A garden has always needed to be fenced to keep wild and domesticated animals from eating the plants. In fact the root of the English word garden refers to an enclosed (girded) area; one that was surrounded by a protective barrier. Many religions talk about paradise as a garden and the word paradise is apparently derived from the Persian word for enclosure. Today that fence isn’t just for security, it also gives privacy and helps to clearly define the property lines.
Fences, hedges and walls (for convenience sake I’m just going to refer to fences) perform a number of functions in the garden. Depending upon the circumstances you might need them to do any of the following:
· Their primary purpose is to provide a secure boundary, to keep dogs and children in and trespassers (animals and human) out. Depending upon the circumstances this may require an 8 foot high stone wall, or a few strands of wire.
· It takes a lot of fence to surround a property, which makes it one of the most common and unifying visual elements in the garden. For this reason it is important that the fences be attractive (or unobtrusive) and well thought out. In most cases they should be made from local materials.
· Fences help to define the boundaries and give shape to the framework of the garden.
· Fences help to define special places by dividing the garden into separate “rooms” for different activities. . By enclosing a space you can completely change its character and feel.
· By acting as screens they can provide privacy and hide unsightly objects or unwanted views. They can also obscure parts of the garden to create a sense of anticipation. Sometimes a gap may be purposely left in a wall or fence to emphasize a good view.
· They direct traffic and control movement, by giving you an easy way to go and by preventing shortcuts.
· Walls (and fences and hedges to a lesser extent) create their own microclimate, by reducing wind and trapping or blocking sun. The south facing side of a wall absorbs heat during the day and creates a warm sun trap. The north facing side is in shade for most of the time (it can be used as the wall of a lean-to or storage shed).
· Fences act as windbreaks to provide shelter from strong winds. They can also be used to funnel cooling winds to where you want them. As solid barriers they can divert cold air around the garden and prevent frost. They can also slow the movement of fire
· They provide support for climbing plants (and make it easier to put netting over fruit).
· They act as a backdrop for plants and artwork.
· They muffle unwanted noise (walls and hedges are particularly good for this).
· They can give a feeling of enclosure and security, a sense of being home.
Planning the boundary fences
In small gardens the fences are largely pre-determined, in that they go around the edge of the property. On a very large property you have to decide how much area you want to enclose (your garden doesn’t have to incorporate every square foot of your property).
Your choice of boundary material will depend upon your needs, your imagination, the style of house, the neighborhood where you live and what you can afford. The most obvious choice is something that is traditional for your location. This helps to give your garden a regional feel and stops it looking like you just bought it at Home Depot.
Your choice of boundary also depends upon what is outside (a great view, nosy neighbors, a psycho pit bull, street traffic, strong winds) and whether you want to see it or pretend it isn’t there.
In the city you may want a strong, relatively opaque barrier for privacy or security. The most obvious choice is a solid fence but be careful: a tall solid fence surrounding a small garden can make it feel even smaller and more confined (as well as shadier).
In the country privacy isn’t as much of a concern, so fence are often more open. This is especially true if your surroundings are particularly beautiful, in which case you will want to be able to see through it.
In windy areas you may need the fence to act as a windbreak. This should be semi-permeable so it doesn’t cause too much turbulence (See Windbreaks).
If you want to fence your vegetable garden or growing beds, an open fence works best as it creates less shade (in hot climates some plants may even appreciate the light shade they do create). In cooler areas the northern wall might be better closed, to provide shelter from cold winds.
Height of fence
The height of a fence is commonly related to the height of nearby buildings and the size of the garden it is enclosing.
In traditional American gardens the fence in the front is lower (no higher than the window sills) than that in the back yard. They also tend to be fairly open, because the front garden is often thought of as a display and the fence is used to frame the composition.
Back garden fences tend to be taller than front ones because this area is used like another room of the house, as a private place for family activities. Not surprisingly it gets much more use than the front garden.
In heavily regulated areas 6 feet is often a maximum legal height for a solid fence. An inexpensive way to increase the height above this is by fastening trellis to the top, or adding post extensions and wire. Vines can then be trained up the fence.
Internal fences and room dividers
Fences, walls and hedges can all be used for room dividers. They don’t need to be as strong or secure as boundary fences, so are often thinner and less substantial. It doesn’t matter if you can see through it, or if they are high enough to obscure the view. All they really have to do is define the space. In some cases the divider may be little more than a change in vegetation, or flooring. These often work best when they are fairly open, as they don’t cast as much shade.
Dividing fences can be different heights, depending upon what you are trying to achieve.
Knee high fences (up to 2 feet) give direction and define specific areas without actually being serious physical obstacles.
A waist height (3 feet) fence acts to direct your movement, but doesn’t cast too much shade.
A 4 feet tall fence (chest height) may be used to separate parts of the garden into rooms.
