Thursday, Sep 27, 2012

Please fence me in
Lots of options when picking your pickets
By HEATHER M. O’CONNOR, Special to QMI Agency

The Living Wall is a new choice for environmentally conscious homeowners. It grows quickly and is virtually maintenance-free after the first year.

Good fences make good neighbours. -Proverb

The snow is gone, builders are laying sod, and a new homeowner’s thoughts turn to fencing. But how to pick your pickets?

Wrought-iron and its look-alike polymer, stone and masonry give a classy look but are too expensive for the majority of homeowners. Chain-link, either galvanized or plastic-coated, is maintenance-free, long-lasting and inexpensive but gives no privacy. It’s well suited for green thumbs because it doesn’t shade gardens and provides a lattice for climbing vines.

Traditional wooden fences fit the bill for most homeowners. This affordable, sturdy, renewable resource builds a long-lasting fence that affords a high degree of privacy. Most people choose pressure-treated lumber, typically spruce. Untreated, it weathers to a soft grey over time. Cedar – another popular choice – naturally resists decay but costs about 50% more. It also requires finishing to maintain its colour, says Derek Turberfield of Better Living Home and Garden Improvements.

A strong fence begins with a good foundation, which translates into four-foot holes with a crushed stone base for drainage.

“You don’t want your posts sitting in water. If they do, they’re going to rot,” Turberfield says.

He recommends getting multiple estimates and asking how deep they intend to dig. “If they say two feet, say ‘Thanks for coming over.’ If they say three feet, ask why. The answer you want is four feet because of something called frost heave. If the posts aren’t below the frost line, the frost can push them upwards.”

If the posts heave, the entire structure feels the stress. It’s only a matter of time before the fence breaks. It costs about $10 extra per post, about $150 for the average fence.

Most homeowners choose one of three styles. With a semi-private or shadowbox style, boards are nailed along each side of the fence, spaced in an alternating pattern. Because it looks the same on both sides, many neighbours choose this design. On a privacy fence, the boards are butted together. Unless boards are nailed to both sides, it is less attractive on one side. With board-and-batten, a second set of fence boards overlaps the first set. This provides similar privacy with a more decorative finish.

Though the basic fence types seldom change, the finishing details often do. For instance, 6-by-6 posts are gaining ground over 4-by-4s. They lend themselves to more creative finishes and make for a sturdier, meatier fence. Many homeowners are drawn to the distinctive look of black post caps, or even solar caps that light up at night.

“People are getting away from lattice as a topper,” says Turberfield. “They’re going for a straight-top finish, with the posts extending up six or eight inches or cut flush. For the most part, it’s no finishing at all, just a straight 2-by-6 or 2-by-4 across the top.”

Composite fencing is another option. This durable man-made lumber comes in different colours and resists fading over time. A blend of recycled and reclaimed materials, such as plastic bottles and wood fibres, it won’t splinter, crack, warp or rot. Though manufacturers claim that it is mould- and mildew-resistant, some consumers find that’s not always the case. It’s also a significantly pricier option, more than double the cost of cedar.

A new choice for the environmentally conscious is the Living Wall. More like a large shrub than a tree, the non-invasive species of willow grows straight up two to five feet a year until they reach their maximum 15 feet, combining the beauty of a hedge with the low maintenance of a fence.

The fence is constructed with 4-by-4 posts connected by three crossbeams. The posts need no concrete. Three-year-old willow wands are woven a finger’s width apart between the crossbeams and planted two to three feet deep in a trench filled with triple-mix. Within six weeks, the fence is fully green, creating an attractive privacy screen that lasts a lifetime.

“I’ve got it in my backyard,” says Anthony Biglieri, president of The Living Wall Inc. “It’s a little oasis for me – the leaves, the birds that fly in and out, the squirrels that like to run across it. I like it in the winter, the way the snow sits on it ... and in the spring, summer, fall because it’s always green.”

Considerable watering is required throughout the first year. After that, it’s virtually maintenance-free other than an annual trim with a hedge trimmer.

It’s one of the first plants to bud and one of the last to drop its leaves, says Biglieri. Pets can’t get through it. Graffiti won’t stick to it. To top it off, it siphons pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from the air.

Essential tips for choosing and planning your fence:

Getting the A-OK

Homeowners in new developments must consult with the builder, usually after a year has passed, to ensure that the municipality has signed off on the grading. Don’t rush it. The ground may sink around the homes as it settles. Build your fence too early and it may have to be torn down to correct the grading.

Local bylaws

How high can you build the fence? Height restrictions vary. Check what your municipality bylaws permit at the back, front and sides of the property. How close to the curb can your fence extend? What about fencing to enclose a backyard pool?


It’s time to talk to your neighbours to settle on the kind of fence to build. It may take compromise to find a mutually agreeable option, and in most cases compromise must be made with a neighbour on each side and one at the back. In new developments, it’s more economical to fence the whole block at once, though it may be hard to reach consensus.

But my neighbour doesn’t want a fence…

Most municipalities have a “good neighbour fence” bylaw that compels reluctant homeowners to ante up for half the cost of the least expensive option, usually chain-link.


Obtain three to five estimates, and don’t choose the lowball quote.

Call before you dig

The local utilities will happily flag the location of buried gas and water lines, hydro, TV and telephone cables.

Build it yourself or hire a fencer?

A quality contractor will build a sturdier fence, unless you’re a skilled do-it-yourselfer, says Derek Turberfield of Better Living Home and Garden Improvements.

“It isn’t just a matter of cutting the wood and putting it together. It’s putting in the right amount of screws, and putting them in the right place to make sure everything is tied to everything else. If you do it wrong, the fence is going to fall down.”

Consider it an investment in your home, he says. “If you’re spending that kind of money – $2,000, $3,000, $4000 – it’s not chump change.”

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