Best Supporting Actors: Walls, Fences and Hedges

By Elinor Markle

Walls, fences and hedges are hardworking design elements that deserve our appreciation. Although not usually glamorous, these vertical elements give definition to, and create the boundaries of, a landscape space. With all the flashy plants, paving and site furniture evident in a typical landscape, the walls, fences and hedges are often looked at without actually being seen. They rarely take the lead in a landscape statement, but rather play the part of supporting actors.

Probably everyone could agree that walls, fences and hedges are three examples of landscape elements that create a barrier to physical or visual access. When I query my farming friends about the need for walls, fences and hedges, they tell me that their primary use is “to keep animals in,” and when I ask my city friends the same question, they assure me that the main purpose for these features is to “keep people out.” I write about all three of the distinct forms at once, because whether they keep animals in or people out, they are multipurpose tools that serve the same practical and aesthetic purposes.


 A wall is a solid, mostly opaque structure, whose construction materials are typically heavy. Brick, stone and concrete or mortar in varying amounts or forms are the chief components. The process of building the wall is accomplished at a rather slow pace since a foundation must be dug and laid, the materials must be gathered together, and then, piece by piece, the building blocks of the wall are set into place. Because of the nature of the materials and the method of construction, we come to understand that a wall is literally not a thing to be taken lightly, and the tone it lends to a landscape is distinctly more somber than anything either a fence or a hedge can offer. It conveys a sense of permanence and strength.

Beyond the basic knowledge that a wall is a serious and costly addition to our landscape, there is the subtle significance of the materials used in its construction. The sort of stone or choice of brick has its own influence on the feeling that the wall imparts. A dry stack field stone wall of about a three foot height speaks of a rustic and practical space beyond. A brick or cut stone wall with trim cap stones sets us up to anticipate a more refined landscape.


 A well built fence is also a multi-step construction project, although its form is minimal in thickness and it is usually open or transparent in nature. Modern fences are generally built of wood or wire or made with metal to resemble the wrought iron that was in common use a hundred or more years ago. Rather than a build on a footing than runs the entire length of the structure, a fence will have posts set into individual footings. The posts perform as a structural team and suspend the decorative and functional fence panels between two posts.

If we think of the wall form as a strong, silent type of character, the fence can be seen to exhibit a more expressive and outgoing persona. The many choices in the way fence construction materials can be manipulated give plenty of opportunity for the particular style of the client behind the barrier to shout out. A fence is typically not as large an investment as a wall when compared on a square foot basis, thus we perceive it to have less “class” and more “brass.” Furthermore, the construction method of fencing lends itself to less cumbersome and more temporary adaptation in the landscape. Need to move a fence? Disconnect the panels and relocate the post, reattach the panels and the job is complete.

If you want to send a truly interesting message, use a mixture of wall and fence components. It is a flexible approach to say the least. Erect intermittent posts of stone or brick at the appropriate intervals, and then set fence panels between them. This form is a hybrid and sends the message that the owner wants to convey a sense of permanence, and wants the transparent nature of the fencing to invite your gaze into the space, taking practicality to a new level. When I see this technique, I imagine that the current owners are preparing a barrier that the next owner can more easily customize. It is as if they realize that in time, there will be a change to the function or the shape of the space beyond and are preparing portable forms in anticipation of that change. When is a wall not a wall?

In the photo of the little courtyard outside a public library, we see posts of brick that visually and physically connect the space to the building. The posts are set with transparent fence panels. This particular space serves as a reading nook and outdoor classroom for children, who need to be contained for their safety, and yet the area must have transparency in order to assure that nothing wrong is happening within the space. The lightness of the fence panels encourage and allow views out into the larger world, while providing protection from harmful forces.


 What about the hedge? Originally called a hedgerow, the installation of a hedge can be the least expensive vertical form to create, yet it will require continual maintenance. Simple in its construction method, a hedge consists of plantings of any uniform size installed at equidistant spacing’s. Hedges can be made more ornamental by additions of contrasting and decorative plants, and the inclusion of dissimilar plants at regular intervals can break up their monotony. The different plant can read as “posts” within the composition.

As a hedge matures, it increasingly gives the sense of permanence and longstanding tradition because we realize that it has been maintained continually over a long period. It conveys a sense of continued prosperity of the owner and the owner’s responsible use of funds, because of the need for proper and regular maintenance. The wall says “I have money to spend now” and the hedge says, “I have allocated money to be spent in perpetuity.”

We build walls and fences, and plant hedges to announce the human presence in a landscape. We use them to prevent uncontrolled access to a space, to direct views and physical access to a specific entry points. They demark property boundaries, establish private space, create the foreground for a view, and support the tone or style of the overall architectural or landscape theme. We further decorate or “soften” the appearance of the repetitious forms of walls, fences and hedges with trailing vines, or include plantings to accentuate the texture and create interplays of form and color. Our walls, fences and hedges are tremendously important design elements that provide functional and aesthetic dimension for any space. They are the supporting actors that humbly hold the entire composition together.


Elinor Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at

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