A fence you can’t see over (5’ 6” – 6 feet tall) offers protection and privacy.
It takes a lot of posts, rails, boards or wire (or stone or bushes) to go around the perimeter of a property, so this is usually one of the most expensive parts of the garden. If you don’t have much money you have to get creative and start looking for salvaged stuff. If this doesn’t lead anywhere then plastic or wire netting is the cheapest fencing you can buy (it is also the most invisible). Wooden fencing can get quite expensive if you have to buy it new and it always seems to me like a waste of trees. Hedges are perhaps the most ecologically sound fencing and don’t have to cost a lot if you raise your own plants. However they take several years to become effective and you will need a temporary fence in the meantime. Walls are undoubtedly the most costly barrier, but also the most durable; a well built wall should last longer than you.
The materials you choose for your boundaries should relate to the house in some way and help to unify the whole picture. This doesn’t necessarily mean using the same materials, but rather making them complementary.
In general long perimeter fences tend to use inexpensive material because you need a lot of it. However a continuous length of a single material can get monotonous, so it is common to use a variety of different materials. You probably can’t afford to fence the whole garden with expensive stone walls, wattle hurdles, or bamboo fencing, but you could put a section in the most visible area, where it can really be appreciated. You could also have a combination of different materials in separate sections (part wall, part fence, part hedge). At the same time don’t use too many different materials, otherwise things can get confusing. Change the materials where you want a different look (such as in different rooms), or in the corners or behind something.
Fences are the most common choice for boundaries in America, because they are quick and easy to build, don’t take up much space and aren’t too expensive (we have always had lots of forest). They are very versatile in that they can be solid and opaque, or open and transparent. Open fences have quite a different feel and use than closed fences. They don’t cast as much shade, don’t create frost dams or wind turbulence and tend to be more interesting visually. Solid barriers are better for privacy and can act as sun traps.
Fence designs tend to be fairly traditional and differ by region and what was readily available there. Certain styles have become are synonymous with certain places (bamboo-Japan, wattle hurdles-England, white picket-New England, grape stakes-Northern California) and it’s usually best to use a style and material that fits in with your location.
There are a huge variety of fence materials and designs to choose from: woven willow, 1 x 8 boards, wooden pickets, wrought ironwork, split bamboo, corrugated metal and more.
I much prefer homemade fences to commercial ones, which tend to look too uniform. Making them yourself also gives you a chance to be creative and make something unique. You don’t have to make enough to surround your whole garden, just put the handmade sections where they will most appreciated.
Fence color is something many gardeners don’t think about. Dark colors generally work best, as light colors get dirty and need more frequent painting. If you don’t want to paint the whole fence; you could just color the posts or even just the post caps. I generally avoid painting fences because once you do it, you need to re-paint every few years (remember Tom Sawyer). This can be difficult if you have plants growing on it. Also painted wood can’t be recycled easily.
The most common fences where I live are 1 x 8 Redwood or Cedar boards. In fact whole forests have been cut down to make good neighbors. The cheapest board fence I’ve seen was made out or old pallets. The boards on one side were taken off and nailed on to the other side. If you can get hardwood pallets this could last a long time.
If you are building a board fence it’s a good idea to raise the boards a couple of inches off the ground, so they don’t stay wet and rot. If you want the fence to go down to the ground (maybe to keep out pests), you can lay a single board horizontally along the bottom This is a bit of extra work, but means that there is only one board in contact with the ground to rot,
It pays to watch out for when people are replacing their old fences, as they will usually be happy to give it away (you might also try contacting a fencing contractor and offer to take an old fence away). These still contain a lot of usable wood, already weathered to a nice silver gray. Often all you have to do is cut off the bottom few inches of rotten wood (so what if your fence is only 5 feet 6 inches tall?) You can even regain these lost inches by using a horizontal board across the bottom.
A solid fence will take a battering in high winds, so it must be securely built and anchored. You can make it into a more effective semi-permeable windbreak by placing the boards on alternate sides of the rails. This allows some wind to go through the fence (though it also makes it slightly less private).
If you are worried about security, put the rails on the inside of the fence, so it harder to climb from the outside.
If you are really worried about privacy (perhaps you are an urban nudist) you can nail battens over the cracks between the boards, or you can overlap the edges of the boards.
If you have a problem with animals digging under the fence, you can dig a trench and bury gopher wire
folded out from the base of the fence. You could even gopher proof a whole room in this way.
These are one of the more formal and elegant wooden fences and are commonly used around the front garden to make a good impression. A picket fence can be open or closed. An open fence has spaces between the boards and so uses less wood. It allows some light to pass through, breaks the wind more effectively and you can see through it (plants can poke through as well) A closed fence has the boards butted together, which gives more privacy, but uses more wood and creates more shade.
