Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Texans love their fences. Big, bodacious, imposing fences. Nothing makes us feel safer, or more private, than having our backyards wrapped in the seeming impenetrability of a tall, wooden fence.

Good fences make good neighbors.

We haven’t had a fence for almost four years. Michael is from Ohio, the land of one big communal backyard, unfenced and shared by all.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

When I went to Ohio for the first time three years ago, I couldn’t believe how neat and tidy everything was. It reminded me of living in Switzerland, where everything runs on time and all signs of imperfection are hidden. The Protestant Ethic is alive and well in Ohio. Must be all that good German stock.

One weekend Michael called over some buddies and tore down our old, dilapidated fence. He even talked the neighbor next door into letting him pull hers down as well.

His reason: we were going to re-landscape the entire yard, front and back. We dug up the entire front and back yard and put in subsurface irrigation. Until it was completed, it looked like a nuclear bomb had hit our property.

Eventually, we planted a beautiful flowerbed in the front yard, added plants along the side of the house, and planted a vegetable garden in the back.

The final piece of the outdoor renovation has been putting in a new fence. Or not.

Being from Ohio, Michael loved not having a fence. I was okay with it until we adopted two dogs–two rather large dogs.

For the past three years, every time the dogs have wanted to go outside we’ve had to attach them to two long ropes that are anchored in the ground. This system has not been perfect.

I planted Canna lilies to make a quasi natural fence. Great in summer, lousy in winter, destroyed by Shasta in spring.

Shasta and my natural Canna lily fence

The City of Dallas spent the past year digging up the alley behind our house. In fact, they dug it up multiple times. Each time I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. There was no barrier between me and our garden from digging machines and men with shovels. The dogs were not happy with these workers behind our house.

I wasn’t either. One of them knocked on my back door one afternoon to tell me I had “beautiful tomatoes.” He asked if he could buy some from our garden. The next time I saw him, while walking the dogs, he asked about our peppers. He couldn’t believe that we grew hot peppers. Yes, Jose, white people eat peppers, too. I refused to sell him any.

A female worker asked me one day what the compost bin was. She thought it was a snake cage.

The owners across the street decided to renovate their rental house. For nine months we eyed each other, finally made introductions, and then became friends. He enjoyed seeing the changes in our garden, and we enjoyed seeing all the work he put into a new deck and driveway, and eventually the house itself. Shasta found someone new to jump on, and I enjoyed listening to him sing along to classic rock.

Then they put up their new fence and we hardly saw them again. Working in the garden suddenly wasn’t as much fun anymore.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

The snoopy neighbor on the other side wondered why we didn’t have a fence and what it would do to his property value. When Shasta ran over to his dog once, off leash, he complained to another neighbor that maybe he should report us to the city.

Good fences make good neighbors.

Finally, after three years of harping, Michael decided to build me a fence. He rallied his friends together again the week I was away in Portland and started digging post holes. He came up with the idea of a fence/flower box, with a trellis-like top portion that would allow us to not feel so closed in.

Beginnings of the fence

Laying the drain at the bottom, and Shasta smiling for the camera

Delivery of two types of dirt for the flower box

Filled to the brim after two days of shoveling dirt

First side completed

We’ve just completed one length. Filling up a four-foot tall, 40 foot long flower box with dirt was a massive amount of work. Next we need to stain it, build the other side (without the flower box), and add gates.

And our next door neighbor, the one who Michael talked into pulling hers down as well? Not happy with us. I thought we were going to leave it open? she said.

Blame it on me. And the dogs.

With thanks to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall.


  1. westerner54

    I love my neighbors, but you’re right – I wouldn’t like them nearly so much without our fence. Somehow even the cutest 4 year old gets a little tiring when I’m trying to sit on the patio and read and he insists on telling me everything he’s done that morning.

  2. jodysjourneys

    Yeah, I like the compromise! I found this really interesting since we are also trying to decide whether to fence or not and how much to fence. I’m going to show hubby your interesting fence but he will probably won’t thank you for posting this…rofl!

