‘Living Fence’ Alternative for Gardens

by Pam Roy, edited by Bruce Gaudette
August 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 space.  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) seperated 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:

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

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

Bullet  Myrica californica (Pacific Was 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.

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

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

Bullet  Prunus luitanica (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.

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

Bullet  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 pyrachantha.

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

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