I know fencing is not usually considered a “sexy” topic for gardeners and homesteaders. Often, we just consider them a necessary evil to keep pests like deer and dogs from ruining our beloved plants. However, fences don’t have to be purely perfunctory.
A well-placed, thoughtfully planned decorative fence can enhance the aesthetic experience of your homestead. They can help you personalize and customize your outdoor spaces by creating inviting garden rooms or enchanting livestock areas.
In the same way that a feature wall in your living room can draw you into space, decorative fences can dramatically alter your interactions with the landscape. You just need to think beyond the basic mechanics of a fence and imagine it’s decorative potential.
2 Basic Types of Decorative Fences
Type 1: Primarily Decorative Fences
The first type of fence is primarily decorative. It might serve some light-duty purpose such as to mark a boundary or trellis a light-weight annual flowering vine. However, it’s not going to keep out pests, keep in livestock, or protect plants.
Think of a 3-foot-tall split rail fence running along a driveway or marking the edge of where one person’s property ends and the next begins. Or imagine a low, rickety picket fence with rustic charm.
Clearly, fences like that are not going to stop deer from eating your plants or keep a horse from stepping over them to get to greener pastures. Those kinds of fences are meant as cosmetic boundaries.
They create a sense of enclosure. They can also draw your eye onward or inward to make spaces feel more expansive or limited in size depending on how they are used.
You may make a few of these mostly decorative fences on your homestead. Even so, more likely than not, your fences will fall into the next category.
Type 2: Functional and Decorative
The second type is both functional and decorative. These kinds of fences can do heavy-duty work to protect your land or livestock, such as contain your goats or keep out deer. Yet, they also bring in decorative elements to make them so much more pleasing than ordinary functional fencing.
My favorite example of this kind of fence is the classic wattle-walled potager garden. These “walls” are made with sturdy posts that keep the fence from budging even under pressure from a 150-pound doe (goat or deer). Yet, their signature snaked weave adds texture and beauty to that protected space.
Regardless of whether your fence is primarily decorative, or functional and decorative, all the same rules of fence building still apply.
1. Logistical Considerations
For example, you’ll have to avoid installing fences over underground utility lines or property boundaries designated as easements. Complying with all city or HOA ordinances is also important.
Additionally, ensure fences are safe and suitable for the areas where you are installing them. You’d never put barbed wire where children play, right? Likewise, you also don’t want to put up a decorative fence that might be knocked over in the wind near a high traffic walkway.
Any tall, free-standing structure you install in your landscape needs to be secure enough to withstand your typical environmental conditions. So, don’t let your aesthetic ideals override on-the-ground realities.
Plan to make the fence safe and secure first. Then think about how to make it beautiful.
2. Microclimate Creation
For gardeners, you also need to think very carefully about how your fence installations might impact microclimates.
3. Solid Fence Panels
Whenever you install a structure of any size above ground, it will likely have some influence on your environmental conditions. For example, a solid fence panel can block wind to protect plants or create a wind tunnel depending on where you erect it.
It will also cast shade. That can be a benefit if you situate your fence for afternoon shade to extend your lettuce protection further into summer or grow shade-loving hydrangeas. However, if you put your tomatoes on the shade side of the fence, you’ll get lovely green foliage but far fewer tomatoes.
The idea of microclimates tends to relate mostly to heat, cold, wind, sun, and shade. However, fences also influence other factors in a garden or livestock space. Airflow is a big one.
A solid panel fence around a small garden in a humid climate can increase risks for fungal pathogen transmission. This is because airflow inside the fenced area is reduced and the soil can’t dry at the surface. Intermittent picket fences or wire fences are better for air circulating in humid regions.
In a dry climate, though, that solid panel type fencing can increase humidity around plants by trapping air around the plants. That in turn can keep soil from becoming overly dry and reduce the amount of watering required.
