On the Fence

– Posted in: Garden Design

Solid-board fence Ondra garden Emmaus Spring 01I’ve tried out and enjoyed many kinds of fences in my gardens over the years. In my last garden, I ended up with a variety of styles, but because they were all either white or green, they all seemed to work together. Not long before I decided to sell that house, I had a beautifully built solid-board fence installed to permanently enclose the garden, and Mom and I stained it a pretty mossy green. Boy, do I miss that fence—almost as much as the garden, I think.

The style that most speaks to my heart, though, is a classic picket fence. I’m not really sure why—perhaps it’s because it provides a definite sense of enclosure while still allowing the plants to peek through, so it’s friendly and welcoming too. In my last garden, Mom built many, many feet of picket fence for me. She designed it so the posts were set in the ground but the individual panels could be lifted out for easier painting. Here, I have a relatively limited amount of broad-board picket fencing. Part of it encloses two sides of the kitchen garden, and part of it extends along my holding beds to enclose one part of the lowest pasture. It’s now stained to match the house, and it’s rustic enough to fit in with the rural setting. If money were no object, I’d rather like to have more of it.

Enclosed kitchen garden Spring 03

My most favorite kind of fence, however, is the classic white, narrow-picket fence. Normally I’m not fond of anything white, but where enclosure is involved, any kind of white picket fence just speaks “garden” to me. Clean, brilliant, just-painted white is my preference, but I’m also quite fond of long-weathered, grayish white as well, depending on the setting. If you too are a fan of white picket fences, you really need to visit Robin’s blog at A Bumblebee Garden. Her enclosed garden, as shown in this post, for example, is absolutely exquisite. Simply looking at pictures of it makes me happy, and living with a garden like that every day must be bliss.

Courtyard fence Aug 15 07Most of the fencing I have in my current garden is a rustic-style split-rail fence with cedar posts and hardwood rails, also stained to match the house and outbuildings. It suits the site and serves the purpose of visually separating different areas while still allowing the inner gardens to be visible from the road—at least for the earlier part of the growing season. Its function is mostly decorative, though: It doesn’t keep out any critters (well, I suppose it does deter wandering deer, but they could easily clear the 5-foot height if they wished); it doesn’t provide any wind protection; and it’s not really conducive to growing vines against unless I add some chicken-wire, netting, or wires to it for the vines to grab onto. (For a fantastic example of how to have the open feeling of a rail fence with a more-practical form of enclosure, check out Pam’s front-yard fence at her blog Digging. You can see some photos of it here, among other places on her site.)

Side garden rail fence Sept 27 07

The other problem with rail fence—which I very much wish I had thought of before having many hundreds of feet of it installed—is the maintenance it requires. If it weren’t for Mom, I seriously doubt I’d have ever gotten it all stained the first time, and it sure could do with another coat now. I’d paint a nice, smooth picket fence any day, but slapping stain onto rough rails simply isn’t high on my fun-to-do list. Even more tedious than that, though, is the trimming required around every post and along the entire extent of rails—not to mention the nightmare of trying to maintain grass on one side and garden on the other, which requires cutting the edge at least once a year to keep them separate.

Driveway fence with Amsonia hubrichtii and Viburnums Oct 19 07

Well, working on the low-maintenance principle (getting rid of the boring stuff you don’t like to do, not the fun stuff such as planting and puttering), I soon figured out a way to deal with that annoying edge: adding plantings outside of the fence too. So now I’m left with one simple turf edge to maintain, rather than having to continually cut around each post and along the rails. I suppose one could argue that the time required to create the outside-of-the-fence borders far exceeds the time I’d spend trimming. This “planting through” approach also makes the fence even more of a simple decorative element than a form of enclosure. But it’s provided a brilliant excuse for making even more borders, and for that reason alone, I’d say that fence has been worth any amount of trouble!

TDF border 3 weeks after planting mid July 05

TDF border early Oct 05

TDF border from road Oct 19 07

And to finish, a reminder to check out the comments section of the December 1 post for the Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop. You’ll find links to posts by several participants about their own garden fences and walls. Check them out, then feel free to add your own!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

Latest posts by Nancy J. Ondra (see all)

GET UPDATES
Sign up and receive our latest garden inspiration straight to your inbox.
Previous Post:
Next Post:

Comments on this entry are closed.

Lisa at Greenbow December 9, 2007, 6:32 am

Nan, could you just leave your spilt rail alone and let it go natural. Our neighbor had a split rail for 20+ years and it looked great, to me. I guess it is what you want it to look like. Staining that much fence must be a tedious task.

Yep, Lisa, I think that’s what’s going to happen, unless Mom gets the urge to stain it again. (She actually *likes* doing painting and staining–apparently it’s a meditative activity for her.) It seemed important to me at the beginning that everything tie together visually, but now the plants pretty much cover up the fence anyway, so it doesn’t really bother me.
-Nan

Lisa at Greenbow December 9, 2007, 10:17 am

Nan, I have written my 2cnts worth regarding fences. I don’t really know how to link it through a comment if you would not mind to do that for me. People are giving lots of good advice.
~ Lisa

Will do! Readers can find your post here. Thanks, Lisa!
-Nan

Mr. McGregor's Daughter December 9, 2007, 2:29 pm

The split rail fence is perfect visually for a rural rustic setting. I guess you never know whether you like something until you live with it for a while. So will you be putting in a picket fence at your next garden?

