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What's Up Magazine

Good Fences?

Dec 06, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Janice F. Booth

You may know Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” in which the narrator questions the goodness of walls and fences. 

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense. 
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, 
That wants it down.

And to the speaker’s observation, the neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And often they do; well-placed and attractive fences may prevent tensions between neighbors. There are many reasons for adding a fence to our gardens, or repairing, replacing, or eliminating an existing fence or wall. Let’s take a moment to consider the questions posed by Frost in his poem. 

First, what do you want your fence to do? What will it keep in or out? Second, will this new fence or the elimination of an existing fence lead to ill will or misunderstandings with neighbors? And third, if you are sure you want and/or need that fence, how can you insure that you will enjoy that fence for years to come? 

People may want to build a fence on their property, or around their garden for safety. Maryland law requires an “adequate barrier” be built around a swimming pool, in-ground or aboveground. Any contained water over 24 inches deep is included under this law. (Check with a knowledgeable professional if you have questions about your pool or pond’s fencing). Safety may also involve protecting your children and pets from wandering into danger—a busy street, a neighbor’s driveway, or garden. 

Perhaps the oldest reason for installing a fence is to clarify property boundaries. Providing a clear but discreet demarcation between your property and that of your neighbor may be a wise project. Avoiding conflict over who is responsible for what tree or shrub or briar patch is easier when an attractive and well-maintained fence marks the border between your yard and your neighbor’s. Again, consider the legal issues. Maryland’s laws do hold the homeowner responsible for reasonable care of trees on her property. The law also allows neighbors to trim trees and shrubs to the property line, even if the tree or shrub belongs to the neighbor. (Again, a call to your attorney or home insurance agent to clarify your liability may be useful). 

Another purpose for a fence can be privacy. An attractive privacy fence can offer you some much-needed tranquility when the teenage neighbors next-door are playing soccer in their backyard. Or, your boisterous Labrador puppy and your 7-year-old son may be more than you want your elderly next-door neighbors to deal with. You may find a privacy fence protects your garden get-away from the prying eyes of foot-traffic and the noise of passing vehicles.

And speaking of protection, fences can be built in an effort to keep out unwanted critters. Deer, dogs, cats, rabbits, and raccoons may be deterred from visiting your garden if you have a well-designed and sturdy fence. 

Another perfectly fine reason for a fence is aesthetics. A well-designed fence can add visual interest and harmony to your property and your garden. A fence not only shuts out the world beyond the garden, but it encourages one to pause and ponder the garden’s serenity and beauty. A well-placed and handsome fence or wall can be as lovely as a tree or pond. In Japan, decorative fences, walls, and gates play a crucial part in formal gardens. The material used to construct a fence in a Japanese garden is chosen for its harmony with nature—woven wattle (flexible branches), bamboo strips or sections, hemp, stones, and vines. 

Rather than oriental harmony, you may be looking for an occidental aesthetic—wood or vinyl pickets in keeping with Colonial cottages, Victorian or Edwardian wrought iron for drama, split rails recalling pastures and wildflowers. You may even long for a truly natural look, in which case a living fence of yews or cypress, boxwood, or privet would create that atmosphere. Or, you may be seeking clean, sharp, modern lines for your fencing—brushed chrome, steel, glass, and copper. Whatever your aesthetic preference, there are fence designs for you. 

 Before                                       After

Before and after photos of a fence build. Storm damage from a fallen poplar tree destroyed about 180 feet of old stockade-style fencing. The new vertical-board fence was built of southern pine. 

Once you have decided the purpose or purposes of your fence and the design and appearance, you’ll need to plan for the fence’s placement. Whether you’re hiring a company that specializes in fences or landscaping, even if you’re going to tackle this project yourself, you will want to have a plan in mind. You may want to sketch out your design layout so you can show your contractor or refer to the plan as you proceed with the project. 

There are a couple of critical points in your fence layout plan. First, carefully identify any property lines that may be involved. If your fence follows any of your property lines or meets the property line and fences of neighbors, you will need to be cautious. You may wish to hire a surveyor who can refer to your deed’s lot description to mark the legal boundaries of your property before placing the first fence post. 

As a courtesy, you may want to inform your neighbors, casually or formally, that you are installing a fence along your property line where it adjoins theirs or meets their existing fence. Another option is to talk with your neighbor about installing a joint fence along your adjoining property lines. That way you share the expense of the new fence, and you share the responsibilities of maintenance as well. 

Additionally, will you want your fence directly on your side of the property line or a few inches or a foot inside your property? The advantage to setting back your fence from the property line is that it allows you to get at both sides of the fence without going on your neighbor’s property. The disadvantage is that you will have to maintain the strip of land outside the fence, but inside your property. That may be done with mulch, shrubs, or flowers that you will look after on either side of your fence. Placement of your fence inside your own property is far less stressful. Depending on your purpose, the location of the fence will be reasonably obvious. 

Once you have decided on the type of fence and where it will be placed, you will need to plan the landscaping for the fence. Based on the style of your home, you’ll have chosen a fence design and material that are appropriate, and you will have decided on the lines the fence will follow. Look at the original layout plan for the fence lines as potential garden beds. Do you want to vary the fence’s appearance by softening some areas with shrubs and flowers at the fence line? Or, do you want harmonious and consistent plantings along the entire fence? Are there places where thicker plantings might obscure unattractive views beyond your property?

If you decide to add plantings to your fence, you’ll need to consider the same concerns as for planning a flower bed. Where does the sun hit the fence line? How much sun and how many hours. Use that master plan you drew up to make notes on bright sunlight, partial or full shade. Think about water. Will the sprinkler system regularly water the ground around the fence line? Will there be an easy way to get water to plants? Those answers may vary along different portions of the fence. 

Don’t overlook prevailing winds. Sometimes consistent and strong winds may be a problem for one’s garden, damaging delicate plants. You may be able to correct a wind problem with the fence and plants at the fence or a handsome stone wall. They could serve as a protective barrier against wind damage in your garden.

Once you decide where to add plants along your fence line, think of varying the plants’ heights for visual interest. I would caution against the use of vines, such as honeysuckle, bougainvillea, or wisteria. They are lovely draping a picket or wrought iron fence. But, the vines will spread their little tentacles far and wide, invading areas where they are unwanted. You will fight those “volunteer” vine roots for years to come. An alternative, if you like the look of vine-covered fences, would be to add shepherd’s crooks at the fence line and hang vines in baskets. The vines will drape the fence and add their charm without taking over your garden.

Taking this idea of plantings along the fence line, let’s speak briefly about that living fence. Whether you are considering a row of hedges or trees, such a fence is the least expensive of all fencing material and offers some interesting benefits. However, such a living fence demands the utmost patience, since it will take years for your fence to grow into the barrier or screen you envision. 

A living fence of eight to 12 feet tall evergreens or holly will make a lovely screen for privacy and serve as a sound dampener. It will be handsome summer and winter, and provide a cheery home for songbirds to add their own charm to your property. A living fence as hedgerow will prove resilient in neighborhoods where gamboling children and bounding dogs tend to overstep the sidewalk’s boundaries. Children can tumble into your hedges emerging with only a scratch or two, leaving your privets or boxwoods to heal themselves, returning soon to their original appearance. Compare that with a child tumbling into your pickets or wrought iron. And, one additional advantage to a living fence, there are no zoning restrictions on planting rows of trees or shrubs on your property. No permits to acquire, no neighborhood association need give its stamp of approval. 

In summary, if you decide that a fence will make you a better, a happier neighbor, then start sketching out your plan and looking up style choices. You have lots of decisions to make before that first fence pole is set in the ground.