Drainage is another factor to consider, especially if you are putting a fence on a slope. A solid fence situated at the bottom of a slope can trap water and be more susceptible to rot and encourage algae growth. Likewise, a well-placed fence could direct and funnel water where you need it.
In the same way that you would plan your garden before breaking ground or think through your chicken coop before constructing it, decorative fencing requires thoughtful decision-making with respect to your landscape, climate, and purposes for building it.
Now that we’ve covered some of the practical considerations, let’s get into the fun part of designing fences that add beauty to our landscapes.
Decorating Traditional Fences
There are a lot of ways to make a fence decorative. The most common way to do this is to decorate a traditional fence. Here are a few examples to consider.
1. Faux Window
By adding an old window, door, or a framed mirror to a solid fence, you create a focal point for attention.
In a small space, this gives a feeling of intimacy. In a large space, it offers the sense of being inside and intimate rather than outside and open.
2. Trompe L’oie
Trompe L’oie is particularly interesting for small spaces because you can make space feel more expansive. By painting a realistic pathway or a flower scape that seems to extend beyond the fence, you create the illusion of more space.
3. Glinting Glass
This is a simple technique that adds instant interest and dimensionality to ordinary fences. It’s kind of like using wine bottles in cob houses to create colorful light displays.
4. Art Added
Simply by decorating your existing fences in the same way you would a wall of your house, you can make them more interesting. Make sure whatever materials you use are durable outdoors otherwise they won’t last long
5. Vertical Gardening Fence
By covering fences with vining plants, you gain vertical growing space. However, you also make your fences feel like part of the landscape rather than an obstacle or an eyesore.
If you really want to create one of a kind fencing, though, you can move beyond traditional fencing materials into using decorative of free form materials.
6. Living Fences
Living fences are part natural, part manipulation of nature. They take time to grow and a lot of planning and cordon training to get your positioning and plant care right. Still, they add so much natural interest to a landscape that they are totally worth the effort.
Wattles are woven fencing that can be made with a variety of materials. Coppiced fast-growing trees, such as willow or hazel, are frequently used. As long as you plan durable supports and keep the lower portions of these fences from becoming water-logged, they can last for many years.
Basic wattles are easy to make. More complicated designs take weaving skill, patience, and time.
Old bed frames, antique exterior shutters, mattress springs, screen doors, and more can all be employed to create non-traditional, but very beautiful upcycled decorative fences. You may need to incorporate some traditional materials such as wood or metal posts to create stability.
Also, keep in mind, these fences aren’t always cheaper. Mattress springs can be found for free. However, lovely shutters with an aged patina or solid wood screens are in high demand (and therefore quite costly) in salvage and antique markets.
I have to be honest. I am not a fan of pallet fences on my homestead. No matter what I do, they never remain attractive for more than a couple of years.
However, there are lots of beautiful, functional examples out there for the right landscapes. Some people also use the pallet wood for making faux shiplap over an existing fence or upscaling a plain old chain link fence.
I have a bamboo plot in part of my landscape. So, I love to use bamboo for decorative fences.
I just finished making the fence in the photo above using $20 worth of baling twine, tools I already had, and a few afternoons of cutting and installing. It will discourage deer and keep my dogs out so I can plant all my winter leafy greens in there.
With no treatment, above-ground bamboo fences can last 4-5 years. If properly cured and sealed before use, bamboo fences can last as long as you are willing to keep on maintaining them.
Fence for Fun!
Fencing is one of those things that usually gets relegated to the “boring, but necessary” side of homesteading projects. Yet it really doesn’t have to be that way.
When you start using your fences to enhance the aesthetics of your homestead, then you get to engage your creative design skills. That’s when making fences starts to be as exciting as dreaming up and constructing a lovely chicken coop or a gorgeous potager garden.
When you start fencing for fun, a once boring necessity becomes an exciting opportunity to express yourself in your landscape. You can also transform your working homestead into something that looks a whole lot more like a stunning ornamental farm.