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10 Best Trees for Privacy in the U.S.

If you’re hoping to create some privacy in your backyard, you may be considering a hedge in lieu of a privacy fence. It’s a good choice: not only are tree screens more aesthetically appealing, but they can be shaped and pruned to be just as dense as any privacy fence.

But what species to choose? It can be overwhelming to try and choose. The stakes are higher, for one thing: tree screens are an investment. It can be tempting to choose the cheapest tree and buy in bulk but be careful: cheap trees are often far more expensive than their price tag lets on. On the other hand, what if you splurge on the wrong species and lose them all to root rot or drought? Then you’ve lost not only your money but your privacy as well!

The first step, of course, is to pick species suited to your climate. If possible, native species are ideal, and especially trees native to your area. In the Southern United States, we have at least two wonderful native evergreens – yaupon holly and eastern red cedar – and they’ll be covered in depth further down this list.

If you can’t get true natives, next best is native to North America (arborvitae and Arizona cypress are good examples), followed by exotic species. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with non-native species – often they are the best plants for the job – but you’ll need to pay attention to them. Not only can exotic species be vulnerable to – or even vectors of – plant pests and diseases (like the emerald ash borer), but they may also become invasive.

The best bet is to hedge (pardon the pun) your risk by diversifying your planting: two or three individuals from several different species will not only perform better than a monoculture, it’ll also look more interesting too! (After all, it’s only fair to give your nosy neighbors something interesting to look at!)

Below you’ll find ten of the very best privacy trees for the southern and southeastern US. All of them evergreen – no point in planting a privacy hedge that only works 75% of the year – and all are fast-growing. (A boxwood hedge may be worth the decade or two needed to grow it out – but are you even going to need a privacy hedge by then?)

Finally, all of these trees are widely available, if not dirt-cheap. It’s never a good idea to pinch pennies on a tree that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your tenancy, if not your life – but it’s worth remembering that you’ll be needing at least five or six trees to create an effective screen, so for most of us money is going to be a real factor.

Naturally you’ll want to do your own research, but the information below should be plenty to get you started on your very own “green screen.” Full speed a-hedge!

Wax Myrtle

When it comes to southern evergreens, wax myrtle was always going to be number one with a bullet. Native, fast-growing (I mean REALLY fast-growing), hardy, and beautiful – if you’re looking for a quick, reliable screen, you might not want to read any further than number one.

Wax myrtle is, in addition to being a great native hedge plant, a bit of a botanical oddity: it’s a broadleaf evergreen, for one thing, which is already out of the ordinary, but it’s also a nitrogen-fixing plant, meaning that it can make its own fertilizer (with help from bacteria living in its roots). This is a common feature of legumes, but wax myrtle isn’t a legume – it’s not even in the same ballpark.

What this means for the gardener is that wax myrtles are great trees to plant in crummy soils – rocky, dry, boggy, sandy, infertile – you name it. It’s shade-tolerant as well, although you’ll get denser growth with plants in full sun. Younger plants need consistent watering until their root systems are established, but once they’re mature they’re pretty much maintenance-free.

Did I mention their growth rate? At 3-5 feet per year, they’re the fastest-growing species on this list by a wide margin. The gallon pots you plant this spring will be taller than your neighbors by next summer!

The only real issue with wax myrtle – unless you have a problem with the berries attracting native songbirds – is its cold tolerance. It’s hardy from USDA zone 11 all the way up to zone 7. This covers nearly the whole American South. But in cold winters it may suffer frost damage to its foliage. This doesn’t damage the stem tissue but leads to leaf dropping before spring returns the plants to their former glory.

USDA zones: 7 to 11
Soil:prefers well-drained soils, but tolerates clayey soils, acid soils, drought, and occasional flooding
Light:full sun to full shade; best growth is in full sun
Growth rate: 3 to 5 feet per year
Pros:fast growing, very hardy, low maintenance, easy to shape
Cons:vulnerable to frost damage in zone 7
Height: 10.00 to 15.00 feet
Spread:8.00 to 10.00 feet

Arborvitae – ‘Green Giant’

Arborvitae, also called red cedars or Thuja, are some of the most popular trees in the US for hedges and screens. It’s not difficult to see why: they’re hardy, fast-growing, long-lived, and their dense evergreen foliage provides privacy and aesthetic interest year-round. For gardeners in the South, there are two varieties of arborvitae that really stand out. The first is the ‘Green Giant’ variety.

