In the Garden:
May, 2012
Regional Report

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These four-foot heavenly bamboo shrubs will reach about seven feet tall at maturity, making an excellent, seasonally colorful, semi-evergreen screen to hide the HVAC units.

Abracadabra! Disappearing Landscape Eyesores!

HVAC units are standard outside most homes and office buildings. They provide heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to make people indoors comfortable. The outdoor equipment is often an eyesore that homeowners try to hide with boxwood or yews. Successful? Sometimes....

A customer who moved to the Main Line outside Philadelphia offered this challenge. Make HVAC units and the pool filter equipment disappear into the landscape. Oh, by the way, deer graze in the backyard. So she asked "What can we plant that's colorful, evergreen, unappealing to deer, fast-growing, and will hide those metal boxes, pipes and pumps?"

In hand, she had a lovely, expensive landscape design book. Unfortunately, it was little help. Most of the plants recommended were those deer enjoy browsing on, from leaves to branches, stems and bark, all year long.

My practical, professional question: Which deer-resistant shrubs would be large enough to make an impact now and reach 7 to 10 feet tall and at least half as wide at maturity in 3 to 5 years (to hide the equipment)?

We surfed the Web for answers, photos, recommendations. There are, of course, dozens of beautiful shrubs. Beauty, though, is in the eye of the beholder, which narrows the options. Deer-resistant varieties further limit the possibilities.

Here are our final choices. In it's ratings of plants' susceptibility to deer damage, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station rates cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) as Seldom Severely Damaged, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) and false cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.) as Occasionally Severely Damaged.

The soft, lacy foliage of the heavenly bamboo provided a 26-foot semi-circle of camouflage around the HVAC units beside the stone house. New leaves emerge bronze to red, then change to green. Airy white flower clusters become bright red berry drupes. In autumn, foliage ages to red, orange, bronze and pink.

Eight 4 foot specimens set at least 4 feet away from the HVAC units will likely reach 6 to 7 feet tall as they grow into each other. We left about 3 feet unplanted between the boundary fence and the first nandina to provide access for repairs and maintenance.

We'll return to transplant excess pachysandra nearby to replace the grassy patch between the units and the heavenly bamboo. The groundcover will crowd out weeds and grass, so very little maintenance will be needed after the first summer. None, if any, grasses, or branches will interfere with the HVAC units in future.

For the shady area with pool filter equipment, we chose the compact English skip laurel (Prunus laurocerasus'Schipkaensis') to make a V-shaped screen. Low maintenance and deer-resistant, this broad-leafed evergreen matures to 8 feet wide, 10 to 15 feet tall.

We're considering using false cypress as a privacy screen. When we decide, we'll also plant two at the apex of the skip laurels to visually connect the landscape from the house to the backyard beyond the pool.

First we spaced the heavenly bamboo about 4 feet apart in a semi-circle from 4 to 5 feet away from the HVAC units. Rather than remove all grass, we cleared away a 3-foot wide swathe to make a continuous bed including all the plants. We cut an edge into the grass about 2 feet in front of the pots. That made lifting the grass easier.

We dug the first two holes, placed and planted those nandina. Plants always look different in the ground than in the pot placed on the soil. So we switched to working with one nandina at a time -- placing, digging, and planting one -- before digging the next hole. We rotated plants to bring their best, widest side forward. We put the tallest in front, the shorter on the sides.

Above is a project photo. I encourage you to comment on our blog about your experiences hiding unsightly outdoor equipment.

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