You can buy picket fences in pre-made panels, but if you have a table saw you can make your own pretty easily. There is plenty of scope for creativity here; you can cut the tops of the boards into a variety of decorative shapes and can vary the height of the boards. They can be left unpainted, painted one color (to coordinate with the house), or you could paint things on them. When assembling the panels you should make the gap less than the width of the boards.
Old pallets can be used to make a picket fence, if you can get enough of them.
A variation on the picket fence (often seen where I live) is made from old Redwood grape stakes. These are very durable, so you sometimes find old ones for sale inexpensively. New real grape stales are getting scarce these days, but you can still find the similar (but thinner) redwood palings. If you have a source of easily split wood (Redwood, Chestnut, Cedar) and a froe you can also make your own stakes. This isn’t difficult and is very satisfying.
You can vary the transparency of a grape stake fence by how closely you space the palings. Very close together and it is almost opaque. Far apart and you can see right through it.
You can make a 4 feet high grape stake (or any other) fence deer proof by putting a 4 feet high fence of chicken wire parallel to it and 4 feet behind it.
A commonly used fence in England (and worth emulating) is made from strips of cloven chestnut held together with wire. This is an exceptionally versatile and useful fence because it can be moved quite easily (just roll it up and carry it away). It also uses less wood as it doesn’t require any cross rails. This was once widely used to protect new hedges (from animals and wind) until the plants grew large enough to work by themselves.
If you are handy you can make paling fencing yourself from wire and coppiced Chestnut or old Redwood grape stakes or palings (or even sawn 1” X 3”). It is fairly straightforward to make (it would actually be a good business if you grew and coppiced your own Chestnut). A similar product is available commercially in this country, made with sawn redwood lath, though this isn’t nearly as strong.
This can be used to create a secure and solid fence with a modern industrial look. Such a fence may take a battering in strong winds though, so needs very secure fenceposts and cross members. If combined with metal or concrete fenceposts, it is even fire resistant to some degree (though it will melt if the fire gets hot enough). Old corrugated metal (good enough for a fence) can sometimes be obtained very cheaply from junkyards.
Post and rail fence
These are widely used for keeping horses and other large livestock enclosed. They aren’t very effective for much else though.
Home grown fence materials
A variety of home grown materials have been used for fences where wood isn’t abundant. Split Bamboo (Arundinaria) is a favorite fence material in Japan and the intricate designs are a fascinating vernacular art form. In the southwest the woody ribs of the Saguaro (Cereus) have been used for fencing. Giant Reed (Arundo donax) was once used in France to make lightweight fence panels. With a little imagination Cattail, Bamboo, Bulrush and Reed might be used too.
There is wire fencing to suit every situation. It can be several simple strands of wire (barbed or otherwise), chicken wire, chain link, hog wire and more. Wire fencing tends to be quite light visually, if also rather utilitarian. It can be covered with climbing vines to disguise it, in which case it becomes a fedge. Chain link can be disguised with wood strips (these make it into a good windbreak) or even pruned shoots from fruit trees.
If you use concrete fenceposts and wire fencing you can make a relatively fire resistant barrier (though it would melt if the fire got hot enough).
Barbed wire may be ugly and nasty (and bad Feng Shui), but it is also cheap and effective, which is why it runs for thousands of miles in some areas. In a humid climate it can be hidden very effectively with plants (they think it is a sturdy trellis just for them). Barbed wire decorated with Blackberries and Wild Roses would make a pretty formidable barrier.
Enhancing your fence
Erecting the fence is just the start. Look upon it as a blank canvas, the starting point for some self-expression and let you imagination go to work. It can be decorated with artwork, vines, mirrors, old windows paint, old tools, trompe l’oeil or anything else you can think of.
These don’t merely give the fence a more elegant and finished look, they also protect the exposed end grain (which absorbs water more readily) so the post lasts longer. Caps can be made out of almost anything: wooden blocks (or stacks of blocks), elaborate finials, copper balls, birdhouses, hand picked stones and more. If you can’t think of anything to use for caps, you could just bevel the tops of the posts to help them shed water more easily.
Fences from the garden
Brushwood fences (also known as dead hedges – for obvious reasons) were probably the first barriers ever made by humans. They can still be effective today and are relevant to us because they can be made at no cost, using unwanted material that might otherwise be burned. They also work as a quick screen.
To build a brushwood fence, a row of stakes are hammered into the ground on the desired boundary line. Large branches or limbs are trimmed to a single flat plane and the sharpened butt ends are stuck into the ground in a line. These are spaced close together so there are no large gaps between them. Additional stakes may be added as needed to give stability. Finally long supple shoots (Willow is ideal) are woven in and out of the branches and stakes to hold the whole thing together and fill any gaps.
