Hedges and Fences (Part 1)

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or, How to Hide from the Neighbors and Google Earth

Why do you need a fence and a hedge? Fences and hedges work together. The fence acts as a placeholder while the hedge grows up around it. The fence tells people where the property line is. The fence corrals kids and dogs. When the hedge grows up, the fence still blocks access through any holes and makes it that much harder to push through the shrubbery.

privacy hedge fences

This wouldn’t happen if Spider-Man was behind a fence

So we moved into the house many years ago and like many houses with small yards (1/4-acre total) in small towns, it was pretty exposed to the streets, the surrounding homes and eyes in the sky. We had little tree cover, mostly from two Norway maples next door (subject to being cut down or pollarded and beyond our control). We had an ugly forsythia hedge on the north that provided cover for birds — and us! — but no nesting or food habitat. We saw sparrows roost there in the winter but no nests were ever seen. The south and west sides were bounded by neighbor’s privet hedges that were routinely pruned to 3 feet high. We were surrounded by two-story houses that overlooked our yard. Lots here are narrow and deep so side yards run from about 12 feet wide to much, much less. Within a few hundred feet on the south is a four-lane divided highway. Within several hundred feet to the west is the Reese factory, clearly visible from any part of our yard. Like the highway and the dentist’s office, it has annoying lights on all night long. Noise issues, light pollution, lack of privacy, and no fence to corral our toddlers and 70-pound dog.

So where do you start? First, have an aluminum chain-link fence installed on the property line. Enclose as much of the total yard as you can, including the entire back yard (behind the house) and any side yards right up to the front edge of your house. Many locations won’t let you fence the front portion of your yard other than with traditional pickets or wrought iron. There are ways around this to keep your yard from being open access to any passerby and we will get to this later.

When you have the chain link installed, make sure to get a double gate facing the street. This will allow you to get a vehicle into the yard for renovations, car washing, or what have you. Get regular people gates as well; we have two, one on each side of the property. The standard lift up gate opening device can be locked with a padlock or just held closed with a carabiner. This will keep tots in and make it harder for someone to casually, accidentally open the gate and let your dog out.

Why aluminum chain link? I will state upfront that it is utilitarian in appearance. It is also not expensive considering that it will last forever and is pretty much maintenance-free. Wooden fences have to be regularly restained or repainted, and rotted posts and sections replaced. Plastic fencing looks very nice: at first! However, it eventually gets brittle and breaks. Unlike wood, it can’t be repaired. Broken sections must be replaced and plastic will break. Wrought-iron is beautiful, must be repainted occasionally and is stunningly expensive. Even better and even more expensive is a 6-foot masonry wall topped with broken glass. Even if we could have afforded this, the township would never have gone for it.

So we are back to chain link. Get a 4-foot high fence, higher if you can afford it and it meets local code. Sometimes, you can run a 6- or 7-foot tall section along the back of your property if it runs along a road or a wilderness area. We had to get chain link with a green vinyl coating to meet local requirements. I wasn’t happy with the extra bucks this cost but it does disappear better from a distance, and it vanished into the hedges far better than regular aluminum would have.

Get the chain-link fence in place first thing, along the property line. You don’t want to put in a hedge and then find out later you needed a fence too. It is pretty hard to retrofit any kind of long lasting fencing into shrubbery. After the fence is installed (very handy people can tackle this as a DIY project; we paid a fence company) consider your hedges.

Hedging Your Property

Work out the orientation of your property, any really bad views (factory, highway, dentist office), overlooking houses (second story balcony in narrow side yard) or other things you want to screen out. Look at the power lines: where are they? How high up are they? What is the path of the sun over your house? Where do you need to put those shade trees that will cut your air conditioning bills? How do you feel about a regular, four times a year — or more — pruning schedule? All of this will help determine your hedge plants. Starting with a barren rectangle does give plenty of freedom in choosing your landscape. You won’t have to cut anything down and your hedge can be mixed use providing screening, security and food production.

You want to plant the hedges as soon as the fence is in and you know what plants you want. Why so soon? Hedges, like any other plant, take time to grow. Plant the hedges when you move in next door to that quiet old lady and when she passes the house onto the loud, hard partying, drug running teenagers your green wall will be well on its way to six feet tall. Don’t forget that any shrub can be planted in a row to make a hedge. Many shrubs will also give you bonus flowers, fruit, nuts and fall color. And, even better, many shrubs come equipped with thorns. If you want to keep people out and still have an attractive screen, a tall thorny hedge of roses works very well.

Next Week: Plants Ideal for Privacy Fences