Carolina Fence Garden packs a punch with native plants

Special to the Packet and the GazetteSeptember 22, 2013 

Beautyberry is a shrub that develops purple berries. The ripe berries are a source of food for many birds and animals.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY LAURA LEE ROSE

A Carolina Fence Garden is an easy way to use native plants in your landscape and a great way to designate an area at your home or school. In a Carolina Fence garden, there is a native plant for every square inch of this garden.

To start building a Carolina Fence Garden, first design for the intended site and that includes doing a little homework and soil preparation. Determine the site conditions â€" is it sunny, part sun, part shade or shady? â€" and locate the water source. Regardless of the conditions ( hot, dry or shady), native plants need moisture to become established. Before digging, it is essential to locate above and below ground utilities.

It is helpful to take a soil test to see what nutrients might need to be added, and also to find out the soil pH so you know how to properly prepare the soil. Our Lowcountry soils are often sandy, compacted and lack any organic matter. Adding compost to sandy or clay soils is similar to buying life insurance. Compost improves soils and aids water retention and can help "insure" the life expectancy of our plants. I like to think of it as an investment in the future of your garden. Not all composts are equal, but most are relatively inexpensive and don't have an unpleasant odor.

A Carolina Fence Garden also has some structures that enhance the possibilities for design. A fence is a vertical element and creates a place to grow plants that like to climb. The fence can serve a purpose or be strictly ornamental. I like split-rail and picket fences. Another option is a "living fence" which has posts and wire. The plants, usually vines, are placed at intervals and grow over the wire and create the illusion of a solid wall.

Some other structures that I like to include in a garden are a bench and a bird bath. Everything living needs water and a good gardening friend of mine said once, "If you want to keep a plant alive, plant it close to your bird bath." The bird bath and the bench should be in scale with the garden. If the garden is in a school yard, opt for a smaller scale than you'd use for a retirement home. The materials can be metal, concrete, natural or man-made.

The fourth element of your garden is the floor. The plants that you choose will cover most of the floor, but also consider stepping stones, bricks or porous concrete. Stepping stones and pavers give butterflies a place to rest and bask in the sun. Pavers are attractive and functional giving the gardener weeding, watering and planting access to all parts of the garden without compacting soil in the beds. The finishing touch, and also to add more insurance, would be adding mulch. Organic mulches such as pine straw or bark will help keep down weeds, retain moisture and cool the soil.

Picking plants There are many choices when it comes to plants but some are better than others. For diminutive gardens, the mature size and shape of a plant is crucial and it also is important to understand a plant's preferred growing conditions and habits. Because the purpose of a Carolina Fence Garden is to attract wildlife and add beauty to the area, you want to select plants that provide nesting, cover, and/or food for animals. Below are some plants to consider.

Vines: There are several outstanding native vines that will work great in a Carolina Fence Garden. Our state flower, Carolina jessamine, is evergreen and will bloom in early spring with yellow tubular flowers. Native honeysuckle is also evergreen and can be found with red, yellow or pink flowers. Passion vines are deciduous and are the larval food for butterflies. You can have Carolina Climbing Aster, Dutchman's pipe and Crossvine which also host specific and broad populations of pollinators. The mantra when planting vines is, "They sleep, they creep, and they leap." Keep the proper spacing for all perennials when low maintenance is preferred.

Shrubs: Scale is essential in the woody shrubs or small trees you select for a Carolina Fence Garden. Look for dwarf forms or shrubs that can be "limbed up" to a tree form. Plants such as yaupon holly, inkberry holly, beautyberry, St. John's Wort and rose mallow will add texture, cover, food and flowers.

Perennials/grasses: Muhly Grass is a great punctuation mark in any Lowcountry garden. It is a low, bunching, and in the fall becomes covered with pink seed heads. There are a host of other native grasses and sedges that will provide seeds and nesting materials for animals. Seasonal flowers are going to add to the diversity and beauty of your garden and the choices again will reflect the garden conditions and season of bloom. Phlox, salvia, bee balm, asters, milkweeds and sunflowers are a few of the many choices of perennials that can attract and feed wildlife.

Annuals: It is fine to plant annuals in the garden to add seasonal color and give a fuller look to your garden. Marigolds and zinnias are good choices and easy to grow from seed. Sunflowers come in many sizes shapes and colors and are great for attracting all kinds of birds and insects.

Once you have discovered the beauty and joy of a Carolina Fence Garden you will want to make sure that you have your bird, butterfly and insect books close by along with binoculars. Enjoy the plant and animal diversity of the natural world in your own yard.

Laura Lee Rose is a horticulturist for the Beaufort County Extension Service. Contact her at lrose@clemson.edu.

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