A living fence is a great way to introduce both security and privacy to an area. Not only does a living fence provide an attractive ornamental addition to the garden, it can also provide food and shelter for a myriad of garden animals and insects.
Not a new idea, the increasingly popular living fence is a traditional method of separating crops, keeping animals in or out of areas and of marking property. Even today they are a common sight in many parts of the world, including India, Brazil and many areas of Africa. In the western world, the living fence is enjoying a resurgence in popularity again because it offers a versatile, eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to manufactured barriers or walls.
If you want to learn more about the living fence this article will take you through some of the many benefits. We will also highlight some of the best living fence plants and explain how you can add one to your garden.
A hedge is an increasingly popular part of the garden.
Why Build a Living Fence?
There are a number of reasons why you should construct a living fence.
Firstly, they are cheaper than manufactured options. A living fence, or hedge, has all the benefits of a manufactured barrier but for far less expense.
A hedge provides natural shade and filters noise and dust from other properties or nearby roads, helping to make your garden both cleaner and quieter. It also acts as a natural windbreak, helping to shelter exposed areas.
Too much wind may cause crops or livestock stress, reducing their yield. It can also cause your soil to dry out before your plants have absorbed enough moisture to sustain their growth habit. A green hedge not only shelters your plants, it also helps the soil to retain moisture for longer, helping to reduce the amount of water you need to use and the frequency with which you need to water. While you will need to water your living fence as it grows, harvesting rainwater and setting up an irrigation system, such as the Flantor Garden Irrigation System makes this an easy task.
A manufactured barrier requires regular expenditure and maintenance, such as repairing or painting. In contrast, a natural or living fence requires no such regular maintenance. While you will have to prune and cultivate the hedge, if you are a keen gardener you probably already have the necessary tools, such as hedge trimmers. If you don’t, it is usually a one time investment. Clean and store your tools correctly and they last for many years. Additionally, a little gardening is good for both your mental and physical health.
With the right care, hedging can be considered an almost permanent investment that lasts far longer than a manufactured barrier. The exact lifespan of your hedge depends on the plants that you chose. Some can last up to a hundred years with the right care and regular pruning.
With the right care, your hedge can last for decades.
Starting a living fence from scratch, by purchasing seeds or saplings, can be expensive. However, this is the only major expense. If you have the time, you can propagate your hedge from established plants by taking cuttings or growing from seed. This is not only a cheaper way to establish a hedge but also a good way to replace tired or dying plants in the existing structure.
While a living fence may take longer to develop and mature than a manufactured solution it brings far more benefits to the garden. It is also far more resistant to termite or fungal attacks than a wooden barrier.
A living fence can enrich or improve the soil. The root system helps to bind the soil, keeping it intact and reducing soil erosion. This makes a hedge both a great alternative and a compliment to ground cover planting. Growing a hedge is a particularly useful way to counteract soil erosion caused by rainfall.
Leaves and twigs that fall from the plants can be left on the ground where they decompose, creating soil humus. This increases the fertility of your soil, improving its permeability. It also loosens the soil, improving drainage and ensuring that water and oxygen are easily able to reach the roots. Leguminous plants are particularly beneficial because they also introduce nitrogen to the soil. Like the rest of the plant, leguminous foliage is rich in nitrogen. When used as a mulch, the leaves give other plants a useful nitrogen boost.
A hedge adds color and interest to the garden.
A living fence is also more colorful than a solid structure. The green foliage, flowers and fruits add changing color and interest throughout the year. This makes a hedge a great decorative solution, providing a resilient, long lasting backdrop to showcase more showy or ornamental plants. Many plants, such as bamboo or boxwood also have ornamental interests of their own.
To add further you can also inosculate the shrubs or trees. Inosculation is the practice of tying up crossing branches so that they graft together, growing as one. This process can be used to create interesting visual effects
A living fence supports ecological diversity in your garden. A healthy structure creates and supports a micro-ecosystem, which is inhabited by a myriad of small animals and insects. It can attract bees, butterflies and pollinators to your garden, helping to increase both pollination and yield.
