Designing the Garden: Fences, Hedges and Screen Plantings

Part Three of an Occasional Series on Tips for Designing the Home Landscape

As spring rolls finally rolls around here in Boston, and people start to spend more time outdoors enjoying the fine weather, my clients inevitably ask me about ways to increase privacy. Essentially, there three options to block unsightly views or to enclose an area from prying eyes: fencing, hedges or screen plantings. These choices are not necessarily interchangeable, and which you select depends upon a set of design criteria entirely specific to your property.

Let’s tackle the subject of fencing first, because it’s probably the most difficult of the three for the beginning gardener. The primary key to success is remembering that fencing was originally conceived as a means either to keep something in, such as livestock, or conversely as a means to keep something out, such as roving animals or unwanted visitors. As such, fences had to start and end at some logical point to provide the desired containment, and they still need to do so today, if they are to make visual sense in our landscapes. While this may seem self-evident, you would be amazed how often this premise is forgotten in the design of today’s yards. A quick tour of almost any neighborhood will reveal instance after instance of the odd fence panel or two thrown up willy-nilly to block out a particular view, stranded in the middle of the landscape. Once you start looking around, you’ll also find fences that start along the side of the drive or garden bed, and after a short run mysteriously end, almost as if the builder had run out of lumber. To be effective in delineating a boundary or providing privacy, fences can’t just start and stop at random. They must begin and end in a way that complements and corresponds to the rest of the landscape. If an isolated element is needed to block a particular view, then a screen planting should be used instead.

Where privacy is not a concern, open panel fencing works well. This custom fence delineates the property line while perfectly complementing both the color and feel of the facade, echoing the elaborate iron balcony above the front door.

The second key to success when erecting a fence is taking care to choose a fencing style that matches your house. A fence is, in essence, an extension of your home’s architecture into the garden, and as such needs a similar look and feel. For example: if you’re building a rustic style farmhouse, you would want to choose a fence that reflects that same spirit—perhaps a picket or rail fence that’s painted to match your home. Or, in the case of an urban Victorian town house you might opt for an intricate wooden or iron design. Also keep in mind that historically, as architectural styles evolved, fencing styles developed along with them, so chances are there is a fencing type that matches your home pretty closely. And while there is probably no single “right” option for your house, there can unfortunately be numerous bad choices for any given home. The message here is that it pays to shop around and familiarize yourself with various design options. If you can’t find just what you need, consider ordering a custom-built fence that echoes a particular architectural element found on your house, such as porch rail, bracket, or stair baluster.

Finally, don’t buy cheap fencing. Good fences are expensive: there’s absolutely no getting around that. Cheap fences are just an illusion. They don’t last, and since a huge portion of the fence’s cost is in installation and maintenance, you will find yourself paying twice what you would have if only you had installed a good fence in the first place. Excellent fencing options come in wood (naturally rot-resistant materials like cedar, or treated products) metal (iron and aluminum) and now even vinyl, which looks like wood, comes in several colors, and has the great advantage of never needing to be painted.

The alternative to erecting a fence is to use tall plant materials that will create a sense of privacy or block an ugly view. Here you have two options. The first is to plant a straight row of a single-species – a hedge – that will essentially act as a living fence. The other alternative is to plant a non-linear grouping of different species – a screen planting– that works in combination to form a barrier. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Hedges are ideal for situations where a narrow border is desired, either to shield a particular area, or to delineate a space within the garden. Hedges also have certain advantages over fences. First of all, as living material, hedges are much softer and less imposing than fencing, making hedges the appropriate choice where a more delicate effect is required. Also, hedges can reach heights far greater than any fence in situations where a really tall border is needed.

Here hedges are used successfully to define various parts of this backyard; had fencing been used, the effect would have been harsh and artificial.

While almost any kind of plant with an upright habit can be used to form a hedge, some work better than others. First, ask yourself some questions: How tall and how wide you want your hedge to grow? Do you want an evergreen or deciduous border? Do you want a formal (clipped) or informal (natural) look? At it’s most basic, selecting the right hedge plant is a simple process of elimination using these three criteria. Simply decide on your maximum height and width (finding a species that closely fits your parameters will save many hours of tedious pruning) then choose between evergreen or deciduous material, and then between a formal or informal look. Under most circumstances, your options within any given growing zone will generally be limited to three or four possibilities.

Probably the most important key to achieving a successful hedge is being realistic about how much ground space you have to devote, and how large the plants you choose will ultimately grow. Many people, looking at, say, a small yew or upright juniper in the garden center, pay little or no attention to the label that reads “reaches 25 feet tall and wide.”

At first glance, this picture doesn't look too bad; nice wood fence, front planting. But take a closer look at the planting. Those are all large spruce and firs, absolutely crammed in together. The result in a few years time will be a prickly – and very expensive – mess.

If you choose to ignore such instructions, rest assured it will be at your peril. As certain as the return of warm weather each year, these shrubs will ultimately grow to their intended height, and at best you’ll be confronted with a constant battle to keep these green giants in check. At worst, you’ll be forced to begin the process all over again at great expense – only this time with more suitable material.

Also, remember that hedges, just like fences, need to start and end at logical points in the landscape – a straight row of shrubs floating in the middle of a lawn looks just as ridiculous as that stranded panel or two of fencing. This requirement for a coherent line, however, often conflicts with a hedging demand of another kind: to do their best, hedges need light from both sides, as well as consistent light, water, and soil conditions over the full length of their run. If a portion of the hedge is subjected to different conditions than the rest, the result will be an extremely spotty and ineffectual barrier. Often, design and hedge demands are impossible to reconcile, and in situations like this, fencing becomes the better choice.

A well designed screen planting incorporating a wide range of evergreen material; note the play of color and texture.

The final option for creating privacy is a screen planting. Like hedges, screen plantings use woody plants to block unwanted views, but unlike hedges, screen plantings are thick, multi-layered compositions made up of a number of different species.  Screen plantings generally aren’t strictly linear either (though they do need to begin and end, like hedges, at a logical place in the landscape.) Instead, they generally vary considerably in depth (as well as height) from one end to the other, depending on the plant materials used and the requirements of the design. This flexibility makes them especially ideal for tricky situations where growing conditions differ from one end of the planting to the other.

The downside to screen plantings is that the incorporation of multiple species requires significantly more space than would a hedge. Screen plantings are also considerably more difficult than hedges to layout and plant. If a screen planting seems the correct option for your yard, it’s probably wise to seek professional design advice. And speaking of advice, be sure that whichever option you choose to create privacy on your property – hedge, fence or screen planting – you have a well thought out landscape plan in hand before you begin. The old adage of “plan twice, plant once” is totally true, and following this advice could very well mean the difference between enjoying this spring from the comforts of your chair, or spending needless hours behind a pick and shovel.

(Note: for more on fencing, screen planting and hedging for historic houses, be sure to check out my first book: The New Traditional Garden.)

Until next time, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.


Designing the Garden: Fences, Hedges and Screen Plantings — 2 Comments

  1. hello – is it possible to identify the plants in the last screen planting photo? (the one with the bench) thanks!

  2. Hi Mike

    Not with any accuracy. The planting is largely evergreen, with various types of spruce and chamaecyparis. If you’re referring to the gold, it’s chamaecyparis filifera aurea nana

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