Q. Dear Umbra,
My girlfriend and I recently bought a house on a corner lot. The house is great, but the property is completely exposed to the street and doesn’t offer any privacy. We’ve done a little research into buying a fence made out of the traditional options like wood or vinyl, but are concerned that the wood will rot too quickly and the vinyl will leach toxic chemicals into our veggie garden. We’ve also considered installing a living fence, but are concerned that our dog will escape through it. Can you help recommend an eco-friendly fence option?
A. Dearest Bill,
Congratulations on entering a universe in which no landlord can make you endure a toxic/high-impact/just plain ugly fence again. I do indeed have some ideas for your new borderline.
As with most purchases, we’ll want to consider things like production impact, use of recycled materials, renewable sources, and end-of-life disposal as we weigh the options. And of course, you’ll also want to factor in cost, material availability, maintenance, and your personal taste. Let’s get you off the fence with this decision, shall we?
I’ll begin with my favorite fencing option: salvaged materials. What’s not to love? Repurposing existing materials diverts perfectly good stuff from the landfill, results in little to no additional manufacturing impact, and often lends your yard a unique style, from funky to sophisticated. There are a few ways to go about this. One is to browse architectural salvage shops for materials; old wrought iron fences are a popular way to go. These panels are super-durable, and even worn-out finds can be scraped or sandblasted back into good shape; they can get pricey fast, but elegance comes at a cost. Reclaimed wood from old buildings also belongs in this category, and you might be able to rustle up high-quality lumber perfect for fences — such as naturally rot-resistant cedar or redwood. You’ll probably need to treat other types of wood to protect them from the elements, but that can be done in an eco-friendly manner. Start by poking around some local salvage shops (like this one or this one) and chatting with neighborhood builders; you never know what you’ll turn up.
Another, quirkier salvage option is to use non-fence materials to build a fence: think skis, surfboards, window frames, or old doors. It might take some time to find enough salvaged stuff to complete this type of fence, Bill (especially if you want everything to match), and it can take work to clean the raw materials. But some of those more creative ideas can be sourced cheaply or for free — and your corner lot will definitely be eye-catching.
I do like the living fence idea very much, too. For those who aren’t worried about an escape-artist pup, a nice line of hedges is gorgeous, natural, provides a little habitat for tiny neighborhood creatures, and, if you pick something like raspberry bushes, feeds you tasty snacks (even my beloved salvaged fences can’t do that). The downsides here for you, as you know, is that it often takes at least several years for your greenery to fill in, and I’m not sure anything short of Harry-Potter-and-the-Goblet-of-Fire-thick bushes will contain a determined dog.
After those choices, I’d look to regular old lumber, which also makes for a good-looking fence. But go for Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood to ensure it was harvested sustainably if you can. Bamboo in particular is enjoying a moment among the eco set: Not only does it replenish itself quickly, but its naturally waxy coating protects it for a few years before you need to worry about sealing it. (The FSC tip applies to bamboo, too.)
Then there are metal or stone fences. We’ve already talked about wrought iron (classy and long-lasting, but expensive, and making metal is a resource-intensive process); steel and aluminum are more affordable and maintenance-free, and can often be recycled. I confess I quite like the look of a stone fence, too — so New England pioneer homestead, don’t you think? — but those are heavy and difficult to build, and quarrying stone has its own environmental impacts. If you go this route, look for local rocks to minimize shipping heavy chunks long distances.
There’s one more fence I’d like to mention: composite panels made from a mixture of wood waste fiber and recycled plastic. These are nice because they provide a needed market for recycled plastic, and they withstand wind and rain like, well, plastic (read: easy to maintain). But mixing plastic with wood makes these composite materials non-recyclable at the end of their useful lives (which tend to be long, at least), so one of the other options is probably a better bet.
Oh, and vinyl fencing? It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to shout this from the rooftops, so thank you for this: No vinyl, and that’s final! Ah, wasn’t that cathartic? Not only does vinyl manufacturing create truly awful dioxins, but there are leaching issues to boot. You can do better, Bill.
As for me, I’m off to brainstorm more ideas for my dream salvaged fence. I’m thinking alternating old washboards with bike wheels would make a real statement. Or maybe a line of scavenged antique milk crates…