‘Green Giant’ is a hybrid of the native western red cedar and the Japanese thuja. The result is a tree strong enough for Maine – but made for Georgia! Unlike our wild red cedars, ‘Green Giant’ thrives in the hot, humid summers of the South. It can be planted in USDA zones 5 to 9. It tolerates both acidic and alkaline soils. While it prefers good drainage, clay soils aren’t a problem for this tree.

‘Green Giant’ is virtually maintenance-free once established. It has a remarkable growth rate of 3 to 4 feet per year. Young plants are easily trained into hedges with some judicious pruning, growing into green walls that are dense enough to block both nosy neighbors and unwanted noise.

USDA zones: 5 to 9
Soil:any well-drained soil with good moisture; tolerates acid and alkaline soils
Light:full sun to part shade
Growth rate: 3 feet per year
Pros:fast-growing, low maintenance, drought-tolerant, easy to shape
Cons:foliage toxic to livestock, risk of root rot in very boggy soils
Height: 40.00 to 60.00 feet
Spread:12.00 to 18.00 feet

Arborvitae – ‘Emerald Green’

‘Emerald Green’ thuja, also called ‘Smaragd,’ is a dwarf cultivar of our native Thuja occidentalis – a wonderful tree that unfortunately doesn’t perform well south of the Mason-Dixon line. This cultivar, on the other hand, does just fine, and is more frost-hardy than ‘Green Giant’ (zone 2 vs. zone 5).

There are a few differences between ‘Emerald Green’ and ‘Green Giant’ that may recommend one over the other. The first is that ‘Emerald Green’ thujas only grow to be about 12 feet high, meaning they don’t need to be “topped” to maintain a manageable height. 

‘Emerald Green’ thujas also have slightly different soil preferences (although both species are quite tolerant of a wide range of conditions): they prefer neutral to alkaline soils, and are more tolerant of poor drainage, but less drought-tolerant, than ‘Green Giants.’

USDA zones: 3 to 8
Soil:well-drained neutral to alkaline soils; tolerates slow drainage but not drought
Light:full sun to part shade
Growth rate: 1-2 feet per year
Pros:fast-growing, disease-free, low-maintenance, maintains small size
Cons:foliage toxic to livestock
Height: 12 to 14 feet
Spread:3 to 4 feet

Italian Cypress

Italian cypress is an iconic tree – just ask Vincent van Gogh, whose “Starry Night” features them prominently. It’s also an iconic landscaping tree, especially in the US, mostly because they’re so low-maintenance. Suitable for zones 7 through 10, it’s a good bet pretty much anywhere in the South.

Italian cypress’s superpower is its hardiness: it’s exceptionally drought-tolerant, and grows well in rocky or thin soils (a legacy of its native habitat, the rocky hillsides of the Mediterranean). It’s also quite fast-growing when it’s younger, though this will slow to a crawl once it’s mature.

In some ways, it’s the ideal tree for screens because of its distinctive growth form: it will maintain its compact, pencil-straight growth habit (which is much more resistant to storm damage than most conifers) without need for pruning or training – if you don’t like yard work, you may have found your tree!

However, there is one important consideration, which many people overlook until it’s too late. These trees need good drainage, and will not tolerate heavy soils or excess moisture. They are very susceptible to root rot, which loves damp places – so don’t be afraid to withhold water from these trees. Give them good drainage and full sun, and they may outlive not just you, but your family line: trees in the wild often live well over a thousand years!