Weeds and wild plants will soon colonize this kind of fence, as perching birds drop seeds in their droppings. Wind borne seeds are dropped when the dead hedge interferes with air flow. You can also sow plants intentionally (annual vines give an almost instant live hedge effect). Seedlings thrive in the protection of the dead hedge as there is no competition from living plants and they are safe from herbivores and strong winds. This type of fence will only last for a few years, but this is long enough for permanent plants to grow up through it, or to get a real hedge established.
Another brush fence
An even simpler way to use brush as a fence is to simply stack it sideways in a pile. The best way to do this is to hammer 2 rows of upright stakes into the ground about 18-24 inches apart, and stack the brushwood between the stakes, as high as you can go. As with the dead hedge, plants will grow up through the brush.
Tree stump fence
This was common in pioneer days when forests were being cleared to create fields. It consisted of a row of uprooted stumps with brushwood filling in any gaps in between.
These traditional English panels are made from woven Willow or split Hazel. They are generally used as an accent around an important area, rather than around the whole garden. They look great but are pretty much impossible to find in North America (though Chinese copies are starting to appear). If you were motivated you could learn to make them yourself and perhaps create a business for yourself.
This is like a combination woven hurdle, living Willow fence and brushwood fence. It is built using shoots of Willow (or other supple wood) woven between stout stakes pounded into the ground. If you use Willow for the stakes it will often take root and grow (if the soil is moist enough). These fences were once quite common in parts of the west where trees were scarce. I have also seen this done in modern gardens, by simply weaving fruit tree prunings around upright stakes.
If you have enough poles, you can make a fence from peeled poles fastened to cross members, attached to posts, palisade style. If they are kept from contact with the ground and treated with preservative, even pine may last for a reasonable length of time. This is quite a bit of work, but if you have the right materials it wouldn’t cost anything.
Fenceposts must be made from rot resistant wood if they are to last for any length of time. Oak, Chestnut and Locust are the most durable, Cedar, Redwood and pressure treated softwood slightly less so. They are usually 8 feet long (with ¼ – ⅓ of the post going into the ground) and are spaced 6 – 8 feet apart.
Most pressure treated posts are now treated with the alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), which is much less toxic than the old chromated copper arsenate. When placing a fence post I usually backfill the hole with soil (some people like to put some gravel underneath the post to improve drainage). Some people worry this won’t be strong enough and use concrete to hold the posts more firmly. I might do this to anchor corner posts, or very exposed fences, but it also hastens rotting and makes it harder to pull the posts and reuse them (though you can sometimes smash it with a sledgehammer). If you do use concrete you don’t have to mix it; you can just pour it into the hole dry. It will absorb enough moisture from the soil to set up (unless the soil is very dry).
In loose soil it may be easier to hammer pointed fenceposts into the ground, rather digging holes and planting them. They will also be more secure. Just make sure they are perpendicular when you hit them (an inexpensive post level will help).
If you are using pressure treated posts, don’t put a cut end in the ground. The untreated interior wood will rot as rapidly as any untreated softwood. Always put the uncut pressure treated end in the ground.
Steel fenceposts are often used for wire fences. These are simply hammered into the ground, and can be installed very quickly. I often use them for temporary
wire fences as they are fairly easy to remove and reuse. As a bonus they are also recyclable.
Grow your own posts
You can never have too many posts, but they aren’t cheap to buy. If you have the space you could grow your own fenceposts by coppicing rot resistant trees such as Chestnut, Mesquite, Oak, Black Locust or Osage orange. Chestnut is superior to other common woods in that it doesn’t have much sapwood. This means it can be used in the round, when only a few years old.
Most sapwood isn’t very durable and a sapling may be composed of mostly sapwood. This is why fenceposts are commonly split out of larger logs (12” or so in diameter). There is then some heartwood in each piece to hold nails. To get posts size pieces out of a larger log just start splitting the pieces in half, until they are small enough to use. Don’t try split a small piece off of a larger one.
In treeless (or fire prone) areas you can make virtually indestructible (though heavy) fenceposts from concrete and rebar. This is actually pretty easy and they really do last almost indefinitely.
Plants and fences
Fences can be made more attractive and productive by training climbing, rambling or espaliered plants over them (sometimes you may even put up a fence primarily to act as a support for climbing plants). This is a win win win situation; the plants receive support and extra warmth, the walls look better and are more secure and you get to harvest food. Akebia, Kiwi, Roses, Grapes, Passion Vines and thornless Blackberries all work well. After a while your fence may get so overgrown it starts to look like a hedge. You can add some trellis on top if you want extra height.
Some plants can be used to strengthen a flimsy fence and eventually turn it into a formidable barrier. These could be wild plants or useful cultivated plants such as grapes. Alternatively they could get so heavy they pull the fence down with their weight.
Interior dividing fences can be enhanced with plants quite easily, as they don’t need to be protected from hungry deer.