Fence It In

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

February 19, 2010 5 min read

There's nothing better than a fence to give you privacy, keep your children secure, keep your pets on your property and provide an attractive backdrop to your landscaping.

There's nothing worse than a fence that clashes with the style, color and architectural lines of your home.

"Matching the house and fence style is important," stresses Doug Fox, professor of landscape architecture at Maine's Unity College and director of its Center for Sustainability and Global Change. "Even subtle details, such as matching the angles of pickets to the roof angle, will help tie the fence visually to the house." And, he adds, "a fence joining a house to a detached garage can bring a sense of unifying structure to a landscape, making the home look larger. The fence should be the same color as the buildings."

Horticulture expert Jim Martin -- executive director of the Charleston Parks Conservancy, in South Carolina -- views fencing both from a landscaping and an architectural perspective. "There is nothing worse than a fence that doesn't mesh with the overall feel of the yard," he says. "Fencing needs to relate entirely to the architecture of the house. Most poorly integrated fence details are all about breaking that rule of thumb."

Whether you plan to choose a style and fence material yourself or get professional advice, first check your local zoning code. It may limit your choices on height, location and/or the fencing material you can use. You also may need a special permit or variance.

In any case, you need to establish what you want the fence to do, Martin says. Your "must" list could range from defining a place to keep dogs in or children safe to providing a backdrop for garden plantings or a place to grow colorful vines. "A designer needs as much information as you can muster before he starts working on a fence design solution," Martin says. "I always ask my clients to tear examples from popular magazines, send me links from online sources or take pictures in the community of things they like artistically and with similar function." Books and magazines that reflect the style of your home are good sources and could be the basis of a unique design, Martin adds. "You don't have to necessarily copy them, although there is nothing wrong with this."

Some fence styles and finishes may work well with your home; others may not. Maintenance may be an important factor in your decision, Martin points out. "A white picket fence in front of a Colonial home is a logical choice, but with it comes the every-three-years paint job. So there is upkeep and long-term care based on the decision to do one fence over another. Brick fencing, which is hugely expensive, initially does not require the kind of maintenance long term as a painted wood fence, so these factors are wisely considered at the start of the project."

It's easier and more realistic to have a new fence installed before you landscape your home, but adding fencing to an existing garden can be done. "I've been gardening in the same spot for years and will be installing a new fencing detail in an existing garden this year," says Martin, adding that if you want to add a fence as part of a landscaping plan, use it to enclose an area. "This means strategic points of entry. Without them, the fence becomes a functional joke in the landscape. It amounts to a hedge made of shrubs where it has many breaks, leading the users coming and going through 'holes.' If the eye is not forced to the entry point, it means there is a problem in its design."

If fencing an entire site is not what you have in mind, there are other options, Fox says. Short sections of fence, he says, can provide "a sense of enclosure behind a bench or other seating, provide a backdrop for a perennial border, provide a strong visual screen for privacy or block the view of an objectionable site off the landscape." A small fence running along the front can mark the boundary between public and private space, he adds, making homeowners and pedestrians feel more comfortable.

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