Properly Screened

The battle of privacy and security versus ventilation and light is felt most keenly in summer. Air movement is crucial to comfortable outdoor living spaces. Unfortunately in an effort to find privacy, too many of them have been enclosed with solid fences and walls. The solution has been a compromise screen fence perforated to offer half the seclusion in exchange for the blessed breeze.

In every part of the world the screen fences rose out of locally indigenous materials. In Africa, kraals of thorny sticks allowed the evening breezes to whisk away the heat while protecting from wild animals. European Celts wove wattle made of willow whips that later enclosed the first real gardens. Chinese screens of intricately lashed bamboo offered visual beauty while secluding parts of the household. In all these examples, the screen fence, with its semitransparent materials have provided the design character of a space.

The universal American solution is lattice, borrowed from the French and spread during the Victorian era. These panels of thin wood lath set on a square or diagonal grid are typically painted white. Dense lattice cuts visibility to below 50 percent, adding privacy to porches and side yards.

Unfortunately lattice isn’t appropriate for all architectural styles. It’s perfect for traditional looks of ranch, Victorian, country or colonial homes. But there’s no place for lattice in modern, rustic, Southwest or Asian, where it’s distinctly out of place.

With screen fencing among the most important elements in your garden, it must be stylistically integrated, function properly and look good. Properly matching the fence to your house is essential.

The very fact that this fence is semitransparent makes it inherently weak structurally. Therefore good design is crucial.

For all these reasons, many new ideas have emerged for solving privacy problems cheaply or creatively. Some fences feature emphasis on industrial materials that won’t decompose. Others are reaching back to more rustic roots for a less rigid organic aesthetic.

Panels of metal grids used to reinforce concrete and masonry are proving excellent screen material. Slotted, woven and welded mesh is distinctly on the rise. These are found in the masonry section of home-improvement stores, not the fence department. The metals are easily incorporated into a wood or steel fence structure for instant screening. Even if the material rusts, this patina is considered desirable in some cases. These choices are far more appealing in urban neighborhoods due to availability and ease of handling compared to raw lumber. Plus, metals are cheap and long lasting, evoking the popular quasi-industrial modern look of loft living.

At the other end of the spectrum is woven basket-like wattle. This is an ancient art used around the world to create barriers for livestock and home protection. Wattle fences are extraordinarily beautiful in the rustic residential garden because they blend with the plants and natural wood tones.

Larger-scale wattle must be built in place from scratch, with strong posts and densely woven twigs. More modest screening is a simple do-it-yourself project thanks to prefabricated panels of finely made willow wattle. These are sold at quality garden centers or on the Internet. Simply stand the panel between two posts and you have an instant screen; use a few more and it’s a fence.

More common and less expensive is the rolled fencing spans you can buy online or in stores. The common reed doesn’t hold up well over time. Heavy-duty rolled bamboo and willow is a far better choice. Though more flexible than rigid wattle and capable of spanning a much longer distance, this is a super choice for rustic and Asian-inspired gardens.

Screen fences are a garden maker’s most valuable element. They are gentle means of stemming the view or channeling the eye. Screen fences are all about light and air filtering through; enclosure without feeling bounded. And never is it more appreciated than in summer when the slightest breeze is welcomed with open arms. What we’re after is simple: to merely define space without sacrificing spaciousness.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site or visit

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