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plants as noise buffers

Could you recommend some plants that would be effective at screening out noise from a nearby, busy street? Would bamboo be effective? Any other suggestions?


I have some suggestions for planting and otherwise screening your property from the busy street adjacent to your house. I’ve started with an article by Joel Lerner in the Washington Post that provides good food for thought about this problem. After providing some related information that you may not have considered (#1), I’ve given you a list of plants, most of which are native (#2). Since you have a relatively small area, you will have to plan carefully.

Excerpt from the article:

“A buffer of mixed plants can absorb and deflect sound waves. The mix of plants is important because different types of leaves reduce different types of noises. How much noise control they provide depends on the intensity, frequency and direction of the sound, and the location, height, width and density of the planting.

“Mixed broadleaf plantings at least 25 feet thick and conifers 50 to 100 feet thick can drop noise levels by up to 10 decibels. For year-round noise reduction, plant a mix of evergreens such as arborvitaes, spruces, pines and hollies. To be effective sound barriers, these trees must have foliage that reaches to the ground.

“Deciduous plants are also effective for noise abatement, but only when foliage is present. Like evergreens, these must also have foliage from the ground up to really do the job. Thickets of sassafras and paw paw have been found to be relatively effective for this purpose.

“Include lawn or some other ground cover in shady areas. Turf grass or other low vegetation has a muffling effect on sound, compared with surface areas of bare soil or various paving materials, which are more likely to bounce sounds off their surfaces.”

1. My research indicates that a fence or other solid barrier–massive and thick, such as a brick wall or a berm–provides a more effective barrier to sound than a planting screen.

University of British Columbia Botanical Garden Forums has a discussion on this topic, including this citation:
From the book Arboriculture, third edition, Harris et al., page 138, figure 5-8 caption:
“Thirty meters of trees and shrubs reduce truck noise about as effectively as a similar area of bare cultivated ground. A berm, slope or solid barrier with woody plants would be more effective in absorbing noise (Cook and Van Haverbeke 1971).”

2. You may decide to mask the sound. In addition to music, chimes, and the sound of water in a fountain, you might consider trees that rustle in the wind. You mentioned bamboo, and given your small space, I would recommend a clumping rather than a running bamboo. The frequently asked questions section of the American Bamboo Society website has information about choosing and growing bamboo. Unfortunately, the clumping types prefer sheltered spots and/or shade.
You might consider planting some evergreen trees or shrubs on the edge of the property to shade the bamboo, which could be planted closer to the house (and the rustling sound would be closer to the windows). Or you could plant a running type of bamboo (some can take full sun) in a container or using a barrier.

Evergreen trees and shrubs will provide the most effective barrier. Trees
such as members of the Thuja genus in combination with a fence may be a place
to start, but for more interesting ideas, try visiting the Great Plant Picks website.
You can search with the word ‘hedge’ and come up with a good list of plants that will do well in the Pacific Northwest.