By Roger Hazard
As Austin's population density increases and larger houses sprout up on ever-smaller lots, those of us who relish our time outdoors can't afford to focus solely on the backyard. Areas as disparate as Cape Cod and Santa Monica feature homes on diminutive plots that nonetheless boast private, lush front yards.
Whether you're trying to expand your precious outdoor living space, block unsightly neighboring yards, or enhance security for your family, here are three methods for boosting front yard privacy.
Fences and walls. A fence or wall doesn't need to be tall to bring a sense of intimacy and security to your yard. A low fence is sufficient to help keep children and smaller (or lazier) dogs from approaching the street, and it will reduce the number of stray animals and solicitors wandering into your yard.
Two fence styles strike me as particularly suited to Austin. The first is a simple, modern, horizontal-slat wood fence, which uses narrow boards and generous spacing to create screening without completely obscuring the yard. Stained a rich color, this fence will give your home tremendous curb appeal. The second style is the classic bull wire fence, a staple in Austin's funkier neighborhoods and the style I selected for my own yard. The open nature of the fence - constructed from of heavy wire grids framed in lumber - provides minimal visual privacy, but makes an ideal surface for vines and trailing plants.
If a fence doesn't work for your yard, wall options might include stacked stone, stucco or modern concrete.
If you plan on enclosing your driveway, you have several gate options. In addition to the traditional hinged gates, you might opt for a sliding gate fashioned from a simple steel frame and faced with wood. Mounted on wheels that run along a steel track, a sliding gate can be operated by a remote-controlled electrical device or pushed open by hand to minimize costs.
Note that zoning, easements, and homeowner association bylaws may dictate the placement and height of fences and walls, so be sure to do some research before jumping into the project.
Privacy plants. Plants around your property line can bring color and interest and screen without necessarily running afoul of fence ordinances. Native or drought-tolerant trees and bushes can thrive in Austin's harsh climate, and many of them feature beautiful flowers at least once per season. Fast-growing options such as butterfly bushes or chaste trees can be purchased inexpensively and planted easily, yet will grow to provide plenty of privacy in little time. Crepe myrtles and loquat trees feature architectural trunks, and respectively have beautiful flowers and interesting evergreen leaves.
In areas where space is limited, Italian cypress can provide a tall, evergreen screen. These can be ideal for adding separation to adjoining yards. Shrubs such as boxwood can be started small and pruned as they grow to fit the space. For an easy, attention-getting hedge, consider planting a row of native pear cacti. With some special care in their first year, including regular watering and feeding, a small line of cacti can quickly expand into a waist-high hedge that requires only minimal water to sustain.
Whether you select a fence or a wall for your yard, surrounding it with plants will further increase its effectiveness and soften its appearance. My favorite thing about fencing is that it enables me to introduce additional plants into the yard. Flowering vines such as wisteria or jasmine will grow up, through, and over fences, bringing beauty and fragrance.
Container gardens in porch and patio areas. Many Austin homes have front yard hardscapes - porches, patios, or gravel areas. While these spaces can certainly benefit from in-ground plants added around the perimeter, potted plants might function to create a more intimate space.
In Texas, we're spoiled with easy access to beautiful, large-scale clay pottery. Using larger pots allows plants to expand their root systems and encourages more dramatic growth. The larger-sized pots won't dry out as quickly as smaller containers, and - best of all - the pots themselves raise the plants up a few feet, giving instant privacy.
If clay isn't your style, consider hiring a metalworker to fabricate a custom planter out of steel. With clean, modern lines, a steel planter will bring an industrial aesthetic that evolves over time as the metal attains a patina.
When selecting plants for your privacy-focused container garden, focus on height, drought-tolerance and density. Winning options for building an effective screen may include a mixture of succulents, evergreen boxwoods, clumping or dwarf bamboo, and varied ornamental grasses. Using a variety of plantings will introduce texture and interest, as well as make for more effective year-round privacy.
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