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Horticulture Digest

Date Last Edited:  08/24/2001

Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service

Horticulture Digest #103


Wooden fences are common and functional design features in residential landscapes. Fences:

  • provide privacy and security,
  • can be used to create and define outdoor spaces,
  • modify wind and sun exposure,
  • keep the kids and the dog in and the neighbors out.

Fences are a major part of the landscape budget and have a tremendous impact on the quality and aesthetics of the landscape. Since fences are so important, they should be considered a major portion of the entire landscape, not separate element.

Unfortunately, the type of fence used in many residential landscapes is based on the sale prices for fence panels at the local lumberyard or fence company. Many designers also limit themselves to inexpensive but boring fence "kits". This results in fences that are incompatible with the architectural style of the home and other landscape features, or fail to fulfill an intended purpose. Dynamic fences are easily constructed, and making a fashion statement doesn't really cost as much as you might think.
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Non-design Factors

Several non-design factors should be considered when contemplating installation of a fence.

  • First, be aware of the legal ramifications. Some communities limit maximum heights for privacy fences. These often vary depending on the area of the yard in which the fence is located. For instance, side yard fences may be limited to six feet high, wh ile eight foot is allowed in the back of the property.

  • Also, check for subdivision covenants that may restrict fence material or style.

  • Review deed descriptions to establish the exact property lines before constructing a fence. I usually recommend that the fence be set back a few inches on the client's property This can save some hassles in the future.
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The particular design of a fence is limited only by the imagination of the designer, the talent of the construction crew, and the budget of the client. Since the strong vertical and horizontal lines of a fence make it a conspicuous landscape feature, it m ust blend with the other site features. Determine the type of fence most appropriate for the site and architecture of the home.

Solid fences.
Solid or board-on-board fences should relate to the slope of the land. If the line of the fence undulates with the slope it is visually disruptive. If a solid fence is to be constructed on a slope, it is best to step the sections of the fence down the slo pe, keeping the top horizontal. An extension at the bottom of some panels may be necessary if one purpose of the fence is to corral pets.

Open fences.
Open fences such as split-rail or post-rail are most appropriate if they follow the contour of the land. Fences that can be seen through harmonize with the site. Even though they provide minimal security or privacy, they are popular for demarcation of bou ndaries and provide psychological "assurance" for the client. Fences that are visually open are particularly suited for rural properties.

Straight-line fences.
Straight-line fences are the most economical to construct and are the most common design used in residential landscapes. Additional interest can be provided if offsets or jogs in the fence line are used. A gate can be hidden by planting areas, or a little mystery provided with offsets. Obviously, the offset must also be on the clients property.

Plant material.
Integrate plant material with fence sections. A backyard completely surrounded by a solid fence can easily become claustrophic. Fences are also expensive. Integrating plants with fences can reduce the overall cost of the landscape project and develop a mo re open feeling. Use solid wood fence for areas where absolute year-round screening is essential. Trees and shrubs can provide screening for less critical areas and reduce the monotonous line of long fences.

Fences offer opportunities for distinctive plantings. The strong vertical lines of the ends of fences or baffles should be tempered with plant material to blend them with the landscape. Horizontal lines of long fence sections are softened by plantings inc luding material, such as small trees, that will grow above the fence and disrupt the line. Corners created by the junction of two fences create powerful attractions for the eye of the viewer. These can be mellowed or accentuated with plants, depending upo n the situation and the whim of the designer.

Fences can be used to develop spaces within the landscape. There are no rules that I am aware of which state that fences must be located only on property lines. Fence sections or baffles used within the landscape creates distinctive and secluded areas. Fe nces can be used as backdrops for plantings or to create corner niches for accent plantings. A short fence section thoughtfully placed near the patio creates year-round privacy without encircling the entire yard.
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Consider maintenance, durability, availability, cost, and character wood when selecting fencing materials. Western red cedar, cypress, and red wood are naturally decay resistant and provide a pleasing character. Several preservatives are available, includ ing pressure treated material. All wood that comes in contact with the ground, such as posts and other supports, must be treated with a preservative. Choose galvanized or aluminum nails to prevent rust spots and stains from developing on the boards.

David Hensley, dhensley@hawaii.edu
Extension Landscape Specialist

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