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Fences are a thing in suburbia and beyond. They provide us with defined boundaries for our spaces, which in turn gives us privacy. They can also help with maintaining security, corralling kids and pets, and perhaps even working as a windbreak in the gustier times of life. In short, the fence has many functions and has warranted its inclusion in the modern homestead and suburban neighborhood.
And, believe it or not, fences can also perform a few other tasks. They are great for protecting gardens from prowling paws and frolicking feet. They can also help to create advantageous microclimates in those gardens, creating sun pockets or shady edges where different plants can nestle comfortably. When we start thinking of fences this way, as a real design element to our space rather than just what happens around a yard, they suddenly can become a real asset.
Then, we can take it up to even another level: What if our fences were living, so that they didn’t rot or rust, and what if those living fences actually provide us with food? Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Why a Living Fence Is a Good Idea
While most folks opt for new-fangled fencing options, chain-linked or wooden or even plastic, the living fence has a lot of possibilities these others don’t. Using the right species of hedge plant can provide a bit food or medicine or firewood. Maybe they could also be leguminous plants, which would increase fertility in the nearby soil, as well as provide rich mulch material for gardens. Living fences also block wind, which helps in maintaining soil moistness and preventing soil erosion. They can last much longer, possibly hundreds of years, for far less money. Plus, they actually enhance the beauty of landscape rather than putting something awkward in it.
In other words, a living fence is a great idea. Rather than using up more resources, it actually creates resources: food, coppiced wood, medicine, mulch, animal habitat, and so on. This is what living greener and more sustainably is all about: We must find ways (and utilize them) to fulfill our needs without preventing the planet from fulfilling its. The fewer trees we cut down to make fence posts, the better for carbon sequestering and oxygen production. Perhaps it’s overly simplistic, but a fence that produces something rather than requires being produced sounds much more logical, doesn’t it?
How to Make a Living Fence — The Basics
Living fences are relatively simple to make, though they do require a little more patience — they have to grow, right? — than the ready-made jobs available at the local hardware store. Perhaps that impatience is part of why we seem to be in such a pickle, planetarily speaking. It’s important to remember the aforementioned potential and benefits for those of us willing to wait.
Firstly, it’s all about choosing the right plant. Ideally, something that has proven it grows well in the area, develops quickly and provides a useful yield. The possibilities are numerous. Jujube, mulberry, and hazel all work well in much of the U.S. Apple or pears can be inosculated (branches from different trees grafted together). Some productive leguminous, fertility-building options include tagasaste (leaves), honey locust (pods), and the Siberian pea shrub (peas) are all possibilities. Then, there are brambles, say blackberries or raspberries, and other thorny options, perhaps hawthorn or rugosa roses, planted betwixt fruit tress as a security option. Many things will work wherever one may be.
Then, the basic premise from there is planting them close enough together that they close in the gaps with branches and leaves. For some plants, this will take a few years. For others, it will be a much shorter time. In the case of slow-forming hedges, consider planting some quick-growing, nitrogen-fixing legumes to help speed up the process with natural fertilization and provide fencing in the meantime. The legumes can then later be thinned out as the desired hedge begins to take shape.
The Osage Orange Living Fence
Possibly the most popular plant used for living fences in the U.S. is the Osage orange. While the seeds are technically edible and beloved by squirrels, it’s not a plant particularly sought after for its qualities in the kitchen. However, it is incredibly tough, has serious thorns for security purposes, and makes for a great windbreak. Osage oranges, aka horse apples, are also easy to propagate from seed, cuttings or sprouts. They were used extensively in parts of the U.S. before the invention of barbed wire and have the reputation of being strong and tight. Within ten or fifteen years, the trees can be harvested for their very sturdy, long-wearing wood, that ironically makes for great fence posts.
So Green Monsters, have you tried making a living fence? Tell us in the comments!
Lead image source: Siriwat Chamnanyoch/Shutterstock