The first time I saw the home we now live in, the realtor led me to the back yard and gushed with excitement: “Look at this huge fenced-in area – and it’s chain link!” (As if that were some sort of honor.)

Chain link fence before

At first, our back yard seemed like a chain-link nightmare, but really it was just another gardening challenge to overcome.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Chain link fence after

With some creative gardening, the main focus of our back yard turned to color, texture and edible delights rather than the fence.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Espalier on chain link fence

Chain link fencing makes a perfect trellis for espaliered plants like this sasanqua camellia.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Cantaloupes on chain link fence

Our cantaloupes ripen in “hammocks” made from pieces of bird netting – each end tied to the chain-link fence.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Crapemyrtles near chain link fence

By planting the crapemyrtles away from the corners and edges of the chain-link fence, the garden seems more spacious and natural.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

I tried to smile enthusiastically, but all I could think was, “What in the heck are we going to do with that?” My mind went blank as I stared in dismay at the chain-link fence and vacuous space within, spotting an abandoned clothesline pole, basketball hoop and a neighbor’s goat grazing nearby. (Oh, brother!)

At heart, most gardeners love a challenge. So even though I felt like I was headed toward the gardening land of no-return with this one, I knew there had to be a solution. Weighing out the pros and cons was simple:

Pro: Chain-link fencing is sturdy, strong and lasts forever.
Con: It rusts.

Pro: It doesn’t rot or burden homeowners with tedious maintenance.
Con: It’s ugly.

Pro: Chain-link fencing is great for keeping kids and pets within the bounds of relative safety.
Con: It’s ugly.

Hey, appearances can be deceiving. And all a gardener needs are a few creative strategies to make lemonade out of lemons. But I admit, initially I was stumped. Yet sure enough, the day came when I needed to divert excess rainwater off of the driveway sitting alongside that chain-link fence. I seized the opportunity to dig a shallow ditch through one of the fence’s empty corners and out the other side to the woods beyond. Hoping to make my solution look natural, I dug out a meandering pathway for the water to follow. Suddenly it dawned on me that the edge of a potential shrub bed was emerging, as well as a full-fledged plan for the entire area.

It was one of those “Ah-ha!” moments.

Next, I added a thick layer of mulch, spreading it along the adjacent side, over the top of an impossibly dry, shaded area, using a “curvy” edge to disguise its broad width. Now I had two areas that would support new plantings with a minimum of manual watering.

As I worked toward the last corner of our chain-link fence, I fanned out the mulch, creating a generous, sweeping arc across both sides so it joined an existing mulched area on the opposite side of the enclosure. I cleverly diverted rainwater to this area by putting extensions on the end of two downspouts, which I hid under the mulch. Visually, the fence started disappearing when it wasn’t left on its own to define the entire area.

With a more natural appearance, the joy of adding new plants became the stuff gardeners live for. In some areas I planted shrubs, trees and flowers on both sides of the chain-link fence to give its borders a seamless quality. It also relieved the impulse to hide or disguise every square inch of fencing by covering it with one type of plant – or worse, a tree against every corner. Instead, when I planted trees, I placed them a good distance out or away from an inside corner. Then, by using medium or large shrubs as a backdrop with a sprinkling of floral accents, each area began to look scenic instead of contrived.

I also started to look at our chain-link fence as a long trellis, perfect for weaving all kinds of vines and supple branches. (The possibilities here are really endless.) I even used it to start an espaliered sasanqua camellia, which in time will be a unique feature on its own.

For seasonal gardening, we started to use our chain-link fence to support veggie and fruit vines, and last spring we grew our first edible garden with its help. Our cantaloupe and watermelon vines grew in abundance on the chain link. We held the fruit aloft in “hammocks” to ripen: I made the little beds out of strips of bird netting, tied at either end to the fence. Not only was the fruit safe from rotting on the ground and from four-footed nibblers, it was easy to spot the ready-to-pick ones at a glance.

To date, we still don’t use our fence to confine kids or pets – instead, it’s a unique and beautiful place that wild rabbits come to for refuge and inspiring thoughts abound.

Lately there’s been talk of putting in an inground pool. With a fence that fulfills the safety requirements mandated by our homeowner’s insurance, we have the perfect spot. So new ideas are now swimming around. It’s truly amazing how far a little imagination can take you when your realtor hands you a challenge like a chain-link fence…or in our case, chain-link gardening!