A hedge encourages beneficial insects and garden birds.
Many commonly used living hedge plants are a good source of food or fodder and wood. Many fence plants have foliage which is edible for both humans and animals. Others produce fruits and berries. The wood of some plants such as Hawthorns, can be used for firewood or small woodwork projects. Finally, dead leaves can be placed on the compost heap or used as a mulch.
A natural hedge is also a great form of natural pest control. As well as encouraging beneficial insects to the garden these structures also deter harmful pests and rodents.
Now that we have established why you should add a living fence to your garden, it is important to understand the differences between the two main types.
The Two Types of Living Fence
There are two main types of living fence, they are usually categorized as live posts and live hedges or barriers.
Live posts types of living fence are living plants that support other fencing material, such as wooden panels or Patio Paradise Privacy Screens. This is a quicker option than cultivating an entire living barrier. Other plants can then be planted in front of the panels to disguise their presence.
Live hedges or barriers are made up entirely of shrubs or trees. When planted closely together they create a secure barrier.
If you want a live hedge but also need security and privacy quickly, you can always plant the living fence in front of fencing panels or a chain link fence. As the plants develop and mature the panels can be removed.
Combining living fence plants with manufactured panels or chain link fencing is a quick security solution.
How to Create a Living Fence
Before you begin, bear in mind that adding a living fence to the garden is not an immediate process. Unless you buy fully mature plants a living fence takes time to develop and grow, naturally filling the space.
Choosing the right plants is important. Selecting plants that are unsuitable to your growing conditions will mean that your living fence will remain small and unimpressive. Unsuitable plants may struggle to grow and develop and can often require more care and attention.
A row of thorny plants are more difficult to penetrate, making your yard safer.
Selecting the right plants requires a little research on your part. The plants should be ones that will thrive in your climate and soil type. To make the selection process a little easier, I have included a list of some of the best and most versatile living fence plants later in the article.
Once you have selected your plants, prepare the soil by weeding and digging in any necessary organic enrichment such as compost. A soil test kit tells you which, if any, nutrients your soil is lacking in.
When to plant can vary depending on the specimens you have selected. In general most plants are best planted in early spring, as soon as the soil is workable and before they have broken their winter dormancy.
When you are ready to plant, dig a separate hole for each sapling. Again, each plant has its own specific planting needs, including how deep it should be placed in the soil, so you will need to do your research beforehand. In general, aim to dig a hole large enough to hold the root ball. When placed in the hole the top of the root system should sit level with the soil.
Remove the plant from its pot and gently tease apart the roots, brushing away excess soil in the process. Place the sapling in the center of the hole. When you are happy with the position of the sapling, backfill the hole with soil and water well.
Plant the saplings as closely together as possible. Ideally you should aim to space the plants 4 to 8 inches apart, if this is possible. Plating specimens in close proximity encourages the branches and foliage to interlock as they develop, creating a dense barrier with no obvious gaps. After planting many saplings, particularly those in exposed positions require staking. The Dalen Tree Staking Kit is an easy to use, resilient product. Once installed, it encourages the plant to develop and maintain a healthy, upward growth habit.
You can also entwine or inosculate the trunks of young plants, planted in close proximity to each other. This is done by bending the soft pliable trunk of one plant over and past the trunk of the next plant. Staking the entwined trunks in place, using Rebar Landscape Staples, ensures that they remain and thicken in the desired position. Once established the branches of the plant should then start to grow upwards, creating a dense living fence.
After planting, remember to continue to care for your saplings. Getting your plants off to a good start encourages lots of healthy growth to form. It also helps the plants to maintain a long and healthy life.
Fertilize and water your living fence regularly. A soil moisture sensor provides an easy way to monitor the moisture content of your soil. This helps to prevent plants from drowning in too much water or suffering from the effects of too little water. Keeping the soil and lowest part of the living fence clear of foliage makes watering easier. It also allows small animals such as squirrels to pass through.
