Fence as living mural

Special to The Times

JENNIFER and Appie van der Fluit had a dilemma. Eli, their toddler, was a quick little scamp and the frontyard in which he played faced a fairly busy street in Long Beach. The parents knew peace of mind would come only with a fence or wall. But what kind? Picket? Cinder block? Sandbags and razor wire?

Inspiration came when Jennifer attended a lecture by garden guru Pat Welsh. The topic: mixed-media murals. Welsh’s lecture sparked the idea for a succulent fence. Imagine a wreath made from the low-water plants, only on a grander scale.

To build this one fence, Jennifer and Appie actually installed two. Across the 30-foot-long expanse, they put up parallel lengths of 4-foot-tall chain link, with a 1-foot-wide channel in between, filled with soil. A set of upright posts were positioned every 5 feet outside the chain link to buttress the soil and plants.


Jennifer’s father engineered hooked fiberglass braces that further restrained the fence’s inclination to bulge out. (This isn’t an exact science, though, so gardeners can improvise other ways to prevent the center channel from widening.)

Black shade cloth -- chosen for its sturdiness, ability to breathe and resistance to UV degradation -- was secured to the fencing’s interior surface using recycled twist-ties from bags of bread.

The Van der Fluits used dirt from their backyard as the base material for their soil mix. On the advice of friend and native plant expert Laura Bauer, the couple added redwood mulch (organic material that decomposes slowly) and perlite (for drainage). They packed the soil into the fence frame, the final work performed by young Eli as he tromped the length of the fence in his rubber dinosaur boots.

Jennifer sliced holes in the shade cloth with her pruners and stuck succulent cuttings into the openings, where they quickly rooted.

“Living near the ocean and the aquarium, I wanted the fence to create a sea effect,” says Jennifer, whose home is close to the Aquarium of the Pacific. “I wanted it to look a little bit like waves and tide pools.”

The palette of sea colors includes gray-blue Senecio mandraliscae, which creates a rolling wave effect. The Crassula tetragona lining the fence top reminds some passersby of miniature pine trees along a palisade. Aeonium arboreum and echiveria rosettes suggest sea anemones, cotyledon has its sea-foam leaves and Sedum nussbaumerianum lends tortoise-shell hues.


As the succulents mature, Jennifer takes cuttings and plants them into empty spots.

Watering needs are satisfied with a soaker hose that wends along the top of the fence. Water percolates down through the soil, but occasional hand-watering ensures that the lower plants get their share as well.

After six months and a thousand dollars, the neighbors began to marvel and the soil began to settle. The surface eventually dropped about a foot, spurring Jennifer to replenish and replant. That has been the breadth of the work -- that and chasing Eli around his newly enclosed front yard.


Tony Kienitz is author of “The Year I Ate My Yard.” Please send comments to