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Principles for fencing in landscape design

What type of fencing does the landscape need?

One of the reasons that fences can present challenges in landscaping is that the fencing style installed is not optimal for the intended aesthetic. Considerations to take into account when selecting fencing include height, style and materials – and much of the time, these choices come down to the required levels of privacy and security. The wrong choices can lead to a claustrophobic or unnecessarily shaded landscape.

Privacy can be artfully created

The first thing to establish is what level of privacy is required. In public spaces such as playgrounds, for instance, ‘suggested’ privacy is more appropriate than full or even moderate levels. While security is important (parents need to be able to keep tabs on their children), a high level of screening is not – fencing is used to create an impression of separateness from the surroundings without hiding anything from view. This is in contrast to a private garden, but even here, the style of development could have an impact on decision making.

How to use fencing for privacy

Sometimes, security is a significant factor on a development – whether it’s during construction, when site hoarding panels may be erected, or for a walled community. However, where this isn’t the case, privacy can be artfully created by mixing fencing, hedging and border plantings, avoiding the appearance of a barricade. Why use fences when plants will do?

It’s important that the landscape architect is able to work creatively with the brief and the space to maximise the impression of openness – because humans respond negatively to the feeling of being enclosed.

Try to incorporate fencing into the design to provide privacy and a sense of openness.
It is important to maintain a balance between security and privacy, and a sense of openness.

Why plant along a fence line?

When a fence has been erected for privacy purposes, one might ask why planting the fence line is important. In fact, there are several reasons. Firstly, depending on the surrounding area, fencing alone is not sufficient to block noise pollution or act as a barrier to strong winds. In both cases, plants can fill the gap.

More than that, plants are able to soften the often harsh hardscaping appearance – or, in the case of less attractive but practical fences, to camouflage them altogether. Fence line planting should be given careful consideration, so that it blends well with the rest of the landscape design. Repetition of key plants can create a sense of unity and flow, for instance. The type of fence installed also has a bearing on planning – for wooden fences, plants should not be planted too close to the line, so as to facilitate easy access to the fence for necessary maintenance.

What to plant along a fence line for privacy

To add further screening, select plants whose eventual mature height will exceed that of the fence, and which boast dense foliage or needles, year-round if possible. On the other hand, it’s best to avoid those susceptible to limb breakage in strong wind, in order to minimise the likelihood of damage to the fence if branches fall. Sometimes hedging plants answer best – Boxwood is a perennial favourite, but a judicious mixture of native species is a wonderful option which will create both a wildlife haven and an attractive, semi-formal aesthetic. Another option is Thuja Occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ (White Cedar Emerald), a stunning slender conifer which is resistant to drought, cold and wind and responds well to firm pruning. Not only this, but it leaves plenty of space for colourful underplanting.

If screening at a higher level is required, such as in residential blocks where rooms may be overlooked, privacy is best afforded by the judicious planting of leafy deciduous trees such as Maple – the crown will effectively block a view, whilst providing a wonderful focal point in the landscape.

If the main aim is to soften or partially conceal the fence, climbers work brilliantly. Wooden fencing makes an ideal foil for creepers such as ivy, for example, which will work their way into natural crevices as they climb. Other stunning evergreen climbers to try include the truly stunning Star jasmine, with its delicate white flowers, an evergreen clematis, chocolate vine or Japanese honeysuckle.

At ground level, use a mixture of species of various sizes and with contrasting foliage (Photinia, Euonymus  and Nandina domestica are great places to start for their leaves of varying hues). This will create texture in the landscape. Ensure that you have included species for all seasons, too. Mix evergreen shrubs (try Ceanothus ‘Concha’ for a dazzling late spring display of vivid blue flowers, and Garrya eliptica which creates a winter wonderland of drooping silvery tassels) and ground cover with long-lasting perennials and bedding plants to bring wonderful dashes of colour at all times of year.

Star jasmine covering a fence
Star jasmine used to cover a fence, softening the straight edges and creating a natural aesthetic.

Thematic fence line planting

Different fence styles have different connotations. A picket fence, for instance, conjures up a cottage garden full of rambling wild flowers, whilst metal railings – estate, ball or bow top – evoke a more formal (though not necessarily severe) approach. The important thing is to ensure the planting at the fence line ties in with the development’s design as a whole.

Ensure the planting at the fence line ties in with the development’s design as a whole

If the brief aims for modern lines and atmosphere, try staining or painting wooden fences dark colours as a backdrop for well placed ’pops’ of colour. Meanwhile, for a timeless and elegant frontage, pair painted metal railings with stylised borders, including topiary trees and other architectural plants, such as phormiums. A cottage garden aesthetic works well with a picket fence, or – where more privacy is required – slatted horizontal fencing or trellises, complete with rambling roses and an abundance of informally planted, brightly coloured flowers overspilling paths and walkways (try phlox, pinks, hardy geraniums, aquilegias, delphiniums and lupins).

Even an unromantic retaining wall can become an attractive landscape feature, if used as a raised bed and planted to match the landscape’s theme, so as to make a living natural boundary.

Plants for the shady side

If the chosen fencing is going to block sunlight, it’s important to select plants which will thrive in its shade. A fence creates a microclimate, and it’s important to bear its ramifications in mind. Some will be positive – extra shelter means tall perennials may not require staking, for instance – while others will be less so.

Theevergreen Osmanthus burkwoodii is a great choice for a shady fence line. Its glossy, dark green leaves are attractive in their own right, but it is the beauty and scent of its spring flowers that make it a point of interest.

Many of the climbers will do well in shade, too – for interesting foliage try Chinese Virginia creeper, and for wonderful blooms, the rambling rose ‘Wedding Day’ is a winner.

Use ferns and ornamental grasses for a great textural mix and, if colour is required, complement with beautiful flowering shrubs like fuchsia, and perennials such as iris and forget-me-not.

Get in the zone

Fencing can also be used to artificially ‘break up’ a landscape into areas with separate functions. Here the hardscaping can become a feature on its own merit. Two of the best options for creating zones are classic square or lattice trellis, and more modern slatted screening.

This also allows for thematic changes across different areas, so that a more formally landscaped garden does not prevent the creation of a cosier, flower-filled bower for socialising or eating, for example.

Match your plant choices to the fence type to create unity of design, such as rambling flowers in a cottage garden with a picket fence. Photo by Jakob Søby on Unsplash.

Planning for success

The right fencing choices, complemented by the right plants, can make all the difference to a landscape – from the kerb appeal created by stylish railings and artfully placed roses at a residential project, to the use of unobtrusive fencing to maintain an open vista whilst creating separate areas in public spaces. This is why it’s so important that your development’s hardscaping and soft landscaping are planned hand in hand.

For advice on your fencing needs, get in touch with one of our friendly experts – or check out our webpage. We are always happy to help!

Feature image by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.