Cedar Trees Create Privacy and Erase Ugly Views
One of the few regrets I have about my garden is that I didn’t plant cedars (thuja) along the back fence years earlier. Instead, I let my garden view end with a chain link fence and the rear neighbour’s garage wall of solid cement block, capped by a deteriorating roof. In summer the view was obstructed somewhat by various plants (a ninebark, tomatoes, etc.) but from fall until June the view was less than inspiring.
About five years ago I smartened up and planted three Emerald cedar trees along one part of the fence. Two years later I added another three, and once they grow in the ugly garage will be gone from sight 12 months of the year, and instead I will look at a solid wall of green. Why did I wait so long?
Maybe it took a decade of staring at the brick wall to think of the solution. I think I also had some thought that if I planted cedars they’d take up a lot of already precious garden space. Watching garden shows from the UK and seeing examples of tall but narrow cedars used liberally for privacy fences in Vancouver, B.C. helped me realize that cedars can be pruned quite narrow and doing so isn’t that much work (so far, a shearing once a year seems to do it—conveniently, that shearing can take place in November and provide me with some greenery to use in my wreaths and winter arrangements), especially if you also keep them to a reachable height.
I want to be able to prune my cedars myself for years to come, so I’m keeping them just a bit above the height of the garage eavestrough—short enough that I can easily reach the tops with a small stepladder, but tall enough to block out what I don’t want to look at. Another reason I keep them on the shorter side is so that they don’t block the sun from my vegetable garden—that would be a big mistake!
My main vegetable growing area is right beside the cedars. I wouldn’t plant a tomato 3” away from a cedar tree—they’re thirsty and they need some space of their own—but I don’t have any problem growing them a foot or two away. This seems to be amble room for everyone to get along and get what they need in terms of soil nutrients and water.
I’ve been a bit puzzled to hear several young friends who’ve recently become homeowners talking about how they have cedars in their yards so they’re concerned they won’t be able to grow other plants (roses, hydrangeas, etc.) near them. I can only presume that they’ve heard some sort of (untrue) dire warnings on the internet that you can’t grow roses or fill-in-the-blank plant near cedar trees because they’ll turn the soil acidic or whatever. In my opinion, this is too much worry about nothing. In theory, it’s possible for coniferous trees to make soil acidic but scientists tell us it takes years and years and those effects can be undone by all sorts of other things (including other trees with high calcium content in their leaves growing nearby).
Here’s what I’ve found, and what I’ve seen visiting some of the best botanical gardens in North America and looking at photos of the great gardens of Europe (many of which have massive walls of cedars edging every conceivable type of garden bed): you can grow just about whatever you want near cedar trees. Just make sure all the plants have sufficient water (cedars can get big and big trees are thirsty) and nutrients (feedings of compost, a topping of mulch, etc.) and access to sufficient amounts of sunlight.
My grandmother had gigantic rose bushes next to her cedar trees for many years. I’ve successfully grown clematis, echinops (globe thistle), kale, lillies, ferns, heuchera, hostas, marigolds, peonies, persicaria, philadelphus (mock orange) roses, rudbeckia, tomatoes, weigelia and wild ginger in quite close proximity to the fifteen cedar trees in my back yard.
Cedars make a great privacy hedge that looks good all year round. I’m just kicking myself for not planting more of them sooner.
Great read, Jennifer. Helpful information as always!
Our new house had cedars and one spruce in the center planted already across the back fence. They’ve been there for years. In our case, we needed to get these uncared for trees healthier as they were brown and sparse on the bottom. Garnet has fed them, heavily watered and trimmed so far. We did plant hostas under them across the back. It looks quite nice now and I love the much needed privacy. We have a bungalow now and the homes around us are two-story. It reminds me of being at a cottage, without the lake. I do need some tips on caring for/improving the existing hedge as well. It was allowed to grow without trimming it seems, to the point that it is quite woody in the middle. I’d like to sharply cut it back and see if there’s more growth there. What do you think?
Glad you enjoyed the article, Deborah. Cedars need full sun to grow–if the parts of your hedge that are woody aren’t getting full sun then there’s not much you can do to make them fill out (you can, however, hide the brown parts by planting something else in front of them, which is what it sounds like you’ve done with the hostas.) However, If the hedge is in full sun you can trim it back once the cedars go dormant (i.e. once the ground freezes until mid spring. I’d normally say you could start as soon as we get hard frost, but with the yoyo weather we’ve had you’re safer to wait until winter has actually set in just so you don’t end up pruning before a 2 week November heat wave). I wouldn’t be too aggressive in your trimming–think of it as a multi-year project to eventually get the shape and vigor you want. For deciduous shrubs the general rule is not to cut them back by more than 1/3 each year–for cedars I’d take an even lighter touch than that.