July 10th, 2010
Fenced In

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
The new fence. And a new bed to plant. Notice that it does not slope with the ground. Why is revealed below.

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
The old fence. Part of it collapsed and is leaning against the section still standing which is covered in ivy.

Born and bred in the American Southwest, I have a longing for wide open spaces but given my urban reality I appreciate how fences make good neighbors. My garden is bordered by six neighbors and the resulting fence line is a patchwork of picket, chain link, and wooden privacy fences (each of a different design). I’ve been lazy about fence maintenance and twice my procrastination has paid off.

Half (about 40 additional feet) of the same fence that one neighbor replaced in 2003 bordered another neighbor. After seven years, the fence finally collapsed under the weight of the ivy. I decided to take on my share of neighborly obligation and replace it.

Finding a Contractor

My biggest hurdle was a mental one. After my last unsuccessful dealings with a contractor, I was very reluctant to go through the process of interviewing and hiring anyone.

The first person I talked with took measurements and wrote up an estimate. He was professional, but (I felt) impersonal. He didn’t have any questions about the quirks of the site. He didn’t offer me any options, outline alternatives, or discuss anticipated issues. He didn’t explain the process or ask about my questions or concerns. This one-size-fits-all solution just didn’t fit me.

The second person I talked to stood me up three times–and that was just to give me an estimate. Each excuse was valid and apologetic. However, it bothered me that he called to cancel at the moment he was supposed to be meeting me, not when he first realized that he couldn’t make the appointment. I understand that the unexpected happens. What I evaluate is how someone responds. Taken as a whole his responses seemed to indicate someone disorganized who didn’t think things through. This might not be a fair assessment but all I had to go on was three phone conversations. First impressions really do count.

I appealed to the Austin garden blogger network and Pam/Digging came to the rescue. When I met with R. I was impressed by two things: he was attentive and he was observant. He listened to what I wanted and he looked at the site. He paced back and forth as he imagined the process of putting up the fence and as he mentally discovered issues asked me questions about how I’d like them handled.

Prepping the Garden

I had known this fence was going to be replaced for years, so I had already moved the bulbs that were originally there. The English ivy smothered everything else. The most difficult plant to deal with was the ‘Mermaid’ rose which had threaded itself through the fence and trees. ‘Mermaid’ is one prickly rose! I cut off an older section which was tangled in a crape myrtle that was going to be removed. I moved all the new canes over to one side and tied them out of the way. I flagged the whole rose with ribbons of orange construction tape–not so much for the protection of the rose but for the protection of the workers.

One thing I’ve learned about workers: they’re efficient because they’re focused on getting their job done. That focus is so narrow they don’t “see” a garden. So I marked off the path through the garden beds with more orange construction tape. This is an edging that speaks to construction workers: it says, “Don’t take a shortcut through here. Don’t dump materials here. Don’t pour cement here.”

The Process

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
Robert Frost might have wondered if good fences make good neighbors. I don’t.

The fence came down quickly. The bigger part of the job was hacking out of the ivy and removing a few spindly trees (hackberry, redbud, and crape myrtle) growing up through the fence. As you can see in the photo above, what I took for saplings were actually the suckers from the stump of what had once been a huge redbud. Unfortunately, this stump was where an old post was and where a new post hole had to be dug–a lot of hard work for the crew. They dealt with it without shirking.

After further consideration, we agreed to leave the largest hackberry. I’ve tried for years to remove it from my side and what’s left is a rather large tree overhanging my neighbor’s yard. To cut it down now would require professional tree people and consultation with my neighbor who wasn’t around. Besides with all the little trees around it gone, it now looks rather graceful.

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
After the post holes were dug and the posts set in concrete.

The next day, the fence took shape. I am so impressed at how straight and true all the lines are. My yard slopes from the SW corner to the NE. A horizontal line is such a relief.

The Result

I had an unusual requirement. Both my neighbors on this south side are uphill from me. A line of huge blocks of stone divides our properties. I wanted to be able to see the stones under the fence. I wanted air circulation so to prevent plant diseases. And I wanted to have access all the way to the stones so that I could cut out any seedlings that the birds and squirrels and wind plant there.

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
The hackberry that grew up in the fence line and the beautiful old stone boundary marker.

The solution was to make the top of the fence horizontal and let the bottom be open. This way the height of the fence matches the height of the fences each of my neighbors built.

Zanthan Gardens privacy fence
I hope my neighbor is pleased with how well the new fence matches his.
Zanthan Gardens privacy fence

From my neighbor’s side, the fence is the standard height. From my side (downhill), it appears taller.

by M Sinclair Stevens

7 Responses to post “Fenced In”

  1. From Margaret Roach:

    Genius! I love nothing quite as much as my fence (not handsome like yours, but deerproof). Makes me feel safely tucked in, you know?

    A giant blank slate (and as you say, a whole new bed to boot). Congratulations.

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    The new fence looks beautiful, MSS! Your site’s slope and the need to deal with what was already there sounds very complicated – what a lucky thing Pam connected you to someone who could give you a happy ending.

    Were you able to get rid of the ivy? From our experience and that of other Austin gardeners, Asiatic jasmine will not die no matter what you do to it.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’m apparently the only gardener in Austin who can’t grow Asiatic jasmine. I planted some the first year I was here and it died. This fence was covered in English ivy. The roots are huge and run deep. I spent the afternoon after the posts were set and the morning of the next day pulling up vines and digging out roots. When I’d get to a main clump, I used a reciprocating saw with a special pruning blade to chop them up. I expect this battle to continue for several years. — mss

  3. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    This is a great story of how to deal with a complicated issue. I think that it’s a great new look, too! And just in time to think of fun plants to put in this fall.

  4. From Katina Austin:

    nice looking fence! We were lucky and the neighbors on either side of us replaced the fences when we first moved in. Now we just need to get the fences in the back replaced, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be the ones footing the bill for it.

  5. From Carol:

    Love the story of the process as much as anything. Having had workers in my garden for the installation of a patio, I can vouch for them being very focused. But at the same time, they did notice some plants that should be moved, and asked about them before digging them out.

  6. From Fougères San Antonio:

    Thank you for the in depth reporting. How you evaluated the contractors was spot on. I can’t wait to see future pictures showing how the new fence and its neighboring plantings mature.

    I do most things myself. Thus, when I hire someone, I’m looking for expertise and abilities that I don’t have. I think what I learned from my previous experience is that people who are true experts typically love to share their work. They exude an excitement, a thrill at tackling a problem or project because they love the challenge. Warning bells go off now when someone is unable to explain their process, or gets defensive when I ask questions, or is fuzzy about details. I need to know that they have thought the details through. — mss

  7. From Pam/Digging:

    I’m glad the fence guy worked out for you. It looks great.

    Thank so much for referring him to me. It was such a relief (given my previous experience) to have someone who listened to my requirements and who took such care in his craftsmanship. — mss