Create privacy and drama with a living fence

The wide open spaces might sound romantic or even desirable to us. But, even though America is a vast country, most of us only own and occupy a small portion of it. One or two acres are now described by Realtors as “large lots” and most homes occupy much smaller lots. We can sometimes resent the lack of privacy that can occur when homes are built closer together, so today I will help you think of ways to use landscaping to define your boundaries and perhaps create an oasis of calm and tranquility around your home! “Fences make good neighbors.” It’s an old saying that still holds true today. Fences keep small children safely on your property ‘and dogs off the neighbors’ property! You might feel that fences are ugly, plain and stark. Ah… but what if it was a living, growing fence’ Not all fences need to be made of wood, steel or brick. You can create a living boundary by planting a thicket of small trees or shrubs. (Of course, you might also need to install a “regular” fence behind your plants to keep dogs and kids safely in your yard or away from a pool area.) In addition to defining your boundary, a living fence provides a habitat for birds and other wildlife, buffers traffic noise, and deflects wind gusts from your more delicate plants. First of all, it is essential to do a little survey work. Nothing is more frustrating than planting a beautiful hedge along what you thought was your property line… only to have a neighbor insist later that you dig it up and move it twelve inches away from his land. Take a look in that file of papers that you haven’t opened since you bought your house. There’s probably an official survey in there somewhere. You will need to determine the precise location of your property line. Any easements or setbacks’ Any buried utility lines’ Building codes that affect fence construction’ I can only urge you to check with your city or municipality before you start! In any case, I always recommend placing a fence (living or otherwise) several inches inside your property line to be on the safe side. A fence can be far more than just something that defines the perimeter of your property. You can also use living fences to create screens that surround a patio, hide a shed or add drama to an otherwise “dull” area. Once you’ve determined your property, sit down with a pad and pencil and sketch out a rough plan of the area where you’d like to create your living fence. In previous columns, I’ve discussed the planning process more fully. You can find an archive of columns by going to my web site and clicking on “The Plant Man” in the index. I have some suggestions for shrubs that work particularly well for hedges and screens. ‘ Old Fashion Lilac (Syringa vulgaris). I really enjoy the large, fragrant blossoms that appear in May. It’s a deciduous shrub with attractive dark green foliage, and works best in locations where it can catch a fair amount of sun. At maturity, Lilac can be anywhere from 8 to 15 feet high. It has moderate water requirements and a moderate salt & alkali tolerance. ‘ Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Sometimes you’ll find it described as Dwarf Winged Euonymus or Cork Tree, just to be confusing. It has dark green leaves from spring through summer that turn bright, clear red in fall. But it’s attractive year-round because the corky ridges on its flat, horizontal branches make this an interesting plant in winter, too. Plant them spaced about 4 feet apart in fairly ordinary soil with average moisture, and you’ll get a dense, compact thicket that needs virtually no pruning. ‘ Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Here’s an ideal addition to your Lilac or Burning Bush hedge. Purple coneflower is a moderate growing shrub with fragrant lilac blossoms that generally appear in May. I also like the attractive green foliage and I think it makes a charming screen. Interestingly, it’s also used as an herb. Purple Coneflower has a mature height of between 3 and 6 feet. Those are just three suggestions. There are a number of plants and small trees that are ideal for screening and living fences. I’m happy to provide you with some personal suggestions that will work best in your growth zone. Send an e-mail to me at and I’ll do my best to help. In a future column, I’ll have some ideas for creative planting layouts for your living fence, to avoid the boring “straight line” effect. I’ll also discuss the use of wood, brick and stone, and how to incorporate these “hard” landscaping materials with your tree and shrub screens. Meanwhile, I encourage you to visit my web site where you can find numerous helpful articles and direct “click through” links to other resources. The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to steve@ and for resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit

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