Pacific Northwest | February 22, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 22, home
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Good Fences are making good neighbors with color, form and texture
This living mulch fence in Langley's downtown city park is made of wooden posts and hog-guard fencing. The layers of plants absorb noise, and are fragrant with old flowers and eucalyptus clippings. Out the bottom of the fence comes compost.
Jay Ward designed this elegant openwork fence to suit the style of his home near Madison Park. In summer, his wife, Lindy, threads red and cream-colored roses between its white boards.
FOR YEARS I've thought of fences as mere scaffolds for vines, but lately I've been noticing fences so good looking it'd be a shame to cover them up. All too often we gardeners try to solve every dilemma with plants, but fences provide color, texture, backdrop and privacy in much less space than a hedge. Plus, they don't need to be pruned, watered or fertilized.

For a lesson in non-oppressive fencing, look to the Japanese for bamboo fences that are masterworks of naturalism. Even though they form a screen as solid as a brick wall, these simple, textural fences, often tied together, read as light and almost airy. I love the names of the styles of Japanese fencing: The nightingale dates from the 17th century, so named because its rustic style of narrow, untrimmed, bundled bamboo was said to evoke the serenity and stillness of the countryside. Sleeve fences served as screens, extending only 2 or 3 feet, like the sleeve of a kimono. Open bamboo fences, called yotsumegaki, were used within the garden to delineate a change of mood or function, and no doubt were a model for today's lattice.

It's worth a trip to the Japanese garden in Portland to admire the fencing that not only adds patterning and atmosphere but also transforms the garden into a world of its own within the much larger Washington Park.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Hepaticas are the new darlings of late winter and earliest spring. Little woodland perennials closely related to anemones, hepaticas have flowers reminiscent of African violets in shades of powder blue, pink or white, framed in handsome three- or five-lobed leaves. Plant in shade in humus-rich soil, and since these are small plants they look their best in a rock garden, along a walkway or raised up in pots where you'll be sure to notice their pretty little flowers. Some hepaticas are wildly expensive and hard to find; H. nobilis and H. americana (above) should be reasonably priced and possible to track down.
Oddly, picket fences, which seem quintessentially New England, appear in Chinese garden scenes as far back as the 8th century. Made of square-cut palings, little picket fences are shown outlining the contours of the terrain in ancient scroll paintings. In mid-14th-century Europe, woven wattle fences were replaced with fences that looked remarkably like the picket fences of today.

Elaborate wrought-iron fences reached their heyday of curlicue in France under Louis XIV, who used miles of gilded metal to create a barrier while lending a view of what lay within. The only original American style I've been able to track down is the rural Virginia rail fence developed in the Colonies and called variously a worm, snake or zigzag fence because of its serpentine pattern.

Closed-board fences, which so effectively obscure but so often bore, were used first in Holland and later in England by 19th-century merchants. I wonder why, with so many styles to choose from, we so often see just these same closed-board fences?

Despite their utilitarian nature, fence styles should harmonize with house and site every bit as much as other garden adornments and furnishings. The city of Lake Forest Park surrounded its woodsy Animal Acres Park with a lovely split-rail fence evoking the horses that grazed the property for decades. When it put up a similar fence along the new city hall and busy intersection, it looked skimpy and misplaced.

Fences are a perfect way to inject year-round color into a garden that itself constantly changes. You may have seen the many photos of the cobalt-blue fence at Hummingbird Farm on Whidbey Island, its brilliant color looming out of the mist or shining in the sun, showing off all the colors of the roses and perennials. Fences painted white are classics that always look good, if a bit country. Washes of seafoam green, aqua or lavender or the sheen of metal can make a similar style of fence work in gardens from cottage to sleekly chic.

I covet the coolest fence I've seen lately, which surrounds Cathy Hillenbrand's tall, old house on Capitol Hill. It consists of woven wire in a wooden frame. The wire forms a grid pattern that ranges from 1- to 3-inch squares, depending on how much privacy is desired for different areas. The combination of wood framing and metal is industrial yet richly textural, perfect for lacing with vines but interesting enough to stand unadorned. This is a fence that securely defines property lines while revealing the garden within and the world without. It's hard to ask much more than that of any fence.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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