Question of the Week: October 3, 2019

“We would like a tall shrub to screen an unsightly view behind our house. What would you suggest?”

I get this question a lot. It seems the more compacted our landscapes become, the more precious our privacy is to us. In most cases, we need plants that will grow to be 8 to 15 feet tall. Here are five of the best and three of the worst. As always, it’s wise to discuss new plantings with a Texas Certified Nursery Professional.

Good choices for screening
Nellie R. Stevens holly. I’ve grown this beautiful shrub since 1970, and I can’t imagine my landscape without it. It grows fairly rapidly to a height of 10 to 15 feet (taller with age and perfect conditions), and it bears large red berries that persist all winter. I plant mine about two-thirds as far apart as I’ll be letting them grow (10 feet apart, for example, if they’ll be growing 15 feet tall). It’s available in a wide range of sizes in nurseries. Sun or shade.

Nellie R. Stevens holly

Mary Nell holly and its “children.” In my experience, this group of larger-leafed hollies grows somewhat more slowly than Nellie R. Stevens, but the plants make spectacular screens. The “children of Mary Nell” (as they were first brought into the market 20 or 25 years ago), include Oakland, Robin, Cardinal and others, and together with their parent, they make some beautiful evergreen shrubs. Most grow to 10 to 15 feet tall. Sun or shade.

Mary Nell holly

Willowleaf holly, also known as Needlepoint holly. Don’t let that name scare you, however. These plants have only one spine at the end of each leaf, and they aren’t especially threatening. I have them along walks and near faucets, for example. It’s a selection of Burford holly, and it has a much more relaxed look and feel. All plants bear multitudes of bright red berries all winter. Sun or shade.

Willowleaf holly

Elaeagnus. No plant is any more durable. It grows to 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. There are actually several species and types, most with attractive gray/green foliage. Inconspicuous flowers in fall have a wonderful fragrance. It produces erratic branches that must be removed one at a time, and it does require full sun.


Eastern redcedar juniper. This is in no way a shrub. It grows to be 35 feet tall and 30 feet wide, but if you live in a part of Texas where it grows natively (eastern half of the state), it’s your best tall screening evergreen. It’s much more dependable, for example, than any of the pines in areas with alkaline soils or poor drainage. Yes, it’s the same plant known by allergists as “mountain cedar,” but Texas has millions of them already. Adding the pollen of a few more probably won’t make a big difference. You may already be taking meds in winter and early spring already.

Eastern redcedar juniper
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Plants you’ll want to avoid
Japanese ligustrum (Japanese privet). It hurts to put this plant on this part of our list, but it is so aggressively invasive that it has to go here. Its big clusters of purple fruit attract birds. Birds eat the seeds. Birds fly all around. Birds do what birds with full tummies do. And soon we have thickets of Japanese ligustrums. Parts of Texas are being overrun. Don’t plant this, and don’t allow chance seedlings of it to grow on your property. Do what you can to stop its spread. The same goes for its little sister Amur River privet, another terrible invader. The one good one of the bunch is the long-popular landscape shrub, waxleaf ligustrum.

Japanese ligustrum

Golden bamboo. There is no effective way to stop the spread of this awful grass other than to avoid planting it in the first place. It spreads from yard to yard, engulfing all vegetation in the process. I won’t relent on this one – it mustn’t be planted. (Granted there are types of clumping bamboos that aren’t aggressive growers, but most of them are only winter-hardy in South Texas. Talk to your nurseryman.)

Golden bamboo

Redtip photinia. We first began to see Entomosporium fungal leaf spot killing redtips back in the 80s, and now it’s taking out entire city blocks behind alleys. It starts as small maroon “freckles,” and it spreads until it causes leaves to turn yellow, then white, then dried and brown. Not all of a given plant will be impacted at the same time. There are no preventive sprays, nor are there dependable cures. Above all, don’t fill holes in your plantings with more redtips. They, too, will succumb.

Redtip photinia with Entomosporium
Posted by Neil Sperry
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