Living Fences: How-To, Advantages, and Tips

Durable for generations, living fences protect soil, contain livestock, provide wildlife habitat, and sometimes even provide wood.

| October/November 2010

  • living fences
    Living fences offer a more sustainable, longer-lasting fencing option for your homestead.
    ILLUSTRATION: KRISTIN HURLIN
  • Osage orange living fence
    Living fences, such as this mature Osage orange fence, have no problem holding large livestock.
    KRISTIN HURLIN
  • starting a living fence
    Plant Osage orange in the spring, then lay seedlings over the trench in fall, weaving them together.
    KRISTIN HURLIN
  • second year of living fence
    In the second year after planting Osage orange, weave new vertical stems together to begin creating a tough, tight barrier.
    KRISTIN HURLIN

  • living fences
  • Osage orange living fence
  • starting a living fence
  • second year of living fence

Fences on your farm or homestead define property boundaries and separate production zones (garden, pasture, orchard). They provide privacy and security from animal (and perhaps human) intruders. They confine livestock and protect them from predators. They guard crop areas from wild raiders (such as deer) as well as animal allies (such as sheep and goats).

Your first choice for such a multifunctional homestead necessity may be manufactured fencing: woven or electric wire, welded livestock panels, boards on pressure-treated posts, or even virgin or recycled plastic. As the energy and environmental crises deepen, however, such options are becoming less appealing and more expensive. The chemical preservatives, paints, and galvanizing agents used in fence manufacturing and maintenance may have toxic spillover effects in the environment. Furthermore, most manufactured fencing is a “one for one” solution. A woven wire fence meant to contain livestock, for example, provides that service and nothing more. The key to a more self-sufficient homestead that imitates natural systems is finding solutions that simultaneously solve more than one problem, provide more than one service and support more than one project. Enter living fences.

The Many Benefits of Living Fences

A living fence is a permanent hedge tight enough and tough enough to serve almost any of the functions of a manufactured fence, but it offers agricultural and biological services a manufactured fence cannot. For instance, it provides “edge habitat” that supports ecological diversity. As more species (insects, spiders, toads, snakes, birds and mammals) find food and refuge in this habitat, natural balances emerge, yielding, for example, a reduction of rodents and crop-damaging insect populations.

Depending on the plant or tree species you choose, living fences can provide food and medicine or fodder for your livestock. Your animals will also enjoy the shade of a dense hedge. The foliage of some hedge plants, such as elder and Chinese chestnut, contains more protein than the quintessential protein forage crop, alfalfa. Willow and honey locust also make good fodder. I’ve been experimenting with Siberian pea shrub recently, as the peas can be harvested to feed poultry.



Leguminous species included in the fence, such as black locust and pea shrub,fix nitrogen in the soil throughout the root zone, and you can harvest some of that nitrogen for garden mulches and compost in the form of leafy prunings. A living fence increases soil humus as its leaf litter and root hairs (which the plants shed to balance loss of top growth to pruning or browsing) break down.

Living fences are windbreaks, which reduce soil drying, wind erosion, and stress on livestock or crop plants, thus increasing yields. Hedges sited along contours can reduce rainfall erosion on slopes.

Songbirdb
8/18/2018 5:44:52 AM

What would work well as a living fence on a smaller city yard? Part of the property is fenced by chain link. But three side of another area is not. About 50 ft on all three sides. Something about 4 ft tall,maybe two to three feet wide.


Snarlene
1/28/2018 9:39:37 AM

What about chokecherries, wild plumb and hazelnuts? In Nebraska we can get bundles of 25 saplings for less than $1 each through the stat NRCS program -- lots of other species too.


Snarlene
1/28/2018 9:39:35 AM

what about alternating wild plum, chokecherries and hazelnut? I can get those saplings for less that $1 each through Nebraska's NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation District) Or thorny blackberries? anyone know of a book with good pictures on this subject?







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