I’m pretty much hoping my current garden is also my last one, so at this point, I can’t even bear to think of what I’d do somewhere else!
-Nan

Bonnie December 9, 2007, 9:17 pm

Beautiful photos and I love all of your variety of fence types. They seem to really work well in the different settings.

Welcome, Bonnie, and thanks for the comment!
-Nan

Brent December 10, 2007, 2:32 am

Nice fence photos. I sure am enjoying GGW!

On another, related, topic: Does everybody have the same reaction to vinyl fence that I have?

Some neighbors were proudly installing a white picket vinyl fence the other day and it made think that the neighborhood was on the way downhill.

Is it the plasticy sheen, the hyper uniform features of factory-produced 8′ panels, the unyielding smoothness, or the environmental cost that turns me off so much?

Hey there, Brent. Good question about the vinyl fence. Apart from the envornmental issue, I don’t mind them when they’re brand new. Within a few months, though, they start to look dingy, and within a year or so, they start turning greenish with algae–and not a nice green, either! So it seems to me that they actually need lots of maintenance if you want to keep them looking good (well, clean, anyway).
-Nan

Pam/Digging December 10, 2007, 2:42 am

No matter the maintenance, that fence and arbor (with the swag of morning glories) is gorgeous! It looks perfect in your rural setting.

By the way, thanks for the shout-out on my own rail fence. I’m thinking about posting about my fence for this topic, but I already posted all my fence photos last time, it seems. ;-)

I certain that I’m not the only one who wouldn’t mind seeing those photos again in a post specifically about your fence, if you wanted to do that. But surely you didn’t use all of your fence pictures already?
-Nan

Frances December 10, 2007, 6:37 am

I agree with Lisa about the staining of fences. On the vinyl fence though, do they come in other colors besides white? Maybe a color that looks like the weathered gray/brown of wood? I would consider that product, especially for a large perimeter fence. It is still better in white than the chain link I have at the top of my hill.

I Googled “vinyl fence colors,” and it seems that they mostly make light colors because dark colors absorb too much heat and increase the chance of warping and sagging. I did see some photos of a decent-looking brown and medium gray, but I wonder how they hold up over the years. Apparently there are also some paints for PVC fencing, but that would eliminate the “no-maintenance” angle, I’d think!
-Nan

Angela (Cottage Magpie) December 10, 2007, 2:17 pm

What gorgeous photos! I love the “planting through” technique you are using, and I think you’re right to just let the wood weather. Staining–ech!

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the fence article on my site includes pictures of my own picket fence and links to more pictures of the cottage-style garden it encloses.

~Angela :-)

Your fence photos are great too, Angela. I encourage everyone to check out your post here!
-Nan

Robin (Bumblebee) December 11, 2007, 7:42 pm

Wow. Thanks for the very kind compliment on my garden picket fence. I am working for the garden to be worthy of the great fence and fabulous raised beds now!!! The idea is to make it as much like a Colonial kitchen garden as possible–without being overly prissy or slavish about what goes in. That means mixing flowers and vegetables, among other things. I really need to write more about the idea sometime.

FYI, the direct link to lots of fence photos is: http://bumblebeeblog.com/journal/2007/11/7/nine-months-in-a-bumblebee-garden-110707.html

Robin (Bumblebee)

I think the structure of your garden is fantastic, and it’s the perfect setting for a Colonial kitchen garden. Thanks for providing the link, Robin!
-Nan

Robin December 12, 2007, 8:56 pm

Nan, I was sitting there tonight reading a gardening book that I had recently picked up from the library and saw the name Nancy Ondra on the book. I thought the name was familiar to me so I came to the computer to check, sure enough, it was you. The book is The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, I’m just getting started, but already enjoying it.

Yep, that’d be me. I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying it, Robin!
-Nan

Kim December 13, 2007, 3:37 pm

Wow.. what great pictures of your fences, Nan! (And that amsonia–I believe–planted beneath the split rail has to be amazing in the fall. Wow.) By the way, if your Mom needs some more meditation time, I would be happy to have her help in Cleveland next spring! ;)

(Frances… don’t do it. I’ve seen vinyl fencing 3 years on and it doesn’t look nearly as nice as painted wood, not to mention the damage caused by the environmental disaster that is PVC. Even if you keep it clean there is still splitting/cracking and such.)

Nice try, Kim, but I have Mom on an exclusive lifetime contract. Or, as we tell neighbors who invite us over to work in their gardens: “Sure, we’ll be right over–as soon as we’re all finished our work here!”
-Nan

Bonnie December 13, 2007, 10:44 pm

Thanks for this post and inspiring me to think about fences and what they do to the feel of our garden. I’ll definitely follow up with a post regarding mine.

Super, Bonnie! Here’s a direct link to your post “Fear is the Highest Fence” so others can find it. Thanks!
-Nan