During my last vacation on the coast of Maine, I admired many beautiful gardens. Many of them had hedges or fences, more than I’m used to seeing in rural New Hampshire.
When settlers first arrived in New England, they dug rocks left by glaciers some 10,000 years earlier. They piled them up to clear agricultural fields and began making stone walls to define property lines and contain animals – or keep them out. Gradually, dry stone masons learned to make them beautiful and last forever.
Building a stone wall or retaining wall is difficult and expensive work to have someone else build. If you want to build your own, remember three things: First, the ground moves in winter when it freezes and thaws. It can cause walls to collapse if not properly constructed. Wallers have learned to add drainage under and around a wall – at least a foot of 1 inch crushed stone in a trench under the wall works well. The round pebbles will act like ball bearings, allowing the stones to move.
Each stone must hit four others, two below, two above. The stones should not be stacked on top of each other, as the bricks are laid. This helps to tie it all together and prevent movement.
Finally, use a long string to keep the wall straight and level. Or if you are creating a curved wall, define it carefully before you begin. You can place a garden hose on the ground to help define the curve.
The first settlers also made acacia fences. I spoke to Crow Boutin who makes a living making acacia fences in the Kennebunk, Maine area. These fences are simple: he cuts lengths of fresh yellow birch one to two inches in diameter. He first made “pencils” which he drove into the ground with a hammer after having cut them to length and sharpened them with an ax. Then he weaves 8 to 10-foot-long pieces of birch between the vertical pencils that he space about 16 inches apart. The tension of the curved rods holds the fence in place. Simple? You bet, and something you could try.
But why do people need fences or hedges? Some are just for the look or to create a backdrop for the flowers. Others are meant to prevent others from looking into the yard or to keep animals inside (or outside). Let’s take a look at a few I’ve seen.
The most beautiful fences I saw were white palisades. Maybe I like them because my grandfather had one, and I remember them from my youth. They show the flowers well and allow climbers to climb on them. But usually you have to pay someone to install them and, as Tom Sawyer knew, you have to paint them from time to time. Now, these fences are available in a variety of materials including fiberglass or plastic which do not require painting.
Living fences – called hedges – come in a variety of species. Evergreen hedges like yew or arborvitae can look great in both summer and winter, but are often eaten by deer. Hemlock and pine are less likely to be predestined by deer, but they will grow to be 60 feet tall unless pruned every year – and most escape somehow and get big.
Rugosa roses are commonly used as hedges on the coast of Maine. They will grow in sandy soil and produce copious, fragrant flowers and beautiful red berries in the fall. But they look run down over time and are not green in winter. Their thorns prevent people and pets from cutting corners in the yard.
Lilacs look great when they flower and have beautiful green leaves 8 or 9 months of the year, but do little to block the view of your home and garden in the winter. They do best in soft soil, so add limestone every year or three to keep them flowering well. Lilacs also need pruning or they can get lanky.
The split rail fence is usually made of cedar, which lasts a long time – up to 20 years. It creates a rustic look, but doesn’t prevent animals from entering or block the view of the curious neighbor. It will keep cars from parking on your lawn and can support vines like roses or clematis.
Less common fences include palisades – tall wooden fences that block any view of the yard. What you need if you like to sunbathe naked in the garden and have a close neighbor. Certainly not a friendly signal to the neighbors. Iron fences, wire fences, and chain link fences all have their uses, but I can’t imagine having one installed.
Finally, there is the deer fence. Many gardeners use them to grow vegetables, or to have tulips in the spring. These days there are woven plastic fences that are inexpensive and available in 8 foot widths that work well to keep deer out. You can install them yourself on poles or stakes that you cut in the forest. They work – unless you leave the door open! Me? I have depended on having dogs to scare wildlife for many years. They did the job well, although I am now looking to adopt a dog as a corgi, Daphne passed away a year ago. And I love dogs too, which I can’t say for the fences
Henry is an UNH Master Gardener and author of four gardening books. Send an email to [email protected]