A natural question to ask when you hear talk of "fence line landscaping" is, Why bother at all? That is, you may wonder what purpose a planting will serve. So here are three potential reasons for growing plants along a fence, followed by brief explanations of each:
- To soften
- To camouflage
- To play up a stylistic theme
As a straight-edgedhardscapeelement, the typicalwood fence, by its very nature, cries out for some visual softening. This is usually achieved by the use of plants.
In the case of other materials used inbuilding fences, your objective may well be to hide them all together rather than simply softening their "rough edges."Hiding a chain-link fenceis the classic example here, as chain-link fences hold no ornamental value whatsoever; you would gladly dispense with them if not for the practical functions they serve.
For most people,white picket fencesevoke the idea ofcottage gardens, regardless of whether you have the classic wooden type or have opted instead for aPVC vinyl fence. This is perhaps the best example of reason number three. That is, homeowners will sometimes grow traditionalcottage garden plantsalong a picket fence to harken back to a simpler time and suggest the tranquility of a rustic and/or folksy setting.
The Aesthetic Side
Even when you don't have a particular style in mind (such as the cottage garden style), giving due diligence to certainaestheticconsiderations can make a huge difference in just how attractive your fence line turns out.
For example, if you can tie the fence planting in with the rest of your landscape, it will look like an integral part of the yard as a whole, rather than an afterthought. You can accomplish suchunityby employing the landscape design principle of repetition: i.e., if you have somemaiden grass, for example, in a nearby bed, "repeat" with it along your fence to create the sense that one bed flows into the other.
Perhaps more importantly, don't gear your planting to just part of the year, but rather to allfour seasons. Make sure you have some of those wonderfulspring flowersat which to marvel as Old Man Winter abdicates the throne for another year, as well as a variety ofshrubs for fall color. Most gardeners understand that much—it's the two, longer "tweener seasons" to which we sometimes pay insufficient attention, especially winter. Here are some tips for avoiding color gaps at these times:
- For summer, growlong-blooming perennialsand late-blooming bushes such asRose of SharonandBluebeard shrubs.
- For winter, in addition toevergreen shrubs, grow plants such asred twig dogwood. The latter looks great in winter against a fence (especially a white one) that basks in ample sunlight, which brings out the red color of the bark to its full display value (but front lighting here is much more effective than backlighting).
The Practical Side
Speaking of sunlight, one thing you must never forget when dealing with a plant is its sunlight requirements. Groupfull-sun plantstogether in a bed with a southern or western exposure andshade plantsin a location with an eastern or, especially, northern exposure.
The factor of sunlight requirements is just one of the many practical considerations that come to the fore when planning fence line landscaping. Just as you need to group plants with like sunlight requirements, so you should group plants with the same water requirements together.
Understand that fencing creates amicroclimate and that this has ramifications for your plants—whether good or bad. For example, if the exposure is southerly (and in full sun), this sheltered environment will experience higher temperatures. Some plants will benefit as a result, but others (such as those susceptible to powdery mildew) may miss the breezes they'd otherwise receive and succumb to a fungal disease. Then again, you may be able to get away with not stakingtall perennialsgrowing up against a fence—perennials that you'd otherwise have to stake for sure.
But practical considerations are not limited to those pertaining to the vegetation. What kind of fence do you have? One of thepros of vinyl fencesis that they're low-maintenance. But if you have a wooden fence, you'll have to paint or stain it periodically. Consequently, space your plant material far enough away from the fence to allow yourself access to your wood fence for maintenance. Remember, too that at maturity, a plant may end up much bigger than it is at the time that you're installing it. Giving yourself enough space will also facilitate such plant-care tasks aspruning shrubs.
Likewise, many homeowners get the idea of festooning their fencing withvine plants. That works well on chain-link fencing, effectively making it invisible. But how do you stain a wooden fence that has vines growing all over it? In the latter case, an annual vine, such asmorning glory flowers, could be a better bet: Simply do your maintenance in the spring, before planting the frost-tender morning glories.
Another alternative is to grow your vines in portable containers, suspend the containers from the fence, and let the vines hang down. That way, you can simply remove the containers for maintenance and re-install them afterward. This approach also gives Northerners a great excuse to experiment with tender vines that they might not otherwise grow. We've occasionally seen hanging baskets ofbougainvillea plants, for example, for sale in nurseries in New England (U.S.). Suspended at intervals from your fencing, several such containers could easily create a mini-Mediterranean haven.
On the Wrong Side of the Fence?
So, after reading the foregoing ideas on fence line landscaping, does it sound like a project you are interested in undertaking? Bravo! Now let's get down to the nuts and bolts of the matter.
First of all, does the fence in question separate your yard from a strip of land that borders the street, perhaps a grassy rectangle that you have to mow but that you otherwise ignore? Then don't be one-sided in your thinking: landscape both sides of your fencing, if at all feasible.
On the street side, your landscaping may be something as simple as laying down a bed oflandscape mulch, two feet wide or so. The idea here is to avoid having to use aweed eaterto keep down vegetation growing up against the fence. By mulching the area, you eliminate thislandscape maintenancetask.
Whether you choose to do more than just mulch the street side of the fence will depend on many factors. A warning: if this is public land (sometimes called a "tree belt"), you'll want to get permission from the town first. Beyond that, other factors that potentially come into play include:
Some plants hold up to pollution better than others. One street pollutant you'll have to deal with is the salt that cities use to make the roads safer in winter.Salt-tolerant plantsare your answer here.
Theft and vandalism (a true threat if you havebad neighbors) are tougher challenges to deal with. If someone is intent on stealing or wrecking your plants, there's not much you can do about it in such an exposed area. That's why, when choosingwhat flowers to plant around a mailbox, you should pick annuals. The same advice applies tolandscape driveways(at the entrance). Quite simply, you will have less time, money and energy invested in annuals than inperennialsand shrubs. So although their loss will be felt, it won't sting as much to lose annuals.
Installing the Plants
Perhaps you're thinking, "All of that is fine, but how do I install the plants, and what if I want to grow something besides flowers?" While there are as many ideas for fence line landscaping as there are fences, we'll conclude with a few tips to point you in the right direction, beginning with the mechanics of planting a bed.
Looselylayer your flower bedsfor optimal visual effect. A composition with three rows (short plants in front, tall ones in the back, medium-sized ones in the middle) often works well.
Looking for a way to keep the bed contained? Create a neat, low-maintenance planting next to a fence.
When softening the rigid lines of fencing through the use of plants, some of you may want to take that idea to its logical conclusion and install the plants in a curving bed to create a nice focal point.
Others of you, by contrast, may wish to streamline the design considerably. Maybe you're an aficionado offormal landscape design, and far from wanting to soften the beeline created by your fencing, you wish to accentuate it. You can achieve this by growinghedge plantsin a neat row.Dwarf boxwoodsare an outstanding choice here, not only because they are amenable to shearing, but also because they are compact and evergreen.Privet hedgesare also commonly grown in conjunction with fences; as their name suggests, they have been used traditionally to gain privacy.
Some homeowners like the idea of such plantings so much that they dispense with the hardscape (i.e., the fencing) altogether. In addition to formal hedges, looser groupings of shrubs and/or trees can also be used to promote privacy.
If you don't have a fence yet but would like one, browse through somefence picturesbefore deciding on a style. This photo gallery also shows some examples of fence line landscaping.