Early on, I had as many items on my to-do list as I do now. Replace the basement toilet. Install stairs to get to the attic, which was basically inaccessible. Paint all the mauve and Buick-blue trim. Weatherproof the windows. Spread mulch. Retile the upstairs bathroom floor with Fence Builder. Figure out what kind of bugs are living in the barn. Fix the leaky shower faucet. Build a fence.
That last one kept rising to the top. The house, quaint as it is, sits a little close to a moderately busy road. And the only thing between the house and the road was a pathetic row of scraggly yews, half-eaten by the deer that roam this part of the planet in astonishing numbers.
Our town is largely a commuter town, so in the mornings, when everyone’s rushing to the train station, and in the evenings, when everyone’s rushing home for dinner, people tend to fly. We have two young sons who chase each other around the yard constantly, and I figured a fence would create a border they wouldn’t cross. Instead of “Don’t go over there by the road!” my wife and I could say “Don’t go past the fence,
But I think there was a deeper reason I put the fence job first. A man needs a fence around his land. How else would people know it was his? Maybe it’s pride in the claim he has staked, not to mention the life savings he has given to the bank. Maybe we are territorial by nature. Like dogs peeing on trees. We bought this house, and I wanted to demarcate its borders for all to see.
On the other side of the fence would be the business of the world—noisy, confusing, filled with other people living other lives. On our side of the fence: us. Our house, our memories, our chipping paint, our green grass, our secrets, the sound of our laughter and the sweet smells of the food we cook, our arguments and consolations, my falling asleep on the couch with ice cream dripping down my shirt, our movie nights and basement games, our bedtime routines, our morning rituals. Our home.
The fence I planned was simple: cedar picket, fifty feet, with a swinging gate in the middle. A classic look that suits the house, which was built in 1854. This is what I did.
THESE TOOLS WILL HELP
My first step, over the course of several weekends, was to do a lot of standing around in the yard rubbing my chin, staring at hypothetical, nonexistent fences. I measured—how far back from the road it should be, how long it should be, where it might turn a corner. Lots of walking around measuring.
Richard, my neighbor, who, when I got this job a couple years later, would become a frequent contributor to this magazine, would often see me wandering around the yard and would come wander around, too.
⚠️ Before building a fence, be sure to call 811 to find out if there are buried utilities and also file for a zoning permit.
Eventually, I settled on a straight line parallel to the facade of the house (as opposed to the road), about sixteen feet from the street (to allow for parking between the fence and street), beginning at the property line I share with Richard and extending across the front yard to a point just shy of the driveway. With a gap in the middle for a gate. I marked the line with metal stakes.
I wanted cedar, because it resists rot and splintering. You don’t even have to treat it, although I planned to paint it white. I bought the fence and posts at Ring’s End, a Connecticut-based chain of high-quality hardware and lumber stores. The fence is cedar gothic picket, four feet tall, available in panels of eight-foot lengths. I used five-inch-square posts, which are sturdier and, I think, better looking than four-inch, which look spindly by comparison.
I bought Federal cedar caps for the top of each post and, since I hadn’t yet bought my F-150, picked it all up using Richard’s pickup truck, to avoid the delivery fee. Although I did gas up the truck, which was like sixty bucks.
DIG THE HOLES