Traditional fence or borderline hedge?
By Dean Fosdick
Consider a hedge if you’re in need of a fence. When managed properly, hedges cost less, outlast wooden fences, are more attractive than most walls, and produce wildlife- and pollinator-pleasing berries and blooms.
But decide just what it is that you want from a barrier before shopping for supplies.
Standard fencing — aside from the white picket variety — will last a decade or more requiring little if any maintenance. No watering, weeding, fertilizing or shaping required when using treated wood or metal.
But living fences can include a great variety of attractive ornamentals (lilacs, quince, weigela), deciduous shrubs with vibrant foliage in autumn (oak leaf hydrangea, viburnum, sedum) and evergreens (arborvitae, boxwood, yews, hollies) that provide texture and color throughout the year.
All give off different looks or serve multiple functions ranging from security and privacy to establishing boundaries and directing traffic. Some provide nourishment to wildlife, offer sound abatement and visual screening, create shade or serve as windbreaks.
“If you’re making a barrier, it’s a bit more difficult to do it with vegetation,” said Wayne Clatterbuck, with University of Tennessee Forestry Extension. “The main problem with a living fence is maintenance. It wants to grow and spread.”
“Unlike standard fences, hedges don’t provide instant gratification. They take time to mature — to reach the size and shape that you want,” he said.
A regular fence begins fulfilling its function the moment you put your tools away. “But it’s stagnant. It also needs some maintenance and eventually it will need replacing,” Clatterbuck said.
“A living fence is more functional, more appealing,” he said.
To keep a hedge wildlife-friendly, avoid high-maintenance shrubs like formalized boxwoods or topiaries. Many flowering hedges are traditionally pruned but few require it. Birds, animals and beneficial insects favor naturally shaped hedging with pollen-laden blooms, nourishing berries and fruit. Thick hedges with heavy leaf coverage also furnish shelter from storms and protection from predators.
Beware, however, the intimidating family of shrubs — barberry, quince, pyracantha, cactus. Their barbs can be painful to prune and even more uncomfortable to remove.
There are no landscaping rules against blending different plant varieties (evergreens with deciduous shrubs, for instance) or integrating them into commercial fencing (Boston ivy climbing posts and gates, grape vines clinging to walls.) Vines and shrubs soften the look of chain link and privacy fencing.
But living fences should have shrubs appropriate for the environment, said Michael Kuhns, a wildland resources department head with Utah State University.
“Native plants are the way to go if you live in a place that supports them, especially low-water areas,” Kuhns said. “You won’t get lush growth with infrequent precipitation.”
Installing fencing may require permits, and local codes might dictate the height and kinds of materials allowed. Checking with City Hall about fencing restrictions may save you time and money.