Garden privacy ideas – that don't block the light or encroach on space

Living screens, sunken terraces and leafy canopies are just some of the design features that will help transform an overlooked or exposed space into a private retreat

Garden privacy ideas
(Image credit: Future / Emma Lee)

In an ideal world our gardens would be private sanctuaries where we can potter, entertain and relax away from prying eyes. Yet, for many gardeners, the reality is quite different – spending time outdoors can be like living in a goldfish bowl because there is nothing to screen their plot from passers by and neighboring windows. 

Being overlooked is the daily reality for most people living in built-up areas with houses on either side, or immediately backing onto an outside space. The chances are you probably are being observed – at least occasionally – as you potter about in your garden.

To get you started, we've rounded up the best garden privacy ideas so that you can enjoy your outdoor oasis in seclusion.

1. Provide shelter and privacy in the warmer months

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton)

While some people like to spend as much time as possible in their gardens year round, others tend to see their outdoor space as a spring/summer attraction.

If you are in the latter camp then tall airy ‘see-through’ plants like bamboos or grasses around a seating or sunbathing area will provide sufficient screening and still allow light to filter through. 

Likewise a medium-sized feature tree, planted in the sightline of a bedroom will provide privacy for your house. Just don’t plant it too close to the building itself. An upright ornamental cherry would make an attractive and effective shield, as would ornamental pear such as Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’.

2. Trim branches without sacrificing the whole tree

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Emma Lee)

Are you are worried that having trees will mean sacrificing light? Worry not – there are two techniques that will help. By cutting a few of the bigger branches right back to the trunk you will allow more light through and prevent vigorous regrowth.   

You can also try something called ‘lifting your tree’s skirt’, which simply involves removing lower foliage. 

  • See: Garden wall ideas – create a boundary or define a space with a vertical structure

3. Create boundaries with hedges

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Alicia Taylor)

Making gardens more private can seem daunting, but that doesn’t mean you have to give in and accept that your every move will be observed forever. There are plenty of ways to improve privacy without resorting to tall fences or towering walls.   

A good place to start is with your boundaries. Some gardens are defined by low walls or ‘see-through’ fences that offer very little cover. The ideal solution is to establish a hedge, using fast-growing species. Deciduous hedges are best planted from late fall to early spring using bare-rooted plants. Evergreen hedges, using container grown plants, should be planted from mid to late spring.

4. Build a sheltered structure on an exterior wall

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Luscombe Whyte)

A dining or lounge space close to the house can be covered by a structure attached to an exterior wall.  ‘Every garden has those places you automatically drift to, as well as natural areas of shade, light and privacy,’ explains award-winning landscape and garden designer, Sarah Eberle. 

‘Climbing plants for pergolas and walkways might seem like a romantic option that also offers an element of privacy, but the truth is that many quickly grow out of control, damaging supporting structures, so it’s important to choose non-vigorous species. Pillar roses work well and so does clematis, but this needs to be paired with something evergreen, such as Akebia quinata.’

5. Go underground

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Darren Chung)

Sunken gardens make great retreats and are especially useful in urban plots where boundary fences may cast unwanted shade. 

Lowering a terrace by just 18-20in makes it easier to create a sense of privacy with planting or awnings; if you want to go lower, ask a landscape architect to check the water table level and advise on drainage. In a sloping garden, carve out terraces and create an outdoor room on the lowest level.

6. Enforce border controls

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future)

Lining paths or patios with perennials, grasses and bamboos is a good way to hide seating areas from view. 

Plants that die down in winter offer privacy during summer when you are relaxing outside, but will not block out light during the rest of the year. By placing seats strategically, you may find flowers and foliage do not need to be very tall to make an effective screen.

7. Opt for a cover up

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Polly Wreford)

A sail shade suspended over a seating area will not only block direct views from upper storey windows, but will also give protection from sunlight and showers. The frame can be adorned with climbers, to enhance the enclosed feel. Check that they will grow tall enough to cover the structure and fix wires to the uprights for the stems to cling to. 

8. Build a summerhouse or pavilion

Garden ideas for privacy

(Image credit: Future / Jody Stewart)

Position a summerhouse or pavilion so that it backs onto the garden boundary where it is most overlooked; the buildings roof and walls will create a visual barrier and a private space in the front.   

Concealing the structure behind trees or large shrubs can increase the sense of seclusion if it is reached by a journey through the garden via a winding path.  

Where there is no space for a building, an arbour seat next to a boundary will have a similar effect.

9. Install a water feature

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton)

Screening noise in a garden is crucial for a tranquil ambience. Water spouts and fountains help to drown out the sound of traffic and noisy neighbors, and ensure your conversations are not easily overheard.   

The most effective water features produce just the right level of sound – soothing rather than irritating – and form an integral part of the garden design. 

10. Step into the woods 

Garden privacy ideas

(Image credit: Future / Jan Baldwin)

Trees offer unlimited scope for providing privacy. A small copse planted at the end of a garden will form a quiet refuge. In a large, open space, use ornamental trees to screen off a sheltered area with a dramatic view – and edge it with hedges or low walls.   

In smaller gardens, three or four trees with slim trunks, such as Himalayan birches, will create a snug wooded retreat.

How can  I stop neighbors overlooking my garden?

Tempting though it may be to block yourself off from the world – high panel fencing often isn’t the answer. For starters, erecting a fence more than 6ft (2m) high will not only annoy your neighbors but may require planning permission. Secondly, doing so will likely shade out some of your garden, and reduce your planting options.

So instead of reaching for the fencing, try and make the best use of what you already have. Take a stroll around your garden to identify where any privacy issues might lie. Is there any part of your plot where you cannot be seen at all? If so, ask yourself whether you are currently making the best use of this precious space. It’s also worth considering exactly when privacy is most important to you.

Ultimately, with a bit of thought and a few simple techniques you can enjoy your time in the garden without an audience – and will not have to sacrifice light to do so.

What plants make the best privacy screens?

A good tactic is to create raised beds around the perimeter of your garden and fill them will tall plants like bamboo, ornamental grasses and Carex pendula. Like net curtains, they’ll provide a screen between you and the outside world without casting too much shade.