As the plants develop, train the branches so that they grow wide and outwards. This encourages the branches to crisscross or interlock with each other, creating a secure barrier around your property. As the foliage drops in the fall, the interwoven branches remain visible, providing visual impact and interest to the otherwise bare winter garden.
Finally, prune the plants every fall or early spring. As you prune, aim to remove any dead or overgrown branches. Thinning out particularly overcrowded areas encourages air flow through your plants, helping to keep them healthy and disease free. Pruning also encourages fresh growth to form. The more growth you encourage the denser the hedge will be.
Regularly pruning prevents your plants from growing out of control.
If you want a living fence but dont have the time or skill to cultivate one, why not purchase and install some traditional wooden privacy panels. Climbing or vining plants can be trained to climb the panels or trellising, obscuring the manufactured structure and softening the view. Just make sure that your panels are securely in place before planting.
The Best Plants to Choose
The following plants are commonly used in hedges. This is because, as well as providing a secure barrier around your property, they are reliable, relatively easy to cultivate and provide long lasting interest to the garden.
A reliable foundation plant, Arborvitae (Thuja) is a tall, evergreen shrub that is one of the most popular living fence choices. A coniferous plant, the thick, evergreen foliage can be styled in a number of ways, further adding to their visual appeal.
Arborvitae foliage remains dense throughout the year, providing a barrier from noise and intrusion. During the summer months, Arborvitae provides shade to hot gardens, whilst in the winter the plants act as a barrier, protecting the garden from extremes of cold weather. Established plants can also provide a nesting habitat for birds and insects.
Established plants provide a source of food and shelter to garden wildlife.
Popular Arborvitae cultivars include:
- Green Giant is a fast growing variety, capable of achieving a mature height of between 30 and 50 ft. A reliable choice if you are looking for a shrub to provide shade and privacy. While Green Giant responds well to pruning it has a natural pyramid shape which is pleasingly attractive.
- Emerald Green is a smaller option, mature plants rarely exceed 20 ft in height. A row of Emerald Green provides a reliable privacy screen which is suitable for a range of different styles of garden.
- Mission grows to 15 to 20 ft in height and has a pleasing rounded growth. Mission’s foliage is darker than other varieties such as Green Giant.
Privet has long been a reliable garden hedge choice. Used for centuries to introduce privacy and shade to a garden the leafy plants can be pruned into a smooth, manicured hedge.
Privet plants have a quick growth habit, meaning that they require regular pruning. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, Common Privet is a popular choice because of its reliable growth habit and thick foliage. Privet plants produce glossy foliage, which is either oval or lance shaped. During the late spring and early summer, fragrant white flowers form. These are replaced later in the summer by back berries.
Popular Privet varieties include:
- Golden Ticket is often chosen for its golden-green foliage. Requiring regular pruning, like other Privet varieties, if allowed to Golden Ticket plants can reach a height of around 6 ft.
- Straight Talk is a taller Privet variety, typically reaching a mature height of 12 ft. Regularly pruning Straight Talk encourages the emerald green foliage to become even denser.
- Cheyenne Common is a reliable, hardy plant reaching 15 ft when mature if not pruned. During the growing season Cheyenne Common provides a solid green wall. During the late fall and winter months, while the foliage may fall the branches remain in place, creating a dense barrier.
Privet has long been a popular choice for hedging and fencing.
Bamboo is a popular plant in many Japanese types of garden. However, they are also a great living fence choice, if you are looking for something a little different.
Bamboo is a quick, easy to grow plant. This means that the plants can quickly fill a space, creating an effective, lush barrier. Best suited to warm gardens, growers in colder areas should choose an evergreen variety. Less hardy Bamboo varieties die back during cold periods, leaving the garden exposed and open.
