Mara Ripani is Permaculture Australia Professional Member – you can find her at https://villagedreaming.com.au/
Fences are often necessary for privacy, security and the safety of pets and children. As Mara Ripani explains, there are myriad ways to create them with plants, adding extra greenery to our built environment.
With populations increasing and cities and towns growing, we need to take every opportunity to
introduce green into our built environment: ‘rewilding’ our surroundings, even in small ways. A living
fence is a simple and effective way to start. There are many approaches to creating a living fence:
what they all have in common is a thriving explosion of plants!
What is a living fence?
Fences are commonly used for creating privacy (both visual privacy and by preventing access), for
keeping pets and children contained and safe, and simply for marking property boundaries. With a
bit of planning, all of these requirements can be fulfilled with a living fence: one that is made using
plants on their own or by combining plants with an appropriate structure.
Depending on its main purpose, the space available and your aesthetic preference, a living fence can
take the form of closely-planted clumping grasses, a hedge created from shrubs, a line of small trees
or espaliered fruit trees, or a cascade of tendrils and flowers from a climbing vine – to name just a
Why choose a living fence?
No matter how small your property, if there is room for a fence then there is probably room for a
living fence. Well-kept living fences are extremely beautiful. Evergreen plants provide a verdant wall
to look at all year round. Climbing plants with flowers provide colour, interest and architectural
shapes to admire. A living fence is an extension of your garden, allowing you to layer greenery to
create depth and texture. And if you already have a standard fence, you can breathe life into it with
a climbing plant.
While living fences add a great deal of beauty, they can also help green our cities and create cool
microclimates. Built-up urban areas are prone to the urban heat island effect: dense concentrations
of pavement, buildings and other thermal mass surfaces absorb daytime heat, releasing it again at
night. As a result, ambient temperatures can increase by one to three degrees Celsius. Greening
infrastructure projects large and small, including living fences, can help counter this effect through
the plants’ natural transpiration.
How to choose plants for a living fence
When deciding on the style and plant selection for your living fence, consider its purpose,
maintenance requirements, and how it will fit into your existing garden. Whether you opt for native
or non-native species, always ensure you avoid species considered invasive in your area. Be careful
that your living fence does not impede communal walking paths, and consider traffic sightlines
where necessary – especially for cars exiting driveways.
If your main priority is boundary marking, a living fence can be as simple as planting a row of
ornamental grasses. There are many choices: Poa labillardierei (Common Tussock-grass)
Pennisetum alopecuroides (Chinese Fountain grass), Lomandra hystrix (Green Mat-rush,)
Miscanthus sinensis (Chinese Silver grass), Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) to name but
a few. Be sure to choose perennial grasses that will live year after year, either evergreen or grasses
that will dry to a sandy or copper colour, marking the changing seasons. Some grasses have spiky
foliage or sharp edges hence consider their appropriateness. Grasses can be cut back in late winter
or left uncut for a few years. When cut back they reappear as vibrant green tufts in spring.
Privacy and safety for children and pets can be achieved with shrubs planted to make hedges
(though note that hedges need dense foliage or supplementing with a wire fence to reliably contain
small pets). There are many shrubs to choose from, and garden nurseries offer plenty of information
on the growing requirements of plants to help you make your selection. Look for plants in the
following genuses Acacia, Westringia, Acmena, Yew, Thuja, and Laurel to name but a mere few.
Search for plants that suit your soil type and climate, and be sure to check the height, width and
growth rate. Fast-growing hedges will establish quickly but need more frequent pruning, watering
and compost. Slower-growing hedges can take years to establish but will then need less
Also consider colour, foliage texture, and whether you’d prefer evergreen or deciduous. An
evergreen shrub will stay green all year round, while deciduous species will change colour before
(usually) dropping their leaves. For example, Berberis thunbergia (Japanese Barberry) is a deciduous
shrub that goes from green to bright red foliage in autumn. For silver foliage try Westringia fruticose
(Native Rosemary(, Teucrium fruticans Tree Garmander), or Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’
(Pittosporum Silver Sheen)
A line of small trees can also be used to create a fence, or to green an existing fence line. A popular
choice is any tree in the conifer family with a tall, narrow form; plant them as close as planting
instructions will allow.
For an ‘edible fence’, you can espalier fruit trees. Espaliering is easy to do, saves space and allows
even small garden owners to access seasonal fruit. Buy bare-rooted trees and plant in winter, and
explore the many instructional videos on different espaliering techniques available online.
Climbing vines on a structural support can form a fence for privacy and for containing animals and
kids. Choose evergreen plants for year-round screening or deciduous ones for a flash of autumn red
followed by bare branches. You can use metal mesh or tensioned wire on a structural frame or a
wooden fence to support your vines; remember that climbing plants are heavy once established so
make sure the structure is able to support the weight.
There are many fantastic climbing plants to choose from. The evergreen Hardenbergia violacea
(Purple Coral Pea )produces a mass of gorgeous purple pea flowers. Pyrostegia venusta (Golden
Shower) has stunning orange trumpet flowers and climbing tendrils. Trachelospermum jasminoides
(Star Jasmine’s)’ sweet fragrance, Rosa banksiae’s (Lady Banks Rose) rose clusters and the tiny
fairylike leaves of Muehlenbeckia complexa (Maidenhair Vine) are all attractive options. If your home
or rental property has an existing brick or masonry fence then try Parthenocissus tricuspidata(Boston
Ivy) with its burnt red autumn leaves, or Ficus pumila’s (Creeping Fig’s) attractive juvenile leaves.
Whether you opt for grasses, shrubs, trees or climbers for your living fence, do your plant research.
How will the plant grow? How will it change over time? What level of maintenance will it need? Will
it drop leaves? Might its root system cause any long-term problems? While it is good to be aware of
these things, however, don’t get overwhelmed: generally the value of a living fence far outweighs its
care needs. And one final piece of advice: if establishing a new fence, it’s a good idea to do a
property boundary search via your relevant state agency to ensure you’re putting the fence in the
right place and not on your neighbour’s property.
Whether you live in a city, a regional town or in the bush, infrastructure like fences is often
necessary. Likewise, rewilding our living environments is important, and easy to do. A living fence is
a great way to combine the two, and the benefits will be experienced by you and all that pass by.