Design Tip: August 20, 2009

Wall & Fence Borders

"Good fences make good neighbors." -- Robert Frost

Good fences and retaining walls can also make for good gardens provided they are incorporated correctly into the surrounding environment. Nothing looks as odd to me as a fence or wall that is sitting naked in the landscape. By naked, I'm referring to those fences and walls that are simply there sticking out like a sore thumb usually with turf grass or plain mulch as the abutting material.

It makes no difference as to what type of fence or wall you have, they will look foreign if not "softened" by some type of appropriate landscaping contained within a border. Not only are borders along walls and fences aesthetically pleasing, they are also practical. I know of no lawnmower capable of cutting grass right to the base of a wall or fence. This usually means that you have to make a second pass with a weed whacker in order to get a clean cut. What a waste of time and effort not to mention the associated costs of a second piece of equipment.

Size, Style & Height

The size that you choose for a wall/fence border depends upon the wall or fence itself. Shorter fences often require a smaller border. I usually recommend that the border width be a minimum of 3/4 of the height of the wall or fence. Larger is fine but any smaller and the wall or fence may still appear to be obtrusive. So, if you have a 6-foot privacy fence, you will want your border along it to be a minimum of 4.5 feet wide. Avoid borders with straight lines. A curving edge will allow you to install varying sizes of plant material at periodic intervals without making the plants look like soldiers in a line.

As for the height of the plants in your border, if you have an attractive wall or fence, don't hide it. You paid good money for that structure so use it as part of your design. Try to choose plants of varying heights that won't completely block your view of the wall or fence or install taller specimen plants (such as trees) that will not conceal your fence or wall once the vegetation grows above it. If your fence or wall is not particularly attractive and was installed for purposes of securing your property, then by all means install plants that will eventually conceal it.

If your wall or fence is short enough for someone to see both sides or is open such as split rail or chain link, you will want to make sure that the borders on both sides complement each other. For example, if your border has an occasional specimen plant or evergreen, stagger them on both sides of the fence or wall so that the borders will look uninterrupted. If the borders on each side of the wall or fence are vastly different, it will draw attention to the fact that there's a structure in the center. This may be difficult for fences and walls that sit along property lines. In this situation, either work with your neighbor to landscape his side or site your wall or fence slightly within your property giving you at least enough room to install some taller specimen plants behind the structure.

The old school wisdom of landscape design stated that taller plants be at the back of the border and progressively shorter plants be placed toward the forward edge. Well..... in some respects that makes sense. It would be a waste of a good plant if it were hidden behind something taller or thicker. Instead of sticking to this rule, I like to bend it slightly and stage plant heights from taller to shorter also from left to right. As you can see in the image below, there are taller plants at the back of the border against the fence, but occasionally a taller plant is centered towards the front and is flanked by shorter plants which extend back to the fence. This placement of taller plants in a front-to-back and left-to-right orientation gives the bed a slightly informal look and helps to soften the presence of the wall or fence.

Plant Selection & Placement

Once again the old school wisdom used to suggest planting a row of one particular plant at the back of the border with a row or grouping of smaller plants towards the front. I have abandoned this style of planting entirely. I never plant a row of a single plant instead opting for an alternating zigzag grouping pattern of 3 or 5 plants with an occasional specimen. In the diagram below, smaller shrubs are placed in triangular groups of 3 while larger shrub specimens are planted on the opposite side of the fence between them. A single tree specimen stands in the center and the areas in between are filled with perennials, annuals and a groundcover at the front. An optional planting of a vine directly on the fence will complete the border.

When choosing the specific plants for your border, try to keep in mind how it will look throughout the year. For shrubs, I recommend a mix of flowering and evergreen plants. I almost always recommend using an evergreen groundcover. Perennials which are primarly spring through fall plants can be underplanted with very early season bulbs. Seasonal annuals round out the border adding a splash of color year round.


To edge or not to edge...that is the question. The answer depends upon what exists beyond your border and if you like the look of edging. If your border abuts a sidewalk, driveway or some similar hardscaping, edging may not be needed. If you have turf grass beyond your border, you may want to install edging particularly if the grass in question is a creeping type such as bermuda. In this situation, I would also recommend having a 3-4 inch wide and deep trench outside of the edging to help keep the grass from creeping into the border. Fescue doesn't creep so a trench may be all that's necessary to have a tidy edge to the border. Fill in the areas around your plantings and up to the edging or trench with a suitable organic mulch.

If you have comments or questions about this article, please email me.

Images & Drawings Copyrighted © 2009 by Theresa Schrum - All rights reserved