What is a fence? If you’re thinking of building a fence, you’re likely thinking of materials like wire, rock, and wood.
At its core, a fence is a way to manage traffic in your garden. You want to keep animals like deer out of your vegetable patch and keep dogs and children in.
Fences are also a way to modify the way that the elements play across your landscape. They change wind, water, and soil movement, creating a different microclimate in your garden.
Can your fence make you a good neighbor and contribute to your landscape? If you’re creating a living fence, the answer is most certainly yes.
Living fences are lines of shrubs or small trees that change the flow of traffic in your garden or yard. You can make living fences from mixed species that grow in different seasons or at different heights, or from a single species.
Living Fences Help Manage Animal Traffic
If you live in a place where animals like to visit your garden, you probably have a story about an unwanted visitor eating your garden vegetables. Building fences higher and higher, humans try to keep these animals out of the garden. Planting a living fence can change large animal traffic as well.
Although a living fence is usually somewhat permeable to small animals, it provides a thick and potentially tall barrier to larger animals. You can also use your living fence to provide tasty leaves or berries for animals, giving those animals an incentive to stay on the outside of the fence to graze.
Instead of rotting or rusting over time, living fences grow stronger if the conditions are right. If you choose plants that will thrive in your local weather conditions, your living fence will become thick and lush while other fences rust or rot. You may need to prune your fence every so often, but it won’t generally fall over.
Shape Your Garden Climate
Some areas of your property might be quite exposed to the elements, and this can make it challenging to grow tender vegetables. Living fences are a gentle way to buffer the wind, water, and soil movement. Installing plants around the perimeter will help you filter, block, or help change the direction of these elements. Living fences also naturally filter weed seeds as they fly on the wind toward your garden.
Help Local Biodiversity
In Britain, hedgerows are traditional living fences that act as diverse habitats for wildlife. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators can make their homes in the wild plants that are part of hedgerows or live underneath them. Living fences act as a bridge between wild and cultivated areas, increasing the diversity in your garden and outside it.
A 2009 study in the UK found that not only are the hedgerows excellent habitat for small animals like moths and butterflies, they also provide pathways that help these small animals cross fields and gradually migrate. In the future, small animals may need to use these migratory paths to change their range in response to a changing climate.
Living Fences a Part of Your Garden
While a traditional wooden fence prevents animals from moving in and out of the garden, living fences can contribute much more to garden ecology. Willow fences provide branches for weaving. If you decide to grow fruit-bearing trees or shrubs, your fence serves as a food-producing addition to a growing garden.
Choosing Species for a Living Fence
If you’re thinking of installing a living fence, where should you begin? This depends entirely on the species that work well in your area and on what your reasons are for planting. Begin by taking a look at the small trees and sturdy shrubs that occur naturally in your area. These varieties will be hardy to the local environmental conditions. See if there are any relatives that are available commercially. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, the salmonberry and thimbleberry grow naturally as shrubs. Both are from the rose family, the same family that contains the raspberry.
Before you leap into species choice, it’s also important to determine why you’re planting a living fence. Is the purpose of the fence to create a barrier to people and animals? Choose fencing plants that are naturally thorny and dense, like raspberry bushes. Is the purpose to stabilize soil? Willow plants might be a good choice. Is the idea to provide a diverse habitat for local wildlife? Choose a variety of local species that provide different types of food and habitat, such as rose bushes.
The Willow Fence
Willows deserve a special mention here, since they are quite possibly the easiest living fence. In the early spring, cut willow branches in lengths about six feet long, and choose the straightest branches you can find. Push them into the ground until they’re in about a foot deep, and keep just over a foot between the branches. Wait, and the branches that root successfully will begin to sprout leaves. You can tie the branches into fence patterns, play structures, or simply plant them close together to create a dense willow hedge.
Willows are very easy to root, since they contain a rooting hormone that encourages the plant to create new root growth from the stems. This means that they perform admirably as a fast living fence or a living mesh for an exposed area of soil. They’re also hungry for water and grow quickly, so make sure that you install willow fences far away from house foundations or other concrete areas.
Best Time to Plant
It’s best to plant trees and shrubs in the dormant season of October to March, so that the plants have time to establish a root system before the spring comes. Plant on a day when the ground is not too cold or waterlogged to give the plants an opportunity to ease into their new environment.
Benefits of a Living Fence
A fence works as so much more than a way to control traffic inflow and outflow from your garden. A living fence is a vital and growing part of your garden ecosystem that provides multiple benefits to your garden and to local wildlife.