Down To Earth

Fences (and walls and hedges) frame the picture


My carpenter and I have been talking about replacing the back fence ever since our dog Nino was alive. His job, for which he was well compensated, was to harry woodchucks along its length to their exit gap behind the compost pile. In Nino’s day the stockade’s red paint was already faded and English ivy reached up, over, and through the slats. In the years since Nino died and Bazil found a home with us, the fence aged further. A couple of years ago my carpenter repaired a couple of breaches with new wood planks, and we stuffed big rocks in the gaps along the ground. Bazil, a devoted and indiscriminate chaser, finally pushed through the rot in hot pursuit of a squirrel.

I always liked that fence. When we were house hunting the four-foot fence and dense thicket of trees behind sold us on a secret-garden feeling of enclosure. The property was also supplied with a thorny hedge of invasive species that spanned the front and side yards. As soon as we took possession we had the front hedge ripped out, and replaced it with a garden border and eventually….a fence.

If I didn’t have a dog running free in the yard I’d still want a fence around the perimeter, if only for the illusion of seclusion. It’s not about unfriendliness. A short, see-through fence made of rails and hog wire like the one we stuck out front offers a visual separation while still inviting neighborly waves and chitchat. A stone wall or low hedge (of non-invasive species preferably) functions the same way. I might be able to hear my neighbors’ conversations, and they ours, but a physical barrier lets us pretend privacy whenever we want to feel invisible in plain sight. I don’t care who can(’t) see me stroll the yard in my pajamas. Maybe if I lived with an open vista out the back door and no neighbors for miles, I wouldn’t need or want a dividing line between personal and public, mine and yours. Or then again, maybe I would. Fences, walls, and hedges have other benefits.

The new fence, raw and unweathered, is such a crisp contrast to the garden that it almost makes the hodgepodge look thoughtfully and artfully planned with discernible textures and harmonious colors (mostly greens at this stage). Spring may get some of the credit — there is still space between plants — but suddenly it’s as if there’s a frame around the picture.
A hedge only wants shearing periodically to frame the garden, or to be a deeper color than the plants in front. That hedges provide habitat, places for birds and other critters to hide from predators, is a total bonus.

New England’s dry stack walls are the ultimate in elegance. Anchors in otherwise kinetic gardens. Stone walls also have the advantage of lasting longer and aging more gracefully than wooden structures. But — and this isn’t a drawback necessarily — as stone walls age, the line tends to blur. A knee-high stack between my driveway and the house has itself become a garden. Climbing snapdragon (Asarina procumbens), sedum, and Chinese dunce cap (Orostachys iwarenge) rooted in its cracks because I deliberately blew their seeds in off my palm or tucked divisions into pockets. Myrtle spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), a buddleia, Atlantic poppy, and rose campion among others, clambered into their own crevices, no help from me.
Our new fence still wants a coat of paint. I’m thinking blue this time instead of red, a color that will silhouette rather than camouflage the ninebark’s (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’) burgundy foliage and complement the orange stems of Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). Meanwhile, the dog’s horizons are limited again. He doesn’t seem to mind. And neither do I.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at

Kristin Green


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.