‘Living fence’ alternative for gardens

By Pam Roy, edited by Bruce Gaudette | Aug 25, 2010

Don’t want to feel fenced in as you garden?  An alternative to fencing a garden is a “living fence.”

A well-planned planting buffer nicely frames a garden and provides privacy and varying color and texture.  

Plants for a living fence should be primarily evergreen; either conifers or broadleaf evergreen shrubs.  If you have the room, create a layered living fence.  

Place taller plants in the background with progressively lower plants in the foreground.  If space doesn’t permit this, then try mixing a wider plant with a grouping of narrower plants to develop a more interesting line.

The traditional English country garden was framed by hedgerows of plants of several varieties.  Combining groups of several different plants, rather than a solid hedge of one variety, created interest during different seasons of the year.  

The hedgerow also offered cover and nesting places for birds and wildlife.  One living fence I created for a Mukilteo residence recently used groups of Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ (fall bloom) separated by Viburnum tinus (winter/spring flowers), with an occasional larger growing rhododendron like Anna rose ‘Whitney’ for spring color.  

A nice addition to this could be an occasional narrow flowering tree like a columnar ornamental pear, Japanese maple or an evergreen like Juniper ‘Wichita Blue’ or Pinus flexilis ‘Vander Wolf’s Pyramid.’

Since privacy fences are usually 5-8 feet high, choose an evergreen shrub growing to this size that can easily be maintained at this height.  Some choices for this could be:

• Arbutus unedo, a drought tolerant shrub from 8-30 feet tall (Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ stays under 10 feet). Arbutus blooms in fall and winter with small clusters of white flowers and a strawberry-like fruit.  The bark is a dark, reddish brown.

• Ligustrum japonica ‘Texanum’ (Waxleaf Privet) grows to 10-by-6 feet with glossy, dark green leaves.

• Myrica californica (Pacific Wax Myrtle), an attractive native plant with tooth edged narrow leaves grow to 10 feet or more.  It has purplish fruits that are attractive to birds.

• Taxus x media is a conifer with soft needles that will tolerate shade.  Expect Taxus to reach 6-10 feet depending on variety.  

• Juniperus virginia ‘Blue Arrow’ is a good choice for a narrow, sunny area, growing to 12-by-2 feet.

• Prunus lusitanica ( Portugal Laurel)  -densely growing to 10-20 feet tall and wide, so give this some room.  It has dark, glossy, green narrow leaves with small, white spring flowers.

• Clumping bamboos offer a soft buffer without the invasiveness of running bamboo.

• Fargesia rufa will tolerate sun and grows to 8 feet with an arching habit.  Fargesia robusta grows taller, to 12 feet.  

If you have a dog or child to contain, or a pool to protect, a wood-framed wire fence with shrubs planted closely to grow through can satisfy these requirements.

To create an inhospitable barrier, use prickly-leafed plants like barberry, mahonia or pyracantha.  

Think beyond the wood fence.  Mix and match foliage textures and create a living fence for year round interest.  

Pam Roy, owner of Planscapes, has been a landscape designer and horticulturist for 30 years in the Northwest.  Contact her at 425-252-9469 or gallery.mac.com/pnw54.

Bruce Gaudette, owner of Land Hoe!, has a degree in horticulture, is an ICPI certified installer of pavers, and is a member of the Executive Board of the state landscape association WALP.  Contact him at 425-742-9417 or landhoe.com.

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