Be careful if you are planting Bamboo in your garden. Some varieties are considered invasive. When selecting your Bamboo plant, choose a variety that has a clumping growth habit. These are slower to grow and are rarely considered invasive. Alternatively, planting in a large raised planter also helps to control the spread. Planters also provide a permanent low, solid barrier. If you are not sure, consult your local extension office before purchasing your Bamboo plants.
Bamboo is a great choice if you want to make a space more private.
The reliable Yew is another popular living fence choice. A row of Yews can be planted to form a dense, almost impenetrable barrier.
Evergreen plants, Yew plants maintain their shape throughout the year. Hardy and resilient, the Yew grows in most environments and conditions, with a little care. Mature plants can reach a height of 8 to 12 ft, making them an ideal choice for a living fence. Unlike many of the plants on our list, they also have a slow to moderate growth habit, meaning that they are a good, low maintenance choice.
If you choose to add Yews to your garden, be careful when selecting their position. Female Yew plants produce berries that are poisonous if consumed. Keep children and pets away from any Yews you decide to plant in your garden.
Yew trees are popular hedging plants.
Another evergreen plant, Holly is popular for its glossy foliage. This makes it an ideal living fence choice. Holly is also a great choice if you want to add privacy screening around swimming pools or ponds. Unlike many plants, Holly doesn’t shed its leaves or needles, meaning that you won’t have to spend time cleaning plant debris out of the water.
Be careful when selecting Holly plants. Some varieties have a tall and extensive growth habit, making them difficult to contain.
Little Red is a compact Holly choice. When mature, Little Red achieves a height and spread of around 5 ft. It also has a reliable dense growth habit, making it a good living fence choice. A reliable cultivar, Little Red responds well to pruning, meaning that you can shape it into an attractive hedge.
Holly can be used to create a dense barrier.
Rose of Sharon
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), also known as Althea, is a medium sized flowering shrub. Mature plants can reach a height of 8 to 10 ft and a spread of around 5 ft. Rose of Sharon requires regular pruning, as explained in our care guide.
Popular in shrubby borders, thanks to its upright growth habit, during the late spring and summer months red, purple, pink or white flowers emerge. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9, Rose of Sharon is a great choice if you are looking for a colorful plant to use as a privacy screen.
Popular for its upright growth habit, Rose of Sharon is an attractive option.
American Cranberry Bush
The branches of the American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum Compactum) form a dense pattern as they grow and develop. This makes the plant a good choice for a living fence.
A low maintenance choice, American Cranberry Bush is a viburnum cultivar that does not require regular pruning. Instead it naturally maintains a compact, rounded shape, rarely exceeding a height of spread of 4 ft.
Popular for its white flowers and red fruit, which are a popular source of food for garden birds, the plant’s glossy green leaves turn red or purple in the fall, providing further interest. A surprisingly resilient plant, with care and winter protection, American Cranberry Bush can be grown in USDA Zones 2 and warmer.
In addition to the bright red berries, Viburnum cultivars can produce dense foliage which is ideal for hedging.
Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), also known as Horse Apple, is a popular living fence plant in many parts of America. Easy to propagate from seeds or cuttings their thorns deter animals from breaking through.
Osage Orange plants are also versatile, thriving in a range of soil types. Once established the plants are drought resistant. A long lasting plant, while the fruit of the Osage Orange isn’t fit for human consumption, small animals such as squirrels adore the fruit seeds.
Hawthorn plants are another reliable living fence choice. Also known as May Blossom, these small trees have tough thorns that deter trespassers. A great choice for urban gardens, these are elegant ornamental plants that are pleasingly low maintenance.
Popular with garden birds and pollinators, Hawthorn’s edible berries have some medicinal uses while the wood can be used as fuel. Our guide to adding a Hawthorn tree to your garden, will tell you everything that you need to know about these attractive specimens.
Prickly Hawthorn branches remain in place, providing year round structure and security while red berries add interest and serve as a food source for garden wildlife.
A living fence is a great way to introduce natural-looking privacy and structure to a space. As well as providing a pleasing, year round visual display, the structures also benefit your garden and local wildlife.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.