USDA zones: 7 to 10
Soil:any well-drained soil; tolerates both alkaline and acid soils; extremely drought tolerant
Light:full sun
Growth rate: 1-2 feet per year
Pros:fast-growing when young, very low maintenance; aesthetic appeal
Cons:intolerant of heavy soils, vulnerable to root rot
Height: 40 to 70 feet
Spread:10 to 20 feet

Yaupon Holly

Yaupon holly is a native species related to the classic English holly (which may bring back painful memories to some of us). Luckily, yaupon holly’s leaves are unarmed, providing the same evergreen foliage and bright red berries without the risk of serious injury! In fact, yaupon more closely resembles boxwood, and makes a good native substitute for that slow-growing species.

Yaupon holly is native to the South, so in terms of local adaptation it really has no competition. Within its range – zones 7 through 9 – it’s extremely adaptable, growing equally well in full sun and full shade, droughty and clayey soils, and even salt spray. It responds to pruning with vigorous, dense growth, making it perfect for a hedge plant, and its bright red berries attract native birds in the winter.

Despite its specific epithet, yaupon holly will not really make you vomit, unless you eat large quantities of its (foul-tasting) berries. However, the leaves do contain caffeine, and when roasted make an excellent tea.

USDA zones: 7 to 9
Soil:any well drained soil; tolerates drought, flooding, acid and alkaline conditions
Light:full sun to full shade
Growth rate: 2-3 feet per year
Pros:fast-growing, low maintenance, easy to shape, native, edible (see above)
Cons:roots sucker prolifically, berries mildly toxic to humans
Height: 10 feet – 20.5 feet
Spread:8 feet - 12 feet

American Holly

American holly, Ilex opaca, is the other standout holly for Southern gardeners. The main difference between American holly and yaupon holly is the space needed to grow them: yaupon is perfect for small spaces, as it never really gets above “large shrub” size, while American holly reaches heights of 60 feet in the wild – though cultivated plants don’t usually get above 15 or 20 feet (that’s still pretty big!).

If you have the space, this is one of the best privacy trees available. It takes well to pruning, and produces dense evergreen foliage from base to crown. It’s suitable for locations throughout the South, from zones 5 to 9, and tolerates a range of soil conditions – although poorly drained soils and chalky or alkaline soils are deal breakers.

American holly shares English holly’s spiny leaves, unlike yaupon. Depending on your point of view, this might be a good thing or a bad thing: it will certainly increase your privacy, but it may not be appropriate if you have young children.

USDA zones: 5 to 9
Soil:well-drained acidic to neutral soils; moderately drought tolerant but intolerant of poor drainage
Light:full sun to part shade
Growth rate: 1-2 feet per year
Height: 15 to 30 feet
Spread:10 to 20 feet

Leyland Cypress

Leyland cypress (x Cuprocyparis lelandii) is probably the most commonly recommend trees for hedges and screens in the southern US, and there are good reasons for this. A hybrid of the Nootka cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkaensis) and the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) it combines many of the best qualities of each — although it also has some drawbacks uniquely its own that are worth noting.

The good news first: when it comes to hardiness and adaptability, the Leyland has few competitors among evergreens. It’s hardy from zone 6 through zone 10, meaning that it can be grown as far south as Florida and south Texas, and it thrives on soils too thin or too poor for other trees. Poor drainage is no problem, nor acid or alkaline soils, and it’s even tolerant of salt spray (a legacy perhaps of the Nootka, which grows on the Northwest coast).

If you’ve made it through this litany of good qualities, you may be waiting for the catch. The biggest one is disease, notably fungal infections. Needle dieback and root rot are both dangers, especially when trees are planted close together, but the big one is cypress canker. This fungal infection, first noted in California, had spread across the country, but is particularly prevalent in the South. By the time you notice the symptoms, it’s likely too late to save the tree — so cultural practices like ensuring good air circulation and avoiding overwatering are essential.

Better yet, diversify your screen with a couple of Leylands and a few other species from this list — this will lend both resilience and aesthetic appeal to your hedge.

