Sunday, February 26, 2006

Just a Little Privacy, Please

Posted on Sat, Feb. 25, 2006

Fences, trellis, trees create private oasis
By Clayton Nelson
Special to the Mercury News

Q Our neighbors have just remodeled and added a huge second story, which overlooks our yard and the back of our house. We are looking for the best option to give ourselves privacy again. Should we build a high fence, and if so, what are the rules about that, or are we better off with planting shrubs or trees? Also, how do we avoid blocking the sunlight if we want privacy? Are there any building ideas you could offer?

A Alas, yours is a common lament these days. Over the years, as suburban California evolved, most homes built in the Bay Area were single story and averaged around 1,500 square feet with modest front yards and generally good-sized rear yards. These days 2,500-plus square feet is more common as a desired home size.

Although lack of privacy is a concern, I would venture a guess that what you don't like are the imposing view of the new structure and the interrupted view of the open sky and hills. Unless you are exercising ``naturist'' tendencies, I would bet that your elevated neighbors are going to become bored pretty quickly with what goes on in your back yard. In any case, what can you do about it?

Fences may help, but most cities allow only a 6-foot-high fence at your side and back yard. As far as building landscape structures or planting shrubs, there are many options to create a private back yard and your own private oasis.
Here are some options to create a private back yard:

• Line your patio area with a decorative screen or fence that makes an outdoor room open to the sky.

• Build a roof or trellis over your patio or outdoor room with skylights or openings to give lots of light.

• Build a series of planter boxes topped with a trellis and vines that will provide cover and shade.

• Plant quick-growing bamboo to provide screening in a narrow side yard or against a back fence. (Be careful, though -- some bamboo can be quite invasive.)

• Plant deciduous trees to provide a visual screen.
Most of these solutions block the sun, but shaded spaces are wonderful places to spend outdoor time in our mild climate. If your garden has a lot of sun-loving plants or you have a vegetable or herb garden, you may have to rearrange the planting or redesign the entire landscape.

To create a new, private back yard or to redesign your outdoor living area, I'd recommend that you work with a talented landscape architect, a certified landscape designer or a licensed, design/build landscape contractor. Be cautious about hiring the lowest-priced contractor, and always check with the Contractors State License Board to make sure your contractor is licensed and holds valid workers compensation and liability insurance.


• For landscaping ideas: Sunset books, such as ``Landscaping for Privacy,'' ``Trellises and Arbors'' and ``The Complete Patio Book.'' For more information,
• To find a local landscape architect, visit the American Society of Landscape Architects at To find a certified landscape designer, check out the Association of Professional Landscape Designers at
To find design/build landscape contractors, visit the California Landscape Contractors Association at
• Verify a contractor's license by going to the Contractors State License Board at
Local bamboo nurseries can be found at: or

Clayton Nelson is a San Jose contractor.


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