How do you protect your privacy without blocking out the sun and the sky?


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The Independent Online

So the big question, this time of year, turns out to be this: how can my friend Kelly screen her garden, so that she doesn't have to look at her neighbours while they are standing at their (upstairs flat) kitchen sink? We need a solution that covers up those washing-up souls with some sort of transparent veil, allowing a deep calm of privacy to descend. Ah! But which also lets through sunlight. Like a barrier, but without being a barrier. See, it's tricky.

Yes, it's a tough one. It's also a remarkably common one, particularly if you live in a town. But country mice come up with the same question too, wondering how to block the one bit of view that annoying, nosy woman over the road has, into their dining-room. "I want something which will stop the sense that she's gazing in all the time," wails my friend Helen. "I don't want to block our view outwards. Just something not too thick, to make us feel a bit enclosed."

The answer for these folks is not old-fashioned hedges, which are too substantial to leave even a precious patch of sky still visible. Fences can be set aside for the same reason. After much pondering, both town and country plump for something they've seen in a garden-design book: bamboo.

Now, bamboo comes with a deservedly bad rep. Someone planted bamboo in a plot near my country mates about 20 years ago, adjacent to National Trust land. The bamboo has spread wildly, sending out long rhizomatic invaders under the earth, and it now extends about 15 metres down the hill, edging ever closer to a Site of Special Scientific Interest. As a result, a team of National Trust working-holiday volunteers had to come and spend a week of their summer tearing it all out.

And that's unhappy work, let me add. Bamboo is a member of the grass family, all characterised by a botanic oddity. Ever wondered why normal plants get one footstep on them, and are squished, when football-pitch grass seems mostly to survive a winter of abuse?

It's because each leaf contains silica, making grass leaves some of the toughest known on Earth, able to rebend after the most brutal squashing (and also protecting them against grazing). Which applies to bamboo too, making it doubly difficult to clear once established.

So faced with both Helen and Kelly, I got out my favourite bamboo reference book, published in 2010, "Practical Bamboos," said my mum, with a dark laugh. "Not going to be much content in there. They should have called it 'Impractical Bamboos'." She has some bamboo issues, let's just say.

Luckily, the book's author, Paul Whittaker, has a slightly more optimistic view of the world than my mum. Whittaker is keen to emphasise that even in the tiniest plot, there'll be a bamboo that'll do. He recommends clumping forms, such as Borinda, Fargersia and Thamnocalamus, but also points out that the upright Phyllostachys is very good for narrow spots, as long as you contain them with an undersoil barrier.

Here I am biased, because like most people, my heart slightly rises at the sight of a beautiful Phyllostachys nigra, the black-caned bamboo that you see in lots of minimalist plots these days. Plus, I can give it a personal recommendation: I have one in my own back garden, planted c.1996, and it's never caused me any trouble. The long, ebony canes are delicious, adding a magical touch of tropical relaxation, and the fine, delicate leaves leave plenty of sky on view, even if you're lying right beneath it.

I have one proviso: try to look at the plants before ordering, because with black bamboo, while all are black, some are significantly blacker than others. The Palm Centre in south-west London is a lovely place for a wander, and I could spend a happy hour or two perusing their stocks and picking managerial brains. Best news of all? Estimated eventual height: 20 foot. Very neatly and stylishly blocking both those kitchen-happy neighbours, and that nosy woman. While letting the sun shine on.

The Palm Centre, Ham, Surrey, has black bamboo starting at £49.95,