garden, planted by our predecessors. It is definitely too big to be planted close to the house – but in the right position will offer summer leaf colour and a stunning effect.
Where you plant your tree makes a big difference
Your instinct might be to plant trees around the edges of your property to leave as much space free in the middle as possible. However, not only is that irritating to your neighbours (unless they, too, would like more privacy), but it will also draw a visual line around your garden and make it look smaller.
Garden maker Posy Gentles has planted three small birch trees slightly off-centre in the middle of her long thin town garden. You can see (just) to the end of the garden but the exact outlines are blurred.
Both her garden and the back windows of her house are protected from the gaze of the backs of the houses opposite, but there is no chance of her ever causing light problems for her neighbours – the trees are too far away from their gardens.
Here’s a video showing this garden from above, so you can see how the trees sit in the garden. There are also more ideas here for positioning trees for privacy.
The same principle applies if you use trees for privacy in a larger garden. The laws of perspective mean that planting trees – for example – halfway between your house and what you want to block is more effective than trying to plant them too close to either building. And it leaves more light for everyone!
Alan Titchmarsh has written a very useful book called Small Trees in his How To Garden series. It lists trees suitable for middle-sized gardens along with how fast they grow, which soil they grow in, etc. There’s also pruning advice – once you plant your tree, it is well worth pruning it well.
Note: There are some affiliate links in this post, which means you can click through to buy. If you do, I may get a small fee, but it won’t affect the price you pay.
How close to the house can you plant a tree?
The RHS says that a tree should be three-quarters of its height away from the house.
However, the RHS also stresses that trees benefit gardens and very rarely cause damage, so the fear that people have of trees is largely unfounded. Trees that are least likely to cause problems to houses are apple, plum, pear, hawthorn, rowan and birch.
Pruning your tree can help with privacy and light
If you are thinking of taking a tree down because it is making your garden too shady, but you still want privacy, then consider thinning the branches out instead or ‘lifting the tree’s skirt’ by cutting off the lower branches.
Pruning trees well makes a huge difference to their impact on your garden, so consult a proper arboriculturalist rather than a handyman with a chainsaw. Find out more about privacy, light and trees in my post here.
Of course, there is never a ‘best tree for privacy’ – there is only a ‘best tree for your privacy’. You have to take into account when you want the privacy, where to plant the tree, how it will affect your neighbours and other factors, such as whether it’s good for wildlife.
So I hope this helps as a starting place, and do tell me which trees have worked for you. And if you’ve found this useful, do please share this using the buttons below – thank you!