Mar 2013 19

Living Fences in Vancouver

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Creek Side by Paul Sangha
Creek Side by Paul Sangha

A living fence is an aesthetic and ecological solution for marking the boundaries of your property as well as providing privacy and discouraging trespassers. It creates a physical and visual barrier, provides shade, and shields you from the wind. Ordinary fences are expensive and require maintenance or need to be replaced quickly. However, a living fence is able to last for generations with low maintenance while providing useable organic material. There’s a huge variety of plants that can be used as living fences, each of them with different advantages. Furthermore, Vancouver bylaws don’t distinguish between an ordinary fence and a living fence, and the regulations grant lots of living fence opportunities.

Designing Your Living Fence

Planting a living fence doesn’t have to be done in one year; the work and growth of the plants can be spread out over several years. Before selecting the plants, it’s important to measure the area where the living fence will be planted. Make sure that you know the length and width of the free space and that you’re aware of any overhead obstructions such as power lines, balconies, or roof overhangs. The width of your living fence is an important measure — the wider the fence is, the better protection it provides. For planting shrubs and trees, leave an area with a width of at least 60 centimetres, and if you’re planning to plant vines, leave at least 15 centimetres.

Filoli Garden
Filoli Garden

We’ve asked Vanessa Nagel — who is a landscape designer with more than 30 years of experience, a member of the national board for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, and the owner of Seasons Garden Design — for her advice on the most important considerations before planting a living fence. She recommends that we pay attention to the overall size of the fence, mainly because it affects eventual growth. She adds,

Many people plant fast-growing plants eventually to only see bare lower trunks and spaces beneath the much higher foliage in the future.

Moreover, Vanessa says that other important points we should take into account before planting a living fence include the amount of privacy required and when it’s required (during the whole year or just throughout summer), drought tolerance, the amount of pruning required to keep the fence well maintained, how much space is available for planting, and the type of soil available (loam, sand, or clay, as well as the soil’s pH).

Quintessential by Paul Sangha
Quintessential by Paul Sangha

If you’re planting trees or shrubs, pay attention to the spacing between trunks. Plant shrubs approximately 50 to 60 centimetres apart and trees one to 1.5 metres apart. Afterwards, you should determine the height of the fence so that it won’t interfere with existing structures and won’t exceed the maximum limits set by local bylaws. Your measurements should also include the distance of the fence from any nearby buildings or structural features as well as your property lines. Existing features such as fences, arbours, trellises, and pergolas can be used as a support for your living fence.

Selecting Plants

Using a variety of plant types and sizes will not only make your living fence more unique, but it will also provide a better habitat for birds and other wildlife. In addition, growing plants underneath the taller plants will make your fence denser and stronger. As Vanessa Nagel suggests,

In this area of the country we are fortunate to be able to grow many different types of ‘living fence’ plants. I often subscribe to the concept of the ‘tapestry hedge’ because rather than depending on one single plant, grouping several different types of plants means that in the future, if one plant fails, then you can replace that plant without it being remarkably obvious.

Furthermore, she adds that the most suitable plants for a living fence in Vancouver are

columnar forms of Juniperus, Chamaecyparis, Cupressus, and Thuja families, as well as broadleaf evergreens such as larger varieties of Boxwood and Rhododendrons, Choisya, Elaeagnus pungens & E. x ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge,’ Pieris, and Prunus shipkaensis. Beech and hornbeam are deciduous trees that make good living fences, too.

Furthermore, great evergreen include plants such as photinia, escallonia, aucuba, ceanothus, euonymous, Viburnum tinus, Mexican orange blossom bush, blue holly, and Japanese waxleaf privet.

Filoli Graden
Filoli Garden

Keep in mind that plants that grow quickly are cheap initially but can become costly and require much more time and effort, as they may need much more pruning. Vanessa points out that arborvitae provide a less costly solution and grow quickly; however, once they have grown into their desired size, they will need to be pruned at least once per year. That’s why yew hedges gained so much popularity in the United Kingdom. They may grow slower, but they require substantially less pruning — definitely no more than once a year.

If you want to keep up with current trends in living fences, you should choose plants with fruits or flowers such as espalier trees, particularly apple and pear trees, or lindens with their fragrant flowers. Roses, particularly rugosa roses like Hansa are great if you want a solid, attractive, medium-sized, deciduous living fence.


