What, exactly, is a green fence? In England, country roads are lined with tightly woven hedgerows. In NYC, containerized tapestry hedges establish the boundaries between rooftop gardens. Both of these are green fences, created with living plants.
Yes, a green fence serves many of the same purposes that a wood or metal fence does, but a living fence offers so much more. The roots of a living fence protect the soil and reduce erosion. The foliage of a living fence provides shade and creates a windbreak for your garden or yard. The branches of a living fence offer wildlife habitat to birds, toads, and small mammals. (Bonus: inviting birds, toads, squirrels, and chipmunks into your yard may decrease the population of rodents and insects that can damage your garden.) Living fences act as a sound barrier. And when well cared for, they are more beautiful and durable than any manufactured fence could ever be.
Sure, you could plant a green fence with a single plant species, but why not choose a combination of evergreen and deciduous shrubs, small trees, and vines? The result will be a tapestry of different foliage shapes and colors, punctuated by flowers, cones, and fruits.
A few things to consider before you get started:
- Think about the ultimate height you’d like your living fence to be. Plants that naturally grow to approximately that height will require less pruning.
- Consider the mature width of the plants you choose. A green fence requires close spacing (for privacy’s sake), but not so close that you risk crowding the roots of the plants. A minimum of 12-24” between root balls is necessary to avoid root crowding.
- Close spacing limits the air circulation among the leaves of a living fence, which means that plants prone to fungal and mildew diseases aren’t your best choices (like common lilac, ninebarks, and some roses).
- Evergreen trees and shrubs provide year-round privacy, but deciduous trees offer the bonus of colorful flowers and seasonal foliage.
- Some trees don’t respond well to the type of pruning required for a green fence. Pines, junipers, and cedars are better used in natural, loosely planted lines of trees. A green fence requires precise trimming two or three times a year [late winter and early summer] to maintain its shape. And don’t forget to keep the hedge wider at the base than at the top, so sun can reach those lower branches.
- Remember to avoid plants listed as invasive in our area. Plants like butterfly bush, ivy, barberry, scotch broom and even vinca major/ minor might seem well-suited to a green fence, but they are considered noxious weeds in Oregon.
How long your living fence takes to fully grow will depend on how big your plants are when you plant them. If you want a green fence that’s six to eight feet tall, consider starting with plants at least four feet tall. Or, if you have patience and want to save money, start with smaller plants that will take longer to grow in and knit together.
Below are a list of plants that all adapt well to the spacing and pruning required by a green fence.
For Color Lovers
The color-loving gardener will enjoy both the fragrant white flowers of firethorn (Pyracantha species) in spring, and the colorful fruit (yellow, orange, or red) in fall. Firethorns flowers attract pollinators to your garden, and the fruit provides food for birds. Firethorn grows best in full sun and is very drought tolerant once established. It grows up to 24” per year.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is another excellent choice for gardeners who love lots of colorful bloom. It flowers from midsummer through mid fall. Flowers may be single or double and come in a wide range of colors. They grow 12-24” per year and are best planted in full sun with regular soil moisture.
Clematis (Clematis species) flowers are large, showy, and come in a wide range of colors. They’re well suited to hedge growing because they thrive with their roots in the shade and their vines in the sun. After you’ve planted your trees and shrubs, add clematis vines at the base of your hedge and train them up and over the taller plants.
For Privacy Seekers
For the privacy loving gardener, Hollies (Ilex species) have glossy, evergreen foliage that creates a year round screen. Female shrubs produce decorative fruit as long as you plant at least one male among your female shrubs. Holly foliage may dry out in winter winds, so use them in protected areas. They grow best in full to part sun with regular soil moisture. Growth rate depends on the species and may vary from 10 – 20” per year.
For The Modern Gardener
For the bold, modern gardener, deciduous red and yellow twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) offer outstanding winter interest, when their leaves fall to expose a brightly colored network of branches. The structure of these plants is sculptural and striking. These shrubs can grow 24” per year and are happiest in part shade to full sun with regular soil moisture.
For Low Maintenance
The laid back gardener will appreciate the low-maintenance Arbovitae (Thuja species), a classic, evergreen hedge plant. Taller varieties (like ‘Green Giant’) are best used as specimens or in more loosely planted rows, while smaller varieties (like ‘Emerald Green) can be kept to hedge height with regular pruning. Growth rate varies widely depending on the species; ‘Emerald Green’ averages approximately 6” per year.
Green fences require commitment from the gardener. You’ll need to prune several times a year, and keep an eye open for pests and disease, which can multiply quickly in closely planted areas. But the beauty of a lush, green fence more than compensates for the extra labor. You’ll be rewarded with a living work of art, a unique tapestry woven from foliage and flowers that will grace your landscape for years.