Jill Severn's Gardening Column

On fences and hedges


Robert Frost, in a poem called "Mending Wall," quotes his neighbor saying "Good fences make good neighbors." This quotation is widely accepted as wisdom.

But what is a good fence? Does a good hedge serve as well? Do they really make us good neighbors?

These are questions to think about on winter walks, when there's not much to look at in neighborhood gardens and, it seems, a number of new fences since this time a year ago.

Some of the new fences are unfriendly, like tall stockades to keep out invading hordes or, more likely, the gaze of passersby. They eliminate the possibility of a passing smile and a wave. For me, they evoke dark thoughts: Their owners value privacy over neighborliness; they have let distrust overwhelm comity; their retreat behind their tall fences promotes the very social decline they fear.

The gardener in me hastens to point out that stockade fences also eliminate some of the light and air circulation that would benefit the plants next to them. And the critic in me thinks they are ugly.

There are, thank heaven, other kinds of fences. Some have an inch or so of space between the boards, which mitigates the air circulation problem and seems less intended to exclude. Others are wood-framed wire, which provide something for vines to grow on as well as a more open view of the world. A growing number have boards that are horizontal rather than vertical. And some, thank heaven, are still picket fences.

The archetype American dream of years back was to own a house with a picket fence – a fence you could gossip over while hanging laundry on a clothesline. Was it the advent of clothes dryers that diminished this traditional, friendly fence?

Hedges are another story. They can also be tall and forbidding – and often out of control – or less imposing markers that simply define one space as separate from another.

When I first moved into my house, my across-the-street neighbors had an English laurel hedge that was of the tall, forbidding variety. The husband of that household told me his wife had decreed letting the hedge get tall to shield them from the former residents of my house – a succession of allegedly rowdy college student renters who didn't mow the grass and plugged up the street with too many parked cars during their frequent parties and sleepovers. A few months after they all left and I moved in, his wife issued a new decree, and the hedge got shortened by about three feet, reopening a view of their nice old Victorian house and its equally Victorian garden. You couldn't make that kind of adjustment with a fence.

Hedges come with their own challenges: they need to be trimmed more often than a fence needs to be stained or painted, and when first planted, you have to wait for them to grow. They also take up more space. But they last a lot longer. The one across the street from me was mature when its current owner moved in, and that was over 30 years ago. Plus, planting a hedge doesn't require paying crazy high prices for cedar.

"None of the above" is also an option, and often the best option. If you actually read that Robert Frost poem, he will explain why. It's his neighbor, not Frost, who keeps repeating that "good fences make good neighbors" trope. Frost points out that the rock fence separates his orchard from his neighbor's woods, and is unnecessary since there are no wandering cows to be confined on either side of it. Frost writes "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/
What I was walling in or walling out."

There are no wandering cows in our neighborhoods. 

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • TimRansom

    No, but how about deer?

    Saturday, December 4, 2021 Report this

  • Annierae

    And don't even get me started on cyclone fencing. Besides razor wire, is there a more hostile looking barrier? But now it's all over downtown Olympia -- to prevent an eyesore.

    Saturday, December 4, 2021 Report this

  • joycetogden

    When I moved to Olympia I was surprised at all the fences & tall hedges in the front. Where I came from it was illegal to prevent full view of your FRONT premises and perhaps allow burglars to be hidden when accessing your house.

    Saturday, December 4, 2021 Report this