Noise from traffic and neighbors is one of the most common problems with living anywhere near a city, but it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying your home’s outdoor spaces. Strategic use of walls, hedges, fountains, and other landscaping features can reduce the noise in your backyard and help you create a peaceful private sanctuary.
Build a Barrier
Fences and walls are the most effective landscaping features for reducing noise. If your noise problem is mild, a lock-board, stockade, or shadow-box fence might be all you need. For more serious noise issues, consider a masonry wall or an acoustic fence. It’s also possible to soundproof an existing fence by installing a specially designed sound absorbing blanket.
Whichever option you choose, remember the denser the material is, the more noise it will block. The key here is density, not just thickness. Most forms of concrete are denser than clay brick. Nature stone varies widely in density, but among the common choices for walls, limestone and granite are denser than sandstone.
To be effective, the barrier must be high enough to block your view of the noise source. To block traffic noise, you’ll need a barrier of at least 6 feet high. Because sound waves can slip through the smallest gaps, the fewer gaps in your barrier, the better. Plan to place the barrier as close to the noise source as you can.
Putting a storage shed against your fence or wall is another way to absorb some of the noise before it reaches you. Again, building material matters. A flimsy aluminum shed might only make more noise from vibrations, whereas a wood shed with insulated walls provides a more effective barrier.
Hedges, shrubs, and trees reduce noise by around 5 to 10 dB. That small reduction should be barely perceptible, yet a number of psychoacoustics studies have found many notice an appreciable noise reduction after plants are added for sound insulation.
Whether it’s due to the calming effect of greenery or the fact that plants take your mind off the noise source, plants are an effective way to make your backyard a more tranquil place. They’re also more pleasant to look at than a solid noise-blocking wall.
Your best bets for sound insulation are broadleaf evergreen shrubs with thick branches, such as holly (Ilex opaca) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Dense needle-leaf evergreen shrubs, such as juniper (Juniperus) and arborvitae (Thuja) also work well.
Clumping bamboo species are good choices if you want vegetation that will grow tall quickly, but spread slowly. Choose carefully, though, because running bamboo species spread much faster. Deciduous shrubs are less helpful because their noise reduction capacity drops when their leaves do.
Growing shrubs or trees in front of a noise barrier wall is even more effective. To save space in a small backyard, try growing plants right on the wall. Create a “green wall” by attaching planters directly to the wall or attaching a wooden frame to the wall and mounting planters on the frame.
Sculpt the Land
By sinking part of your backyard to a level lower than the surrounding area, then building up the land around it, you’ll effectively create a noise reduction wall right out of the earth. A sunken patio gives you a quieter place to relax, enjoy meals, and socialize. Add a fire pit, and you’ll have a cozy spot for evening entertaining.
To build one, you or your landscaper will need to excavate the area, build a retaining wall to hold up the sides, then install paving. Finish up with seating, container plants, and decor.
For even more noise reduction, build an earth berm on the side the noise problem is coming from or all the way around the patio. The berm’s mass will deflect sound waves, and it’s the perfect use for the soil removed for your sunken patio.
The height and width depend on how much space you have, but aim for a height of 6 feet and a slope of 30 degrees where possible. Avoid going much steeper than this, or you’ll end up with erosion issues. If you don’t have space for the height you want, add a barrier wall or hedgerow on top.
Soundscape for Tranquility
Filling your backyard with sounds you enjoy makes the irritating noises less noticeable. The soothing sound of flowing, splashing water from a fountain goes a long way toward masking street noise. If your main goal is noise abatement, you don’t need anything fancy. You can build your own fountain out of an urn, large flower pot, or any other decorative vessel, along with a recirculation pump, a basin to hold the pump and water, and pipe to circulate the water.
The height and depth of the fountain, and the speed and volume of water all affect the sound, so play around with the design to get the sound you want. For more splash, add a few rocks. For even more, build a pond and place the fountain in the center. The noise-masking effect of a water feature works best when you’re near it, so near a seating area is an ideal location.
Plants that move with the wind give you another way to create a more pleasant ambiance. Birch, aspen, willow, and poplar trees are well known for the whispering of their leaves in the wind. If you don’t have space for a tree, try a grass, such as greater quaking grass (Briza maxima), fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), or small Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus oligostachyus). Sweetcorn (Zea mays) rustles in the wind and can provide you with a few good meals, too.
Invite songbirds to your backyard by growing berry bushes and providing bird feeders, birdbaths, and nesting boxes. Bring in wind chimes, aeolian wind harps, whirligigs, and other decor that responds to the wind. Decor from a variety of materials such as metal, glass, and stone will produce a medley of sounds that helps drown out annoying noises.
To really reduce noise in your backyard, combine techniques where you can. Plant a hedgerow in front of your noise barrier wall or put a fountain in your sunken patio and surround the patio with rustling grass. You might not be able to block out the noise completely, but you can create an environment that’s quiet enough to enjoy.