Planting Bushes as a Buffer

By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener

My victory garden is looking great. Not much to do now except occasional weeding and watering. I’ve already enjoyed lettuce, kale, spinach, cilantro, peas and beans. As I wait for the fall harvest I can’t avoid seeing an unsightly structure in my neighbor’s yard previously hidden by a juniper tree. The rusted metal shed would add character to my cottage garden if not for the window with faded blue curtains sticking out like a sore thumb. So I’ve decided to explore fast-growing bushes that will provide an adequate screen.

For a more structured look along the back fence, I could plant royal purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), which grows as high as 10 feet. Its brilliant purple-red spring foliage turns a plum color later in the season. As seeds develop, they are surrounded by a cloud of fine pink hairs that provide an interesting contrast to the dark foliage. Smoke tree stems grow straight up so it wouldn’t take valuable space away from my flowers and it could be kept under control by cutting it back in the spring. It is hardy, drought resistant and doesn’t appeal to deer.

Royal purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria)

Another possibility is Japanese skimmia. It has unique evergreen foliage with a choice of fragrant white, pink or red blossoms. It is a slow-growing, mounded shrub that requires slightly acidic soil and consistent moisture. While less desirable than the royal purple smoke tree for my screen, Japanese skimmia would make a fitting foundation border plant. It requires minimal maintenance and tends to be generally disease free. By planting in groupings of two females coupled with a male it pollinates better and the flowers on the female plant are more brilliant.

Euonymus is another attractive shrub. It can be evergreen or deciduous and comes in a wide range of colors and sizes. Euonymus japonicus is a dense shrub with leathery leaves and small white flowers that can reach 15 feet. Euonymus fortunei varieties do well in Colorado. Even though best known as ground covers, sarcoxie euonymus can be trained to grow 8 to 12 feet as a vine.

One of my favorite shrubs is butterfly bush. It is a sturdy shrub with purple flowers that bloom all season and attract pollinators. I also adore hydrangeas. While hydrangeas prefer morning sun, panicle hydrangeas are hardy. Firelight is a variety that blooms reliably, even in cold climates. Abundant white blooms gradually turn deep reddish pink for a full spectrum of color until fall. Although it only reaches 4 to 6 feet and would not hide my neighbor’s shed, the flowers would be an amazing distraction.

As you can see, this exercise of considering the pros and cons of different bushes and whether they fit the moisture, light and soil requirements of a particular site is an important step in selecting a garden screen. In the end, I decided to plant royal purple smoke tree to hide my neighbor’s unsightly shed.

Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.