Even though living fences usually require minimal maintenance, there are several processes that you should undertake once or twice a year. Pruning, trimming, and laying the fence are crucial for maintaining a healthy and thick living fence. You can use the trimmed branches to fill any gaps and to strengthen the fence. Trimming your living fence will improve bushy growth. The best way to lay your hedge is to cut most of the way through the stem of each plant near the base, bend it over, and interweave it between wooden stakes. Furthermore, as the living fence matures, new plants seed themselves in it and increase its thickness. If you don’t cut your fence from time to time, it could be unable to hold livestock and pets. Don’t forget to water your living fence regularly and to make sure that it has enough sun.

Perennial Border by Aloe Design
Perennial Border by Aloe Design

Remember that the slowest-growing plants require the least water. Most of the plants mentioned above do not require much maintenance; however, Vanessa warns that the beech is a bit less drought-tolerant even though it’s very slow-growing.

Prune with Care

Pruning is the key to obtaining a dense, smooth green wall. If your living fence includes plants that grow quickly, you should be prepared to prune a lot. It’s crucial to prune your green fence with the proper technique from planting time and to maintain regular maintenance every year.

Design by Paul Sangha
Design by Paul Sangha

You should understand your living fence’s habits. When cutting off a branch, dormant buds under the cut sprout into new twigs. However, not all plants have dormant buds, so be careful, because these plants won’t grow new twigs if pruned too harshly. It’s recommended to prune evergreens only into the soft, current season’s growth. On the other hand, deciduous shrubs usually tolerate pruning into old wood from previous seasons. Just when a new plant is planted, prune vigorous shrubs like privet by shortening the branches and shrub height by one-fourth to one-third. However, if you have slower- and denser-growing plants, do not prune their tops until they reach the desirable height.

It’s well known that all branches require abundant sunlight in order to grow properly. To prevent the upper growth from shading the lower branches, prune the sides of your plant so that the bottom is a bit wider than the top. Finally, make sure that you prune your living fence at the right time and frequency. Newly grown evergreens should be pruned in late spring and mid to late summer so that you won’t cut into old wood, and deciduous hedges should be pruned in late winter while dormant and then again in summer.

Vancouver By-Laws

It’s not just a saying that fences make good neighbours; fences play an important role in the relationship between neighbours. First of all, if you’re planning to plant a living fence, try to find out whether your neighbours do have any plant allergies. According to the City of Vancouver Zoning and Development By-law, a fence may be erected along and up to a property line but within the property limits. A fence includes arbours, archways, boundary fences, gates, pergolas, screens, trellises, walls, and similar structures. Erecting living fences is therefore pursuant to the Zoning and Development By-law.

Tsawwassen Bluff by Paul Sangha
Tsawwassen Bluff by Paul Sangha

The by-law sets the maximum height of a fence located on a required front yard or on the boundaries of a required front yard at 1.2 metres, with a maximum height of 1.9 metres for fences in side yards and rear yards. Furthermore, fences surrounding one- and two-family dwellings do not require Development and Building permits if they meet the requirements of Section 10.16 of the Zoning and Development By-law and Part 9 of the Vancouver Building By-law.

Landscape and Garden Design in Vancouver

Seasons Garden Design, 503 621 2746
Aloe Designs, 604 568 7324
Paul Sangha, 604 736 2323
Garden Works, 604 629 1419
Figaro’s Garden, 604 253 1696
Outside Contemporary Garden Design, 604 720 6167

2 Responses to “Living Fences in Vancouver”

  1. Outdoor Living Trends | Vancouver Homes

    […] chosen greens can help. If noise from passing vehicles bothers you, you can make use of hedges to mute the sounds of the traffic. Your children can benefit from a designated play area where they can build castles or play hide […]

  2. Gordon Clay

    In the past, my neighbour and I developed many evergreen hedges (hemlock and cedar) between our properties. He passed away and now the new neighbour is promoting the non triimming of the hedges, so now the “trees” are over 20′ high and beginning to block my view. Can he do this?
    Gordon Clay
    953 Leland,
    Coquitlam, B.C. 604 936 8203

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