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Creating Living Fences

Creating Living Fences
By Paul James
“Good fences make good neighbors.” So said American poet Robert Frost in his poem, “The Mending Wall.” I wholeheartedly agree. But a fence doesn’t have to be made of solid materials such as wood or stone. It can be made with plants, often for a fraction of the cost, to create what’s known as a living fence. And the results can be beautiful.

Here’s a rundown of some of my favorite plants for creating a living fence or for privacy screening. All are evergreen because, well, privacy.
These evergreens thrive in our heat and humidity, and although they can tolerate dry spells once established, they do best when watered once a week. And they absolutely need to be deeply soaked once or twice during the winter so long as temps are above freezing. Six hours of sun is ideal, as is afternoon shade and mulch. They tolerate a wide range of soils so long as drainage is good. And they can also be sheared in spring to maintain a desired shape.
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Emerald Green
One of the most popular plants for screening, ‘Emerald Green’ can grow to 15- to 18-feet tall while staying around four-feet wide.
Green Giant
This is the big daddy of arborvitaes, capable of reaching 40 feet with a width of 12 to 18 feet. Growth rate is fast, as in up to three feet a year.
Forever Goldy
An awesome arborvitae owing in large part to its gorgeous golden foliage. It grows to around 10- to 12-feet tall and three-feet wide, and puts on close to a foot of new growth every year.
The Dingo fence in southeast Australia is the longest in the world. Made primarily of barbed wire, it runs 3,488 miles.
Three things hollies don’t like: heavy clay soil, an alkaline pH, and long periods without water, including during the winter months. Said another way, they grow best in loamy, well-drained soil that’s kept evenly moist and with a pH between 5.0 and 6.00. And they tend to prefer full sun, although a break from afternoon sun is fine. Only females produce colorful berries, although there are varieties that have male and female flowers on the same plant.
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Nellie Stevens
This beauty is monoecious, meaning it has both male and female flowers on the same plant, making it self-pollinating. And it’s a fast grower, putting on two or three feet of new growth a year and ultimately hitting heights of 15 to 25 feet with a width of up to 15 feet. Hugely popular, and with good reason.
This too is a self-pollinating holly, one that grows 12- to 15-feet tall and eight- to 12-feet wide. It’s super hardy, and extremely pest and disease resistant. An excellent choice among hollies, and ideal for privacy screening.
Emerald Colonnade
Available only as a male plant (meaning no berries), this is still a great holly, reaching a height of up to 12 feet and a width of eight feet. Its glossy green foliage takes well to topiary pruning, but it looks awesome in its natural form.
Not as well known as the three above, but a fine choice nevertheless. It’s a relatively slow grower, but in time it’ll get 20-feet tall (or more) and 10-feet wide (or more). Maintains a pyramidal form, but can be limbed up to create a tree form. Needs a pollinator.
Willow Leaf
This improved selection of Burford holly is a pretty fast grower, and while it can grow up to more than 15-feet tall and 10- to 15-feet wide, it takes well to shearing and can easily be maintained at say 10 by six feet. It’s self-pollinating and produces beaucoup de beautiful berries.
Junipers are hardy, drought tolerant, and tough, capable of standing up to our heat and humidity and thriving in full sun. Moreover, they grow in nearly all soil types so long as drainage is good, and they aren’t particularly picky about pH. They are among the most popular plants used to create living fences, especially these three.
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Fast growing, densely branched, and perfectly symmetrical, this columnar juniper grows to roughly 15 feet by five feet. It’s consistently among the most popular plants for screening. Foliage is dark green, and both males and females produce cones.
Slightly narrower than Spartan and potentially a tad taller with foliage that’s silvery blue-green (and maybe tinged with bronze in winter), this is another excellent choice for privacy screening, and although extremely drought tolerant, it can tolerate slightly wetter soils.
Reaching 20 feet in as many years and eight- to 15-feet wide, this selection features a more irregular asymmetrical form as it ages, but is nevertheless a great choice for screening, and it produces a profusion of bluish cones that birds find irresistible.
All the Others
‘Bright ‘N Tight’ is a cherry laurel that can reach 10 feet in as many years. Shiny, deep-green foliage is beautiful, as are clusters of white flowers that appear in spring. Adapts well to pruning, and tolerates up to a half day of shade.
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As much as I love pines, I don’t think they’re as effective as living fences because of their lack of density. Loblolly pines, for example, have an open, airy interior that you can see right through. One notable exception is the Bosnian pine, and it’s a winner. Needs full sun. Grows slowly to around 30 feet.
Growing up to 15-feet tall and wide, this hugely popular shrub offers beautiful red-tipped leaves in spring and white flowers (although not everyone likes their scent). Easy to grow in average soil and tolerant of some shade, just make sure to provide good air circulation to ward off powdery mildew.
The best of the lot is ‘Noble’ privet, which grows quickly to at least 10-feet tall but only three- to five-feet wide, with glossy green foliage and fragrant white flowers that attract numerous pollinators. Grows almost anywhere in full sun, including wet sites.
Wax Myrtle
This wispy, beautifully scented, multi-trunked tree or shrub is also known as bayberry, and its leaves are used to produce the familiarly scented candle. An Oklahoma native, it grows pretty much anywhere, including wet soils, reaching heights of six to 12 feet, although I’ve seen 20-footers in the wild.
Need a screen for shade? Look no farther than the upright yews. Choose from Hicks yew, Capitata yew, or the Japanese Plum yew known as Fastigiata. They’re all in the 10-foot range (Capitata can grow to 20 feet) but stay narrow in width. A couple of hours of morning sun is okay, but these are shade plants.
Consider ‘Green Tower’, a slender boxwood that grows to roughly eight feet by two feet. It’ll grow in light shade and most soils, but can’t handle wet feet, so make sure drainage is good. Upright form is ideal for smaller areas that need privacy screening, such as courtyards or even around a hot tub (where privacy can be essential!).
And Finally…Bamboo!
Okay, so bamboo is the bane of many a gardener, whether they inherited it or planted it themselves only to find how truly aggressive it is. But if you’ve got the space to let it do its thing, bamboo makes an excellent living fence. And you can contain it by pouring concrete stem walls as barriers, or by using specially made plastic rhizome barriers buried 30-inches deep.

There are clump-forming bamboos, but they don’t really grow tall enough to provide privacy. Among spreading varieties, consider black bamboo or ‘Bisetti.’
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The world’s tallest living fence is in England. Planted in 1745, it’s made of beech trees and measures 98 feet in height.
Planting Tip
Let's say you plant seven Spartan Junipers in a row for privacy and in three years one of them dies, leaving you with a gaping hole. It happens. And it’s a bummer, especially since chances are you won’t find a replacement of the same size.

So do this: if you need seven plants for your living fence, buy eight (nine?) and plant the extra somewhere else in your landscape, knowing that you may ultimately need to dig it up (preferably in the fall) and use it as the replacement.
Bagworm Blues
Don’t you just hate the pesky Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis? Yeah, me too. That’s the Latin name for bagworms, and the eggs that overwintered in last year’s silken bags have hatched, which means larvae are on the move even as I write.

The best way to avoid damage (which can be considerable, even fatal) is to pick the cocoons off the infested tree and trash them, step on them, or drop them in soapy water. You can also begin spraying now with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or a product containing Spinosad. Both are all-natural and approved for use by organic gardeners. Repeat spraying every seven to 10 days through the end of the month.
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