Your Essential Guide to Choosing and Installing a Garden Fence
From how to boost security to materials and style, follow this expert advice on picking the perfect fence for your plot
Professional advice from: Peter Reader of Peter Reader Landscapes; John Brennan of Yorkshire Gardens; Kate Gould of Kate Gould Gardens; Neil Jones of Neil Jones Designs
Beginning your garden project? Read How to Start a Garden Redesign
It will come as no surprise to learn that the most common material for garden fences is wood. “It looks best in gardens, as it’s a natural material,” Peter Reader says. “It’s also relatively long-lasting and cheap, and comes in lots of styles.”
All of our experts are clear that you should choose pressure-treated or tanalised softwood, or good-quality hardwood. “Tanalised timber has been treated with Tanalith, a wood preservative,” Kate Gould explains. “The tanalisation process can leave slightly odd, bright-green stains on the wood, but these will fade over time.
“Although usually the least expensive form of fencing, off-the-shelf softwood fences can quickly transform a space,” she adds.
If you’re unsure of which type of fence to choose, find inspiration in your neighbourhood. “Take a lead from other fence styles commonly used around you,” Neil Jones says. “It may be that more rustic fences, such as willow or oak hurdle panels, are more in keeping with your locality or property – particularly in a rural setting.
“Increasingly, composite materials are being used in fence and screen construction, for the same reasons they’re used in decking – they’re very low maintenance and durable, and they come in a range of finishes and colours,” Neil says. However, he warns that these are generally more costly.
When deciding on the height of your fencing, Neil advises, planning is an important consideration. “Without seeking Planning Permission, any boundary adjacent to a highway should be no more than 1m high, with all other fencing a maximum of 2m high.”
“Most fences are 1.8m high, as this offers the best privacy,” Peter says. “But remember, they also block light, so think carefully about how high you want your fence. A strip of trellis on top will add to the feeling of privacy while still letting light through.”
Kate offers an important piece of advice when it comes to measuring up. “Always make sure you know your measurements at the boundary before choosing a fence height, in case there’s a slight drop off on your neighbour’s side,” she says. “In this case, if you install a 1.8m fence from the base of your ground level, it will measure too high from their side.”
For front gardens that are restricted to a fence height of 1m, John Brennan says, “I generally recommend hedges to people who want some privacy at the front of their house, as there’s no restriction on height.”
More: A Beginner’s Guide to Laying Out a Garden
“Solid fences and screens can create eddies either side that can, on exposed sites, be damaging to plants growing adjacent to the fence,” Neil says. “So a boundary treatment with some degree of perforation is better to displace and buffer winds.”
Peter agrees and says, “Fences that let the wind through help to break it up and reduce its strength. So ‘hit-and-miss’ fences or woven designs work well.”
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If you’d like to block out sound from outside your garden, there are options. “A number of manufacturers make fencing that’s designed to block or reduce sound,” Peter says. “They work by reflection – dense boards with no gaps, so they don’t allow sound through – or absorption – usually with one side of the fence lined with an absorbent material, such as rock wool.”
However, Neil adds, “Acoustic panels will only go a small way to lessening the impact of a noisy activity on the other side, so a combination of a good-quality fence and tree and shrub planting is best.”
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If you think a sturdy fence is more secure than a flimsy one, the following might surprise you. “Strangely enough, a rickety fence is more secure than a solid one,” John says. “Would you rather climb something that’s stable, or something that wobbles around as you go up it? Some loosely fitted trellis at the top of a fence can do the trick.”
Be careful not to assist intruders. “Wooden fences can be constructed with close boarding that doesn’t create any toe-holds. These can also be painted with anti-climb paint,” Peter says. “Metal fences mostly consist of smooth, upright bars with anti-climb paint and no horizontals that assist climbing.
“A variety of top fixings, such as overhangs, can make climbing more difficult,” he adds. “Other options include a variety of mesh fences on steel frames, where the mesh is of a tight nature and doesn’t offer toe or finger holds.”
“In general, the choices are softwood, hardwood or concrete posts,” Neil says. “Hardwood posts are obviously more durable than softwoods, with concrete being the most durable. Timber posts, in my view, look more pleasing than concrete and will weather down with the rest of the wood.”
Peter agrees, and says, “Concrete is very strong, while wood is more attractive, but will need replacing in 25 years (if they are good posts that have been properly put up).”
“The posts can either be rough sawn or smooth planed to match the type of fence chosen,” John adds.
“All types are best concreted in,” Peter says, “with 600mm of post below ground for a 1.8m fence and 100mm of concrete all around. This keeps them dry and free from soil, so they’ll last a long time.
“Ideally, the concrete should slope a little away from where it sits against the post, so any rain runs off, rather than being held around the post,” he adds.
John has another trick to prevent rot: “Plastic posts will last forever – think about that for a moment. If the wooden posts are not going to be visible, there’s a plastic sleeve available that can protect the bottom of them. It’s generally the area 100mm below and above ground level that rots; the plastic will prevent this.”
“The most cost-effective fence is probably pressure-treated softwood,” Peter says. “It needs to be properly pressure treated though. There are many fence panels that are just ‘dipped’ or painted with a preservative, which soon wears off, and then the wood rots quickly.
