Fences, hedges, and walls are a mainstay of America's suburban landscape. They are the functional elements in your yard that keep toddlers safe, pets from roaming off, and neighbors from peeking in. As someone who is paid to be creative, I look at situations that need a barrier or screen as an opportunity to do something special. In design, my motto tends to be "green over gray," which means I use plants instead of hard surfaces wherever possible. Looking at a space, particularly a small one, from this perspective means I often look for vertical greening opportunities—solutions that layer horticulture with architecture in ways that maximize the available space and the amount of green. Using a hybrid of the two can often turn elements that begin as purely functional into beloved areas of your garden.
Garage walls frequently feel like an intrusion. When it comes to exterior walls, consider treating them as you do your walls inside. Adding stone ledges (A) or plant rings (B) to a garage wall instantly creates an "art wall" that becomes a place that you want to sit near instead of a place that you want to avoid or screen out. The key to keeping multiple containers on your wall from looking too busy is to maintain consistency in several of the elements, whether it's in the color or material of the containers or the color, texture, or form of the plants. Look carefully at what areas of your wall get the most sun—there can be huge differences in moisture, light, and temperature from one area to the next, and you will need to plan your plantings accordingly.
Municipal codes require that pools be enclosed by fencing for safety. There are times, however, when you don't really want the aesthetic of a fence around your pool, and that's when a hybrid of architecture and horticulture can be the right approach. A double hedge—one that is planted on either side of a fence—can hide an inexpensive fence like chain link and works especially well for any area where you will be viewing the barrier from both sides (C). Deciduous shrubs like viburnum, cornelian cherry, privet, or lilac will be less expensive than evergreen and offer seasonal change. Evergreens like yew, arborvitae, or holly will keep a more rigid shape and remain green throughout the year. If your fence has a structure to it that can allow vines to grow through, let the thorns on climbers like pyracanthas or roses act as additional security. Regular shearing based on what's appropriate for your climate zone ensures a neat-looking hedge that stays within its bounds and encourages new leafy growth.
When a fence alone isn't tall enough to screen a view, the height and green of evergreens present an appealing option. The downside is that they take up a significant amount of space, something precious in a small garden. As an alternative, I think about how to screen views with a series of garden layers. In these examples, I've combined a fence that supports creeping vines with a "hedge on sticks" or a row of columnar trees like sugar maples (D). The trees screen the higher views but also allow for a garden layer at ground level that can be used for cultivating plants that tolerate semishade and somewhat dry conditions: hostas, epimediums, hellebores, and hydrangeas, which can help transition into the rest of the garden.
In tight spaces that can become an overly hot microclimate when completely closed off with a solid wall or fence, an openwork lattice will allow air movement and provide beauty at the same time. Grow vines that bloom at different times of the year, and this traditional method of vertical greening transitions beautifully through the seasons. On this rooftop, window boxes hung beneath the lattice "walls" create a green screen as vines grow throughout the year. The boxes take up very little space on a roof deck; the space beneath is used as storage (E).
Photos: B: Bob Coscarelli; All others: Scott Shigley
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014