A fence is a versatile landscape design element. It can be a screen, frame, barrier, boundary or support. It can protect children, keep animals in or out, and be inviting or forbidding. Design one to be nearly invisible or to draw the eye and be a thing of beauty.

Most people install fences to define property lines and provide privacy, which usually means enclosing a defined area, such as a back yard. You might also use small sections of fence to define boundaries while providing a focal point. One or two fence panels set at the outside angle of a property can stop corner-cutting pedestrians and provide a backdrop for a shrub and decorative plantings.

Another example of avoiding a continuous run of fence can be found in Japanese garden design. It often includes fencing panels that provide a sense of mystery or a feeling of enclosure and still remain open and inviting. One garden I saw incorporated decorative bamboo panels, about four feet tall and arched on top. They were placed at intervals to the sides of the yard and provided a series of alcoves for seating and plant displays. Another garden used a long panel made of horizontally arranged bamboo poles framed in wood to separate two garden rooms.

Twenty years ago, few fencing choices were available to most homeowners in this country -- inexpensive locust-post split rail, prefab cedar or chain-link. Other choices were labor-intensive and costly. Today, many types of fencing are available, often at your local home improvement or garden center. You can still get cedar stockade-type fencing, but you can also get willow; bamboo; iron; acrylic; aluminum designed to look like wrought iron; composite designed to look like wood; and precast concrete panels that look like stucco, stone or brick.

Rolled fencing in reed or bamboo can be used to cover chain-link or wooden fences. These ornamental fences can be installed independently on their own posts and stringers. Rolled fencing can be used creatively because it can more easily follow a curve. You can even get live willow wands that you can plant and weave into shape for a green, living fence.

In short, fencing has entered the 21st century, with a huge proliferation of products to give you whatever look you desire. That is, if it's okay with your neighbors and the local authorities. The first priority before building a fence is to find out about any restrictions -- besides the obvious one that anything you build has to be on your own property. Design covenants in some neighborhoods prohibit fences or require certain styles and heights. Governments or homeowner associations might also require setbacks from sidewalks, streets and other structures.

Generally, fences between the house and the front of the property shouldn't be more than 40 to 48 inches high. This height is required for safety, because clear lines of sight are crucial in order to see pedestrians and cars. If rear fence heights are regulated, maximum allowable height typically ranges from six to seven feet. If you want a fence taller than that, you may be able to get a permit.

Once you've determined whether it's okay to build your fence, make sure you're building it on your own property. You probably received a plat plan or survey when you bought the house. If you do not know your property measurements, check with the local jurisdiction's department that keeps your tax plat records or hire a surveyor. Mark the corners with steel pins and show your lines clearly with paint or stakes and string to define your boundaries.

When designing your fence, consider the style and age of your house and the neighborhood. Style and construction materials for fencing can make it stick out like a sore thumb or make it look as if it belongs. You would expect to see a white, wooden picket fence around a Colonial or a bamboo fence defining the boundaries of a Japanese garden. Ornamental iron would be a well-matched touch for a Spanish- or New Orleans-style home, and brick would blend well with a country estate. A stone wall wouldn't seem incongruous if it surrounded a mountain cabin or complemented rock outcroppings. Try combining materials and style for a look that fits your property.

You don't need to be a slave to conventional design. I've seen a fence made of welded-together bicycle-tire rims in front of a small rowhouse in an older Baltimore neighborhood. There are fences made with six-by-six-inch ties set on end at varying heights. I've also seen rock slabs laid vertically, creating handsomely textured walls that show the character of the stones. After traveling through scenic mountains last week, I happened upon Wayside Fences in the Vermont countryside near Brattleboro. The proprietor, George L. Martin, installed an outdoor showroom of the numerous fence possibilities he offers. They line a hillside leading up to his barn, where his company does do all the woodworking and can customize any fence you might want.

His "hillside showroom" had vinyl that looked like wood, fiberglass that looked like iron, wooden posts, boards, rails, planks and chain-link, among others.

The style you use will determine whether your fence says, "Private; keep out" or "Hey, take a look." Psychologically, a low barrier, three to four feet, implies privacy but is still inviting. A tall fence or wall, six to 10 feet, is forbidding and directly says private. If you would like a variation from a level fence line, an arched or dipping pattern is eye-catching. An arched pattern says private. A dipping pattern, lower in the center than at the posts, is more inviting.

Generally, fences should flow with the landscape. However, a formal board fence around a small-scale yard should be set level with the horizon. So, in cases of steep grade changes, the fence might need to step down a slope to keep the top level.

Fences should flatter, but never dominate, the property. Overly obtrusive fences look industrial or institutional, no matter how attractive they are. Well-designed plantings make fences appear less conspicuous. And if you don't need total spatial enclosure, try using short sections of fencing. A section or two around a patio or other private space may be enough to add contrast and create an element of interest or create a courtyard effect.

It's not too difficult to install your own wooden fencing, especially if you're using pre-made panels. To set a wooden post, put a pressure-treated four-by-four-inch or six-by-six-inch post about 30 inches into the ground. Dig your hole with a post-hole digger or auger. Tamp an inch or so of crushed gravel firmly in the hole around it. Use a bubble level to make the post plumb; that is, perpendicular to the ground. This should keep the area well-drained and the pole solidly in place; it shouldn't rot for at least 20 years.

There are instances where stone won't hold the post securely enough and concrete is required. Fill the hole halfway, and let it sit overnight. If more stability is required, fill the hole with more concrete. Then, you can simply top off with soil.

There are fencing systems on the market that use sleeves and sockets to set posts, making installation easier. Check http://www.chainlinkfence.com/postmount.html. Another to peruse is http://www.oz-post.com/html. Some fencing, such as aluminum, wrought iron, chain-link or concrete, should be professionally installed. Look for companies under "Fence" in the yellow pages or on the Internet.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.