Urban gardener, Cleve West: Fencing lessons

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The Independent Online

Urban gardeners who have made the pilgrimage to Dungeness on the Kent coast and paid homage at the late Derek Jarman's garden will almost certainly have stopped at some point to stretch, pirouette and take a great gulp of fresh air. The landscape commands it. Big sky, open sea and shed-loads of shingle. For some people, I imagine, the overwhelming sensation of freedom might well be tempered by a nagging disquiet, for most gardens around the cabins and ramshackle structures have no fences. Boundaries here are more than blurred, they just don't exist. The lack of panels, mesh, or post and rail accentuates the strong sense of community and forces you to consider the bigger picture.

Back in the city, where property rights, security and privacy make us more than a little paranoid about enclosure, we take our boundaries very seriously. Unless you're lucky enough to have a wall, fencing is an issue most of us will have to deal with at some stage. The vertical plane in an urban garden can present a number of options for the garden designer but fencing is one element that can really let a space down. If the focus is on the planting, strong design or ornamental feature then mute boundaries will provide a respectful foil. One might be forgiven for thinking that the simple and relatively cheap larch-lap panel is mute enough, although surrounding your garden with bright orange is anything but subtle. A miserly strip of trellis to draw even more attention to it, or even worse adding new trellis to old fencing, will successfully obliterate any dignity the garden had to offer.

The best investment for any garden where your boundaries have you reaching for sunglasses is to paint your fence a neutral or darker colour. This will allow the rest of the garden to shine and climbers to grow at their own pace without you cracking the whip. Disguising boundaries with climbing plants (allow a good three to five years) has the curious effect of making your garden feel bigger.

Post and rail with feather-edged boards is a more expensive option but is generally longer lasting and comes in more forgiving shades of tanalised pressure treatment that weathers to neutral silver. Ranch style fencing provides a more contemporary feel. These can be fixed vertically or horizontally depending on your personal preference and allow air and light to penetrate making it incredibly plant friendly while reducing the risk of wind damage.

There are (and I have wasted an unreasonable amount of time thinking of a different way of putting this) a couple of new products that have elevated fencing to new heights. Sunny Screens (www.sunnyaspects.co.uk) use a mixture of treated softwood and translucent polypropylene to make a range of versatile screens that allow light to penetrate, so benefiting plants that might otherwise struggle in the shade of closed panels. Interesting effects can also be achieved both day and night with the plants' silhouette or shadow.

If your preference is for something verging on rural but mindful of the fact that wattle hurdles (made from hazel or willow) look about as at home in the city as an RHS judge in a shell suit, you might consider Quercus Fencing (www.quercusfencing.co.uk), who weave panels of seasoned oak deftly and cleanly enough to make them look as happy in Tooting as they might in Tavistock. It's a hardwood, so no treatment is necessary, and being woven allows wind to pass through, putting less strain on posts and protecting plants that might otherwise suffer damage from a vortex caused by solid structures. The sustainable timber weathers to soft silver and, while it's obviously more expensive than your regular larch-lap fencing, it will look better and last longer.

My solution for the ever-increasing allotment waiting lists is that people who hate gardening should, like the inhabitants of Dungeness, dispense with fences and, in the spirit of community,allow green-fingered neighbours to broaden their horizons. Not as daft as it sounds really. Rent could be paid in seasonal vegetables or flowers and it could lead to urban garden cooperatives making quite a serious impact on food production, biodiversity and many of the environmental issues that are now affecting the way we treat our outdoor spaces. If you know someone willing to raze their boundaries for the common good, please let me know.