“A number of good companies offer softwood fencing with 20- to 25-year guarantees – go for them,” he advises.
“A featherboard fence is probably the cheapest design that will last a good while,” Peter continues. “It can be put up either as individual panels or constructed to fit the site, including managing level changes.”
“Individual panels secured to a timber structure and made on site are often only a small additional cost, but they look far better and are often stronger,” Neil says. “Bespoke hardwood, such as oak or iroko, is expensive, but provides a very attractive and long-lasting fence that generally improves with age as it weathers.”
Kate adds, “All require a bespoke approach and a good landscaper or joiner. A hardwood fence requires stainless-steel screws or dowelled joints, so the face of the finished product isn’t marred by fixings.”
“Unless you’re having a bespoke fence made, panels are either 1.83m wide in imperial measurement [6ft], or 1.8m if using European panels,” John explains. “Measure the run and divide by the panel size to calculate the number needed. Don’t forget to add in the posts as well.”
“If you have the space, it’s best to lay out your posts and panels flat in the garden to avoid any unfortunate tape measure mishaps,” Kate says. “Many online fence suppliers have calculators where you can add in the length of boundary and it will then work out how many panels, posts, caps and accessories you’ll need.”
You might find you have to reduce the size of one of your panels. If this is the case, Peter says, “some companies can provide ‘reducing kits’ to help you do this. Think carefully where you want the smaller panel to be – you may want to hide it or use it by a tree that sits in the fence line.”
“Sloped gardens present more difficulties for installing fencing,” Neil says. “Either raked panels [manufactured on an angle], or individual panels secured to a timber frame and built in situ on the slope, are best and provide the most pleasing results.
“If the slope is reasonably gentle,” he says, “standard fence panels can be used and stepped at regular intervals to take account of the slope.”
“Plan carefully where these ‘steps’ will be,” Peter says, “as this will mean in some places the fence will effectively be lower than elsewhere, and you may be able to see over it. Also, regular steps down can look better than irregular ones.”
Neil adds, “It may be that a barge or gravel board is required at the bottom to take up the triangle-shaped gap at the base of the panels.”
More: How to Lay out a Sloping Garden
Peter recommends you discuss your plans with your neighbour first and agree the boundary and the design. “You don’t want them to stop the work when the builders are on site, or for their dog to escape through your garden,” he says.
“You may also need access to their garden to put the new fence up as well,” he adds. “In most cases, this is very helpful. If it’s a shared fence, then they may contribute to the cost.”
“Prepare the site by removing any plants you want to protect,” John says. “Detach climbers and carefully lay them on the ground ready to be reattached to the new fence.”
Peter adds, “Dig out any weeds or plants, such as ivy, that you don’t want, and undertake any maintenance that’s difficult to do with the fence in place.”
Neil advises you do your best to level out the ground along the length of the fence. “Secure string along the line of the fence, ensuring it’s kept tensioned, and include intermediate posts for any change in direction to provide an accurate line to work to.
“As with any job,” he says, “the key to the appearance and longevity of the fence will lie in the quality of construction, with the posts being key to its strength and rigidity.”
“A correctly specified and installed fence shouldn’t need maintenance,” John says.
He recommends you think carefully before you paint or stain it. “Any treatment, whether paint, stain or oil, will need to be reapplied at regular intervals,” he says.
Peter advises, “Consider whether you want your fence to stay the original wood colour, or whether you’re happy to let it weather to a silvery shade. If the former, it will need treating every year.
“Similarly, with a painted fence, you may need to re-do it once in a while to maintain the best effect, or you may be happy for it to weather,’ he says.
If you’re planning to stain your fence, Neil warns, “Consider whose fence it is, as dark stains can often seep through to the neighbour’s side and look ugly.”
Climbing plants are another consideration, Peter says. “If the fence is in good condition, it will stand up to most things within reason. However, powerful climbers such as wisteria and ivy can obviously be destructive in the longer term, as the fence weathers and ages. Consider using a frame of some sort to help support climbers.”
“Slatted horizontal screens are increasingly popular and provide that designer look,” Neil says. “Many slatted systems are intended to be used in conjunction with a solid barrier behind for screening at lower levels, as the slats have gaps between them, the width of which will affect the degree of privacy.
“When used at a higher level, such as on top of a wall or fence, with no backing behind, they provide filtered privacy and continue the visual effect of the fence without totally blocking the light,” he says.
“Horizontal slat fences can make a space feel bigger, and you can train climbers through the gaps,” Peter says. “However, too much [of an expanse] can feel rather stark, so use them carefully and soften them with planting. They can be pricey, so shop around for cost and quality.”
Kate recommends you get a professional to install them to get a precise and clean finish.
While you’re in the process of installing new fences, you could take the opportunity to help our declining hedgehog population.
These spiny creatures need to roam from garden to garden in order to find food, so it’s important to provide access. Ask your installer to cut a hedgehog-sized hole at the bottom of one of your fence panels on either side of your garden.
Talk to your neighbours, as well, to see if they’d like to help create a ‘hedgehog highway’ between your gardens.
More: How to Swap Your Fence for a Wildlife-friendly Hedge
Are you planning to have new garden fencing installed? Was this advice helpful? Share your thoughts and tips in the Comments.