From the pages of Fine Gardening Magazine

Of Fences and Gardens

Fences and ornamental plantings have a natural affinity

by George Nash

Rustic rail fence
Its origins dating back to Colonial America, this rustic Virginia rail fence looks at home in a rural setting.
For eons, fences have drawn the line between "mine" and "not mine." Their valuable function was expressed most eloquently in Henry Cleveland's popular 1856 book, Village and Farm Cottages: "Though the fence ranks among the minor matters of building, it is far from being unimportant. Without it no residence can be properly protected, or regarded as complete. Its style and condition often indicate, unmistakably, the taste and habits of the owner."

Fences are paradoxical. As structures they are simple, yet as architecture they are complex. Since fences encode social as well as physical meaning, they have a unique visual potency. One of the most satisfying ways to ensure that a fence's message will be read as an invitation to "tarry a while," rather than as a command to "keep moving," is to marry the fence to ornamental plantings.

There's an undeniable natural affinity between fences and plants. Indeed, throughout much of the world and for much of history, the ultimate in fencing has been the hedge. And the humble picket or rail fence has a long and honorable history as a backdrop or support for ornamental plantings and as a defender of gardens.

Post-and-rail fence
Fences delineate landscape areas. Here, a post-and-rail fence defines an open area, and an adjacent rock wall serves as a backdrop for ornamentals. Photo: Boyd Hagen.

Just as a fence can ease the transition between public and private spaces, it can wed the natural to the built. The possibilities for expressive interplay between plants and fences and for enfolding architectural order within a vegetative embrace are endless.

Picket fence and rambling rose Finial and goldenrod
Consider the shape and color of a fence when selecting nearby plantings. A white picket fence (left) makes a pleasing backdrop for rambling pink roses. The spiky shape of the finial on the fence at right is repeated in the spiky flower heads of goldenrod.

A fence where air circulates freely
Fences with spaces between boards weather better than ones with a solid design.
Fences need breathing room
The marriage of fences and foliage does impose certain practical considerations. One caveat: A dense mat of foliage will block air movement and create a humid enclave where moss and mildew flourish. Chronic dampness, coupled with corrosive secretions from plants, will soon cause paint on fence boards to blister and flake, exposing them to rot. An open type of fence, such as spaced pickets or boards, rather than a closed fence of butted or overlapped boards and stakes, can offer some protection against premature decay. So does minimizing the number of joints and details that trap and hold water. And so will a foot-wide "dead zone" of bark mulch or crushed stone at the base of the fence. Such a buffer also eliminates the need for weeding and for string trimmers, which chip paint and tear up wood.

Where wood and plants more closely commingle, pressure-treated lumber is best. Treated wood is especially helpful in humid climates and wherever wood is vulnerable to attack by termites or carpenter ants. In cold regions, the bottom of your fence, treated or not, should never touch the ground, as frost can lift the fence several inches.

Consider the interplay between fences and plants
All fences to some degree -- and solid-wall fences in particular -- modulate light and wind. Depending on the fence design and the sensitivities of the plantings, this effect can be either a problem or a benefit (and not just for plants directly on the fence line).

A solid fence or wall oriented east to west will be in full shade on its north side and in full sun on the south. Seventeenth-century French and English horticulturists capitalized on the heat-storage capacity of such walls to grow warm-weather fruits on espaliered trees and vines. Temperate-zone gardeners can increase their tomato crop by planting vines against a south-facing fence, especially when it's painted white. Conversely, an ill-considered fence could shorten the growing season for any plant in its shadow. Plants that love sun and heat won't thrive in the cool shade of a north-facing fence. But not all plants like strong sunlight. A lattice or slatted fence will reduce the intensity of the sunlight falling on sensitive plants.

Grow espaliered trees on fences that enjoy direct sunlight. Photo: Virginia Small.

Plantings can also counteract or emphasize the visual impact of a fence. For example, a small yard enclosed by a high fence can induce claustrophobia. But a tapestry of plantings in the foreground can help blend the fence with its background or make the fence appear lower. Annual flowers or fast-growing vines help make a new, raw fence look as if it's always been there.

A rough-board fence under the overhanging branches of dense, tall evergreens can be an effective noise barrier. Fencing that forms an alcove around an imposing tree or boulder transforms a potential obstruction into an appealing space.

Plants can soften the façade of a fence or add depth and color to it. Consider how the shapes and colors of the fence and its neighboring plantings will complement or contrast with each other. There's something quite perfect about a brazen splash of red roses against the brilliant white slats of a picket fence. Like gallery walls, a fence showcases specimen plants, yet remains distinct from them. Or, festooned with rambling vines or overrun with blooms, a fence becomes one with the garden.

George Nash is the author of Wooden Fences, published by The Taunton Press.

Photos, except where noted: Lee Anne White

From Fine Gardening #86, pp. 54-58
Purchase back issues


Wooden Fences
George Nash celebrates the art of the wooden fence in its full range of styles, with practical information on designing, building, and maintaining a fence

Classic Garden Structures
18 classically designed garden projects you can build with basic woodworking skills and tools