The Dry Garden: Picking the perfect fence


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The iconic images of Los Angeles sold to the world typically involve palm trees, beaches and freeways. Those of us who live here, however, know that the true symbol of Southern California is probably a fence. Fences are everywhere. Chain link fences, wrought iron fences, barbed wire fences. Brick, cinderblock and river rock fences. There is so much redwood fencing that it’s a wonder there are any redwoods left.


Leaving aside how ironic it is that there should be outcry about a proposed fence for the home of the mayor of the city of fences, what is rarely considered in our highly framed world is what all this fencing does to plants. That impact is profound.

It’s so customary to fence backyards that pretty much only squirrels and beginner gardeners plant specimen trees on property lines, which in a fenceless world would be the most agreeable place to position them, leaving lovely puddles of light in the center of the yard. But unless it is an espaliered apple or some sort of biddable stone fruit, a tree next to a fence will soon be in trouble. Light and air will be restricted. If your neighbor doesn’t enjoy the shade or fallen leaves, the tree may soon have half a canopy. At the root zone, it might well get mulch and water on one side, and dog pee and weedkiller on the other.

Building a fence around a tree often involves driving post-holes and pouring concrete in a sensitive root zone. Planting a tree near a fence means a deformed habit as the tree struggles for light.

And yet by fences is precisely where we plant most trees, except we call them hedges. Before creating your own line of crammed, regularly buzz-sawed trees, consider how much you love paying yard crews and the hearing the noise, what irrigation will do to the fence footing and whether or not you will have access to the other side for trimming. (The greenery at left looks pretty behind the swirling wrought iron, but it will be a pain -- and a potential danger -- to trim.)

Also consider building codes, which usually classify a hedge as the same as a fence. Hence, with the exception of corner properties, the height of the hedge next to a fence should probably not exceed the fence or be taller than 42 inches in a frontyard, 6 feet in the back.

A depressingly common sight in L.A. are abutting fences -- say, chain link sandwiched against corrugated metal. If you don’t like a fence along your property, consider painting your side rather than layering the barriers. If it’s chain link, try black. A designer trick. Then plant something beautiful on it that requires little pruning and or supplemental irrigation, such as a bougainvillea. Before planting, test the idea with your neighbor. Bring a laptop over and shop together for flower colors.


Or why limit yourself to bougainvillea? It can be any vine you like. Just keep it relatively drought-tolerant because where you water often, you will get weeds. (If you garden around chain link, get a tetanus shot in the event of accidents.)

Tall, solid fences, be they redwood or cinderblock, can create microclimates, leaving cool zones on one side of the property and hot spots on another. So when deciding what to plant, consider that the thirstiest plants might appreciate partial shade. Succulents might do best in the sun trap. As you plant away from a solid fence, think about creating a thicket of native shrubs for birds or a small orchard for yourself.

A fenced yard is like a sheet of paper with sharply demarked edges. As with drawing on paper, the best way to design a garden is to start away from the edges. Use less lawn and more mixed beds.

Around the front of homes, where the legal height of the fence falls, its security value diminishes accordingly. Front fences are generally only good for keeping the dog in or marketers out, or simply to look folksy. Here, by all means, plant right next to a fence. Use it to support trailing roses. Echo some nice material or detail from your home. Put up a hitching post and see if a horse appears.

As charming as a white picket fence can be, it’s rare for a frontyard to look better with a fence than without it. The more frontyards flow in and out of one another, the more generous the impression, the more free-flowing the vista. As galling as this is for a water conservationist to admit, probably the most resistance to frontyard fences comes from people who don’t want to interrupt luxurious expanses of lawn. This is fine if the lawn is used, but if it’s pure ornament, you can find far less wasteful alternatives, including native grasses, succulents or prostrate cultivars of ceanothus or rosemary.

If it’s security you’re after, consider a front fence from paddle cactus. Thorns discourage trespassers. Once established, they need no irrigation. Nopales borders, common in the Southwest, produce ethereal yellow flowers. When they grow too high, you break off a paddle and make salad.


In fact, there’s an idea for the mayor’s house.

-- Emily Green Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow headlines, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.


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