Q: We just moved to high chaparral country. Besides all my other problems — squirrels eating the camellias and azaleas, frost killing the ground covers, and rabbits taking care of the rest — our most difficult challenge is finding the right tree to block the view of our neighbors’ house. It needs to be 50 feet wide or more, and evergreen. My sister suggests Monterey pine; I bought two wonderful figs (Ficus nitida), but we doubt they’ll get high enough. Can you suggest a tree that is a quick grower and can stand heat, drought, and frost? — Jean Pruitt, Jamul, Calif.
A: My apologies to your sister, but please don’t plant a Monterey pine, Pinus radiata. This beautiful coastal native will not take kindly to dry air and summer heat, and the normal loss of lower branches as it matures — a trait responsible for its picturesque silhouette — makes it useless as a screen. If you like the look of pines, fast growers for your conditions include Calabrian pine, Pinus brutia, and its kissing cousin P. brutia ssp. eldarica, as well as natives Coulter and Torrey pine. Depending on the height of the house next door, you may be right about the figs — they generally top out at 20 to 25 feet. Taller western natives Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica or C. arizonica var. glabra, and incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, are both upright in habit, so you’ll need two or three to block the wide view. The height and girth of the elegant deodar cedar overpower most home landscapes, but may be just the thing for you. Holly oak, Quercus ilex, and cork oak, Q. suber, are also substantial evergreens, and you can count on them to grow moderately fast.
One note of caution: Steer clear of Leyland cypress, which is often touted as an instant screen. It is indeed fast-growing, but gets stragglier with each passing year — a quick fix to regret all too soon.