You don’t like part of the view from your property. Or maybe you want some privacy. The wind blows too strong from one direction, or perhaps you just want to outline the edge of your property or keep your children in the backyard. If any of these is true, it is time for some screening.

The simplest solution is a fence. A good fence can be attractive, is low maintenance and takes up little space on your property. At least consider it before going through the expense, time and effort of creating a row of plants to do the same job.

Plant screens have been part of garden designs for centuries. Many homes now have a line of arborvitae, yews or boxwood – often sheered into rectangles – right next to the sidewalk. Bordering gardens in sheared boxwoods or similar plants dates from the beginnings of ornamental gardens. While these plants can be tall enough to block views and have a constrained, geometric order to them, they have some problems. They are generally not native and thus do little to support wildlife. They also are boring, with the same plant one after another in a line. If one of them dies, it will take years to get a plant to grow enough to fit in with the living bushes that you have there already.

The solution is one I have never advised in the dozen or so years I have been writing this column: Look to Europe.

While driving through the countryside in Britain, France and the Netherlands, we saw fields divided by hedgerows made up of native plants. Traditionally, these hedgerows kept the livestock from roaming and, in addition, provided wood, berries and other items that the farmers could use.

An article from the Penn State Extension succinctly describes the advantages of such a planting: “By choosing a mixture of plants, you will protect your screen from major loss caused by an outbreak of a single pest or disease. A mixed planting also increases the biodiversity in your landscape by creating habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and animals. By attracting these beneficial creatures, you may find that they successfully keep populations of pest insects in check.”

Larry Weaner, author of “Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change” and the subject of an earlier column, suggested that groups of property owners should join in such plantings.

“If similar native hedgerow compositions defined the borders of all the backyards in a neighborhood, many more fragments would be connected, increasing the ecological value of each by many times,” he wrote in his book.

The mix of plants could include perennials, shrubs and trees. The perennials provide screening at ground level, the shrubs in mid-level and the trees as high as you want to go.

Incorporating evergreens, such as hemlocks, rhododendrons and hollies, will allow the screening to be more than bare branches through the winter. Some of the deciduous trees should have distinctive bark, whether the red and yellow of some dogwoods or the white of native birches. Also include flowering plants such as viburnums, to provide beauty and berries for the birds. A few blueberry bushes will provide some food for you. And for different-colored foliage, another type of visual interest, consider red-leaved physocarpus or beach plums.

In the traditional European hedgerow the many levels of screening are often created by the ancient practice of coppicing.

When most deciduous trees – including oak, maples, alders and other natives – are cut down, new shoots sprout from the stump, creating several smaller trees in the same area. A sprouting stump may not look good in the middle of a lawn, but in a hedgerow, it could serve multiple purposes: The cut tree provides wood for the fireplace, while the sprouts that grow within a few months fill what would otherwise have been a bare spot in the screen.

Perhaps you want to hide a neighbors’ rusty grill without blocking the view beyond it of the mountain range or lake. In that case, avoid the trees and create a mix of perennials, grasses and shorter plants, such as switchgrass, Joe Pye weed, native shrubs including ninebark and viburnum. Perennials will die back to the ground in the winter, allowing more light onto your property in winter, while a sheared row of yews will block the view and the light in every season.

These screens need space, perhaps about four feet to start. If you don’t have that kind of space, create a screen of vines. Of course, vines need something to climb, but a trellis requires less investment than a decorative fence.

Vines can be almost anything. We have always grown Dutchman’s pipe, which is native to the Eastern United States but not Maine, because my wife remembers it from her grandmother’s house. Consider growing hops for homebrewing. Other options: climbing roses, kiwis, clematis, grapes and morning glory (an easy-to-grow annual). A mixture might be stunning. The down side of vines is that they usually need to be cut back to the ground, if not yearly, at least when they grow too far from their starting point and get top-heavy or thin at the bottom.

One way to cut the cost of the screen might be to share it with your neighbors. Collaborate on the plants, with half on the neighbor’s property and half on yours.

It could also be a way to get to know them better.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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