Home & Garden

Living fence divides and delights

Sometimes a gardener needs a little privacy or a boundary. The typical solution? Throw up the ubiquitous wooden fence.

A living fence is an appealing alternative, a wall of plants that draws a more friendly line in the sand. It may not be as instant as a built fence, but it brings color and texture to the garden.

Shrubs, including roses, better-behaved clumping bamboos and other grasses can be used to create living partitions or screens in varying sizes and styles. Walk and sit in your garden to determine the best height for your needs. Six to 10 feet often affords privacy; a 2- to 4-foot hedge allows over-the-fence conversation and helps delineate areas. A formal, clipped, single-variety hedge suits traditional homes and gardens. An informal living fence of single or mixed varieties, allowed to grow naturally, would complement a cottage setting.

Evergreens provide year-round screens but deciduous plants can boost seasonal interest. Flowering and berrying shrubs will attract wildlife. Those with fragrant blooms are a sensory bonus.

Among the many plants to consider:

Abelia, Abelia grandiflora. This evergreen forms a 4- to 6-foot hedge of glossy leaves that are bronze when new, dark green in summer and bronze again in fall. Bell-shaped, pinkish-white blooms linger spring to fall.

Viburnum spp. Two choices in this underused genus are 'Awabuki,' with large, lustrous leaves that form an evergreen 15-foot-tall backdrop for white spring flowers; and 'Walter's', whose small, dense foliage creates a pest-free, virtually impenetrable 12- to 15-foot screen with fragrant clusters of white spring blooms. It may sucker.

Leucothoe, Leucothoe populifolia. This arching glossy evergreen has fragrant bell-shaped white blooms clustered along the branches in late spring. It grows slowly to 12 feet.

Chinese fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum. Burgundy foliage and fringy, fuchsia-pink blooms have made this low-care shrub popular. It grows to 12 feet or more, but dwarf varieties are available.

Japanese yew, Podocarpus macrophyllus. This evergreen is not a true yew but serves well as a dense fence with blue-gray fruit. It reaches 15 or more feet; shorter varieties are available.

'Bright 'N Tight' cherry laurel. A wildlife attraction, this 10-foot variety has shiny leaves, sweet white blooms and black berries.

Southern wax myrtle, Myrica cerifera. This billowy 12- to 20-foot native has aromatic olive-green leaves and blue-gray berries.

Elaeagnus, Elaeagnus pungens. A tough, fast grower for xeriscapes, this 8-foot evergreen has silvery-white leaves, fragrant tiny flowers and orange-red fruit. Allow it to billow 8 feet or espalier it. Compact forms are available.

Japanese boxwood, Buxus microphylla japonica. This dense evergreen is a favorite for low-to-medium hedges.

Holly, Ilex spp. Look for evergreen or deciduous females with red fruit. Evergreens include yaupon holly (varieties are 2 to 20 feet), 'Greenleaf' (25 feet) and 'Burford' (8-10 feet). The deciduous possumhaw holly, I. decidua, matures to about 15 feet.

Pineapple guava, Feijoa sellowiana. This 12-foot evergreen has a lot to offer: silvery pubescent new growth; mature leathery, greenish-blue foliage; fuzzy red and white blooms, and tasty fruit.

Planting time

Fall and winter are ideal planting times. Meet sun and soil requirements. Enrich the soil with compost, and plant at the same depth the shrub grew in its container.

To plant a straight hedge, mark the center of the planting area with a line tied between two stakes. Dig holes beneath this center line for a single-row hedge. Stagger holes on both sides of the center line to plant a double-row living wall.

Space the holes according to the plant species, growth rate, mature size and hedge style. Formal, clipped hedges often are planted 1-to-2 feet apart for a more immediate, dense impact. Space plants at least 3-4 feet apart for an informal look. Plant in repeating groups of three to five to create a mixed living fence in larger gardens.

Make sure your living wall:doesn't extend into your neighbor's space.

Pruning tips

Trim informal living fences stem by stem to maintain a more natural shape.

Trim tightly planted formal hedges so plant tops are more narrow than the bottoms. This allows sun and air to penetrate, encouraging dense growth.