USDA zones: 6-10
Soil:tolerates a wide range of soils, from acidic to alkaline, sand to clay, and even thin and infertile soils
Light:full sun to part shade
Growth rate: 2-3 feet per year
Pros:very hardy, fast-growing, dense foliage, easy to shape
Cons:prone to wind damage in exposed sites, vulnerable to fungal infections
Height: 60 to 70 feet
Spread:10 to 15 feet

Eastern Red Cedar

Where I’m from (Texas), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a step above a weed: people pay to have it removed and never seem to rid themselves of it completely. Based on that description, you might think it’s an invasive species — but no, it’s native across the eastern US. Fast-growing, resilient, evergreen, you might be thinking — it sounds like a great hedge tree! And why not? Eastern red cedar is remarkably similar to thuja (listed above), both in its taxonomy and its life history.

In fact, in some ways it’s a better bet: it’s cold hardy to zone 2, but does just fine in the hot, humid summers of Texas and Florida. It loves low-fertility soils, and takes drought and flooding in stride (especially drought — no native conifer is more drought-resistant). Its growth rate, while not quite as fast as thuja, reaches a respectable 2 feet per year, yet it retains its comical form even without pruning. And if you’ve ever seen a juniper brake, you know just how impenetrable a juniper hedge can be!

The only significant downside can be summed up in two words: cedar fever. These trees produce pollen that many people are violently allergic to, so make sure to buy female trees if you’re worried about seasonal allergies.

USDA zones: 2-9
Soil:Prefers well-drained soils; tolerates drought, alkaline and acid soils, and infertility; does not like consistently wet soils
Light:full sun to part shade
Growth rate: 1 to 2 feet per year
Pros:native, drought-resistant, long-lived, dense foliage, easy to shape
Cons:pollen may cause allergies
Height: 30 feet - 40 feet
Spread:10 feet - 20 feet

Cherry Laurel

Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is native to Europe and the UK, but it’s earned a place in American gardens as a hedge tree with its fast growth rate and evergreen foliage.
Cherry laurels are quite adaptable within their hardiness range — zones 6 to 8. They prefer moist, fertile soils, but are somewhat drought tolerant once established.

They’re also amazingly shade-tolerant: few, if any trees suitable for privacy screens will grow well in full shade, but cherry laurel will not only thrive but even bloom profusely! In its native range, cherry laurels can grow to be quite tall, but most commercial plants will not reach higher than 10-15 feet. Even so, their fast growth rate means they can be shaped easily into dense, compact hedges, perfect for keeping out prying eyes.

USDA zones: 6 to 8
Soil:prefers moist, fertile soils; tolerates some drought but not poor drainage
Light:full sun to deep shade; prefers some afternoon shade, especially in zone 8
Growth rate: 2 feet per year
Pros:fast growth, easy to train, dense foliage
Cons:limited range, some find scent of flowers unpleasant
Height: 10 to 18 feet
Spread:20 to 25 feet

Arizona Cypress

If you live in the South, you’ve probably seen Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica). It’s a very popular landscape tree for its heat tolerance and fast growth rate. Not only can it handle heat and drought better than most conifers, but its distinctive silvery-blue foliage is deer-resistant – an often overlooked but important quality.

Arizona cypress is suitable for zones 7 through 11 – that means pretty much anywhere in the southern US, from Tennessee and Virginia to southern Florida. Its only real requirement is good drainage: unlike some other species on this list, it won’t tolerate clayey soil or wet feet. It also needs full sun to grow well – it can hang on in shady locations, but its foliage will be thin, and who wants that in a privacy screen?

Meeting both requirements is essential to keeping your Arizona cypress healthy because it’s vulnerable to cypress canker, a deadly and incurable fungal infection. It’s a good idea to keep trees spaced far enough apart for air to circulate between them. Alternatively, you can alternate them with other species to make your privacy screen more resilient.

USDA zones: 7 to 11
Soil:prefers well-drained soils; tolerates drought and salt
Light:full sun
Growth rate: 1-2 feet per year
Pros:highly tolerant of drought and heat, fast growth, unique appearance
Cons:vulnerable to cypress canker (see entry for Leyland cypress)
Height: 40 feet - 60 feet
Spread:15 feet - 20 feet
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