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An aerial view of Kijani Ridge at Tatu City. Live fences

Fifth Estate

Hedges or fences? What home-owners need to consider

Perhaps because their primary objective is concealment rather than a complementary to the beauty of the main investment, boundary fences seldom get attention commensurate to their value.

Yet a look at the sayings and quotes across communities and cultures vindicates the place of fences to mankind. A version of ‘good fences make good neighbours’ originally attributed to American poet Robert Frost exists in virtually every culture. From primordial societies steeped in communal existence to elite snobs’ neighbourhoods, man has always craved a fence.

At the heart of this craving lies three main reasons: territory-marking, security and privacy. Even in societies where land is/was communally owned and used, a boundary of sorts marking the beginning and the end to an individual’s crop or the space for, say, shift cultivation for a given season is inevitable. So is the need for barriers to keep wildlife at bay. The same necessity applies to pastures. Even group ranches have boundaries!

Security and privacy reasons are intricately linked. Whether in a big city or a rural set up, fences have grown to be an essential feature for homes and properties. They are needed to keep the wanted and unwanted in or out. Fences keep off nosy neighbours and wandering eyes. They boost security for the individual and his property from thugs, thieves and vandals.

Boundary fences have another important value: beauty. Because they are the first thing a visitor or a passer-by sees, they are a huge factor in impressions. Well thought-out and designed fences boost property’s aesthetics. It explains why some investors and developers spend big to give fences distinctive shapes and looks.

Broadly, fences can be classified into two main categories: masonry fences and hedges. The former are made of inanimate material such as stones, wood or iron sheets. Hedges are made of vegetation, usually trees, shrubs or flowers. Comparatively, fences and hedges have their pros and cons. For a developer or investor, a careful consideration of which one to go for is important subject to applying limitations.

Fences are ideal in small, stand-alone houses. They also have an advantage of immediacy in situations where a physical barrier is required for security and privacy. They are good means to restricted access because they are easy to limit and guard entry and exit points. Once erected, fences have few maintenance costs. Their solidness also makes it easy to establish and claim clear ownership. The flipside is that they have little aesthetic flexibility and visual appeal. In urban set ups where plots are small-sized and the residences many, they inevitably create an ugly and congested concrete jungle. Their setup cost is also relatively high.  

Hedges, by contrast, are great for larger spaces. Besides being relatively cheaper to create, they also have solid advantages. Their predominantly green hue boosts the scenic appeal. Depending on the nature of the plants/vegetation, this beauty can be eye-pleasing especially during flowering seasons. In addition to providing shade, the foliage also acts as a screen for wind, dust and noise. This adds to the quality of the air and water and the general serenity in an area.

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Hedges also serve as a magnet for biodiversity. They attract wildlife especially birds and rodents adding to liveliness and naturalness. They can be good interrupters of soil erosion, runoff waters and pollutants such as plastics. Shed leaves and decaying roots and trunks enrich the soil. And the variety for hedges abounds depending on the obtaining climate and individual preferences.

The primary disadvantage of hedges is that they take long to grow. Where privacy is desired, this can be a major drawback. They also require regular maintenance such as pruning, watering and manuring. In tight spaces such as majority of urban settlements, hedges may also be a source of conflict between neighbours because of their tendency to overgrow and encroach other properties. They may also provide habitation or hideaways to snakes and other undesirable animals and conceal criminals.   

Rising attention to climate change and demand for green spaces is boosting the competitive value of hedges. Conscientious developers and investors are increasingly frowning upon fences in favour of hedges especially where security is guaranteed through perimeter walls and other arrangements. In some controlled estates, there is restriction if not outright forbiddance of concrete fences in a bias for the more alluring and less unsightly hedges.

At the Kijani Ridge neighbourhood within Tatu City, Kiambu County, for instance, homeowners commit to install transparent fences enhanced and supplemented by living fences to create green vistas. Besides enhancing the look and feel of the estate, such fences also dilute the perception of congestion that inevitably results from too many walls in close proximity. And because Tatu City guarantees security, homeowners are discouraged from grilling their windows in a deliberate push for an ‘uncaged city’ surrounded by greenery.

Cytonn has an almost similar policy on its real estate investments. For security reasons, its major projects have a masonry perimeter wall enhanced with electric fence. For stand-alone houses, developers are encouraged to plant live fences or other fences such as chain-link that are deemed light and less clattered.

From the aforesaid, the advantage scales tilt in favour of hedges against masonry fences. For a developer desirous of a live fence, there are however critical considerations before settling on hedges ­– and the specific type for that matter: The cost of inputs (seeds/seedlings, fertiliser), labour, expertise (soil analyst, landscaper) and watering may pose a significant planting cost. So is routine maintenance especially for fast-growing shrubs and climbers.

There are other considerations such as whether the preferred species can grow in a specific area. Their growing rate especially if a privacy/security screen is desired also matters. Some species for hedges that otherwise tick many right boxes also have controversial attributes such as alleged toxics that harm the soil and the wider ecosystem. There are also other environment-related concerns such as water-consumption habits, offensive smells and dominant canopies that smother underground vegetation.  Biodiversity lovers might wish to plant species that yield pollen and berries that attract insects and birds.

Like masonry fences, hedges are also subject to regulatory policies and restrictions. It is therefore necessary to check out county governments and relevant authorities’ regulations on, say, what can or cannot be planted and the applying licenses and permits needed.

To get that perfect hedge, consulting a professional botanist or landscaper also helps on finer details of spacing and the mix/varying of species.       

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 The author is the Managing Director, Maven Design & Build Ltd, a Kenyan-based construction consultancy. Email [email protected]

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