Screening: Fences,Gates and Walls
Screening for Garden Privacy
The conventional idea of the Englishman’s house being his castle, however outdated, dies hard despite the rights of entry given to Income Tax inspectors and policemen. We like to feel we have privacy even if we have none. This is exhibited all over the country as people no sooner move into their splendid new picture-windowed houses than they (very naturally) drape them with curtains and blinds in all directions.
Clearly people prefer not to be. The same attitude is exhibited in the furnishing of gardens. Most people like some seclusion, although they are apt to be considered odd and anti-social if they insist on total visual protection from their boundary walls or fences. Others are satisfied or are expected to be satisfied, by a simple foot-high board to demarcate their limit of possession. Does this really do any good? Or is it just another petty maintenance problem?
As always, there is the need to ask the questions ‘Why fence? Why build a wall? Why have a gate?’ For years I lived happily in a house called Green Gates whose only claim to particular interest was its illogicality of name and some good plants. There were no gates. Nor are they needed;no longer pass up the lane, local louts are no worse than anywhere else. In other words there is little to be kept out — and nothing to be kept in. And what a relief to owner and postman alike, nothing to be opened or shut.
Such an instance does nothing to decry divisions or demarcations, this is merely to emphasise that there is no law which says that every well-dressed garden should have a gate.
In earlier times walled gardens — some of which have come down to us — had, as walled gardens now, the basic utilitarian virtues of protection from weather and stock. They also provided delightful contrast between the wildness of the countryside and a contrived civilisation inside. Today, an equally delightful contrast is between the busy world and the oasis which a successful garden must be. Seldom, however, from a financial point of view is it now possible (even were it desirable) to wall in any large area. Hence we return to the questions.
Walls in have certain clear roles. They protect from wind and weather and from the view of passers-by. They enclose by dividing that area within from whatever ‘the rest’ may be. They provide a framework of bones upon which the flesh of plants can be very satisfactorily built up. The decision must be made to protect that part where privacy is most demanded. This is most likely to be the terrace or sitting-out area leading directly from the house (where the aspects permits it). Wing walls at right h angles to the house will enclose the optimum space. Much more protection is given if walls set at right angles to these main walls are constructed, even if only a metre or so is added. This will provide something of a fourth side to the desirable outdoor living room. Beyond this point the material used is rather less important.
To enclose a living area it is best to continue with the material, or a related one, of which the main building is made. If this is brick the answer is obvious, though expense may be saved by enclosing panels of concrete blocks, or even wood, in a brick framework. Rendered house walls can be carried on with concrete blocks, colour washed in the same way. Small and dark walled gardens, especially in towns, are frequently colour washed to increase the feeling of light: while this is usually a great success, it should not be considered a social inevitability. Well made walls, both old and new, have their own quiet beauty and any added colouring is apt to be irrevocable.
If, as might be expected, plants are to grow on the walls it is sensible to have galvanised vine eyes inserted at 30cm (1ft) intervals up the wall and the rows repeated every 3m (10ft) of wall so that wires can be easily strung. It seems a pity to make holes in a newly built wall.
The great virtue of walls is their permanence. They weather and age in tune with the house and plants growing upon them can mature too. Nothing is more unfortunate than fine specimens ruined by their support collapsing behind their back.
Nonetheless other materials exist, and exist in quantity. Of these, wooden-interwoven or lapped panels are the most frequent, being easy to erect, at least apparently so. Their permanence, effectiveness and ultimate economy is enormously enhanced if they can be incorporated into a plan using solid piers or posts and baseboard.
It is vital that any wooden fence is protected in every possible way from rot. Posts entering the ground need an application of hot creosote or proprietary wood preservative. Bottom rails need to be clear of soil. Cappings at the top to shed water will also help. Painting is a wood preservative but the effort of applying primer, two undercoats and a top coat, plus the relatively frequent renewal, makes it a doubtful proposition from an economic point of view. Ineffective painting produces the tatty peeling board fences that are part of too many contemporary housing estate gardens. But if paint is to be used, white is one of the best colours. With a white background plants stand out with clarity and precision. A hopeful green to ‘blend with the countryside’ is invariably wrong and does no such thing. Similarly, where chain-link fencing is used as an effective, though sadly inelegant, divide, its green form only compounds the trouble.
In some situations the fact that the material used is not permanent and does not pretend to be so is no problem. Wattle hurdles of woven hazel or the more beautiful woven osiers are ideal to give protection while a plant screen is developing. They are available in 2m (6ft) lengths in heights from 1 to 2m (3 to 6ft). As with interwoven fencing, wattles last longer if well supported and kept off the ground. Their use is twofold: to provide initial privacy and to give young plants shelter and protection. In really windy situations, especially by the sea, it is only with such help that a first shelter belt can be obtained, in the lee of which more desirable plants can be grown.
To gate or not to gate and how, is an entirely personal decision. Only a few general points might be made. The height of a gate is best taken as that of the wall or fence of which it must be seen to be a part. There cannot be much point to a gate twice the height of its wall:and paper boys will certainly not bother to open it. Similarly, in a high wall nothing looks better than a wrought iron or solid wooden door with a lintel above. There is a lovely feeling of entering a new world, but to contrive the effect with an arch or other lintel above the line of the wall seldom looks anything but artificial. Again good design combines the logical with the inevitable (at least that which appears inevitable once it has been carried out).