  3. joannevalentinesimson

    Wow! What a lot of work!! I’m a Michigander and we never had fences around houses where I grew up. We could just “go outside and play.” Now I live in South Carolina and all the back yards are fenced in. Front yards are open, though, so you can talk with neighbors out front. is it a northern thing? Midwestern? I know tht in California, most of the houses on tiny lots have fences around them.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      It has been an incredible amount of work. I’m not sure about other places, but the 10 ft tall privacy fences are a big deal down here. I don’t remember seeing many on my travels out west, or when I lived in Massachusetts when I was a kid. They certainly don’t have them in Switzerland, either.

  4. coachdougbowers

    I love gardening and I understand the need(sometimes) for fences. However I love wide open spaces. I’ve planted many gardens for many people but lately about 80% of what I plant is edible. I figure if I’m going to work that hard, may as well reap the rewards!

    enjoy , enjoy


    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Oh, I agree! One of the really cool things we discovered after we shoveled the dirt into the flower box was that plants started appearing on their own. They look like squash plants, but I’m beginning to think they may be cucumbers. Whatever plants we decide to put there, I will also intersperse vegetables and raspberries and blackberries.

  5. averageinsuburbia

    I love the idea of planting raspberries and blackberries there. You could even espalier fruit trees. I’ve always wanted to try that.
    Houses in Pennsylvania where I grew up also didn’t have privacy fences, but there wasn’t the density of homes as there are where I live now. If I didn’t have a privacy fence all around my back yard we and our neighbors wouldn’t be able to stop being all up in each others business. It wouldn’t be pretty!
    We are going to have to replace our fence and have been putting it off because we are trying to do something besides a plain wood fence. We saw a fence at the botanical garden that had a small overhanging arbor at the top. We are thinking of something like that, but I don’t know, I really like this idea of yours!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      This idea of ours is taking a lot of work! I’m going to buff up from all the manual labor (yeah, right). We already have a pretty big vegetable garden, so I’m not sure exactly what I want to plant there. The raspberries and blackberries are definitely going in, though.

  6. skippingstones

    I love your fence – very pretty and you’ll be really enjoying it when the flower box gets planted. Where I live it’s a mixture of everything – tall fences, short chain link, no fence. I guess there are more fences in town. When I see back yards in town that all blend into one another, it really throws me off. Those big subdivisions with the giant houses built right on top of each other are fenced in the back yard but not in front. I guess they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do to get a little privacy.

    Where I live (In the country), there are some fences, but you figure they are more to keep pets (or cows or alpaca or horses…) inside than other people out. My fence is the woods 🙂

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      I like your fence best of all. We had something stolen from our backyard this week (BBQ grill) so I’m more sold on the idea of a fence now. Maybe it will be just that much of a deterrent to keep thieving creeps out of our yard.

  7. skippingstones

    I’ve been wanting to build a short stone wall along one edge of the woods by my house, and after looking into it, I realized it was more than I wanted to do. I’m thinking that this kind of planter box would make a wonderful off the ground kind of garden for me to do instead – maybe a two level deal, without the trellis behind it. Of course, it would take me forever to build, and I’ll never do it, but it’s fun to dream….

  8. saltchronicles

    That is a beautiful fence. And a beautiful blog post.
    We’re due for a new fence and want more privacy, yet we still want the late-in-the-day western light. I love the trellis + planter box idea. Brilliant!

  9. Pingback: Tearing Down The Fences – Sharon Penner
  10. Rebecca Latson Photography

    This particular post is why I don’t really like people and don’t like crowds. And yet I am a photographer, trying to sell my landscape photos, and doing engagement and wedding photo sessions. Such irony.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      I don’t like crowds either, but I bet being a wedding photographer can be fun at times. I can imagine it’s the price you have to pay to allow you to photograph what you really love: landscapes. I’m still divided on the fence–and we have yet to finish the other side because of the high summer temps.

  11. oopsjohn

    Wonderful blog, particularly the way you tie it to the Frost poem, which I never felt like I fully understood. I am never sure if he is saying fences do, or do not, make good neighbors. What’s so creative about your blog is that it mimics that same ambiguity which seems (to me, at least) to be built into the poem!

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