Unlike built or “hardscape” fences made from materials such as wood, iron or chain link, a living fence is made from trees, shrubs or other plants in order to create a natural barrier, or “softscape” barrier. A living fence can be an informal hedgerow, a row of evergreens or a carefully trained espalier that is grown along a wall. The main differences between a living fence and a man-made fence are that it is more permanent and that it grows over time instead of being installed. Densely grown living fences make excellent privacy screens, preventing neighbors from seeing into the screened area and also hiding unattractive sights from view.
Shrubs are a popular type of plant used for living fences. A hedgerow consists of uniform shrubs, such as boxwoods or holly bushes, which are evenly spaced and pruned so that the branches eventually intertwine and create a solid “wall.” Often, hedgerows are neatly trimmed into a specific shape, creating a clean look. Loose shrub living fences are allowed to grow more naturally and can consist of different types of shrubs within one fence. This type of fence is preferred by naturalists who enjoy watching seasonal changes such as flowering and fruiting, which also attract birds.
Tall shrubs or thick-branched trees are also used effectively as living privacy fences, especially for large properties or properties that are bordered by roads and busy streets. Evergreens work very well for this type of fence, because they maintain their thick foliage year-round. Depending on the type of evergreen selected and the local growing conditions, these fences can grow to be very tall. As the evergreens grow taller and denser, the living fence will also work as a windbreak to protect more fragile landscaping inside the fenced-in area.
Espalier plants involve a type of tree-shaping used to create intricate designs along an existing wall. This practice of shaping creates the impression of a living wall. Trees are pruned and branches are tied to supports so that the tree will grow into a vertical, flattened shape along the wall. The practice has been developed internationally over hundreds of years using formal, recognizable patterns such as the V-shaped espalier, the Belgian fence, a cordon, a stepover and the Verrier candelabra. Support wires are attached to the wall and tied to the branches, forcing them to grow according to the predetermined pattern.
Important factors that one should consider when planting a living fence include growing conditions, plant types and spacing requirements. Plants need a significant amount of sunlight and moisture, and the location of the fencing should accommodate these needs. The type of plants selected for fencing should be appropriate for the climate zone in which they will be grown, and attention should be paid to the specific nutrient and maintenance requirements of the plant in order for the fence to be successful. The final spacing of the mature plants, not the young seedlings, is critical during the initial planting because root systems will need plenty of room and access to nutrients. If young seedlings are crowded together too densely, the plants might be stunted or die prematurely.