Fun behind the ficus: all-natural privacy screens

Industry buyers place a premium on privacy

Jory Burton, an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Beverly Hills, has a celebrity client who won’t look at a property unless it meets one very specific qualification.

“It has to pass the sex-by-the-pool test,” he says.

Whether they’re game for paparazzi or just don’t like tan lines, industry buyers place a premium on privacy. However, 20-foot stucco walls are tacky; barbed wire is unseemly.

And then there are the folks who have never faced an unwanted camera flash, but want more privacy because their homes’ small lots mean close neighbors.

“People want to reclaim their yards as an outdoor room,” says Michael Schneider, a landscape architect and principal of Hollywood’s Orange Street Studio. Among its specialties is constructing urban jungles that help clients elude the gaze of telephoto lenses. “People are willing to pay the money for more (immediate) mature growth.”

For example, a privacy-craving actress recently craned in 40-foot palms to shield her home in the celebrity-heavy “bird streets” above Sunset Strip. Less drastic measures include using plants to create hedges, screens and canopies.

For a West Hollywood couple, Schneider devised a solution that shielded the views from the three-story condo complex overlooking their space.

Other clients have bigger issues than aesthetics. For an actor who found that sitcom success meant being inundated by overzealous fans, Schneider employed fencing, plantings and large gates to keep them at bay.

Greg Salmeri, a landscape designer and owner of Culver City nursery Rolling Greens, recommends ligustrum (aka privet), a flowering evergreen shrub that can be shaped into a hedge or screen.

Also favored are thick timber varieties of bamboo that put on height quickly and can grow as high as 30 feet. “They’ll screen out everything,” he says.

Salmeri also suggests planting ficus hedges, which can be shaped into a canopy that shields views from above, not just at street level.

However, Santa Monica denizens must keep an eye on the shrubs. A revised 1948 city ordinance limits the height of hedges in the front yard to 42 inches; back and side hedges to 12 feet. Landscaping renegades face fines up to $2,500 a day.

But plants don’t have to be tall to be a deterent. Cacti and iceberg roses are a good plan for the equally thorny problem of intruders.

Ready to shield yourself? Variety Weekend took a look at the more popular options.

Bamboo (Golden, Timber)
Plant: Bamboo (Golden, Timber) Plant: Ficus Plant: Ligustrum
Pros: These are clumping bamboos, meaning they won’t spread across your backyard. Melds well with more minimalist and modern homes. Modest water needs once established. Pros: This shrub’s deep green leaves provide a Mediterranean look. Says Schneider, “They all want to be trees.” A good backdrop for other, more vivid plants. Pros: A traditional plant that can grow into a solid green wall. Small flowers have a pleasantly sweet scent.
However…: Make sure you have the space. These varieties quickly reach 25-30 feet in height and aren’t meant for clipping. Perfect for shielding tall buildings, but could annoy a neighbor. Will suffer without full sun. However…: Ficus loves water and the roots can be very invasive. Like paparazzi, it should be kept away from your house. However…: You’ve seen it so many times as a clipped hedge that it can make a bland choice. Also noted: Its leaves and berries are poisonous.