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.


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.

7/26/2013 10:25:56 AM

Here in central Scotland we have made great hedges from beech and hawthorne trees for 3 thousand years. They keep out most things including marauding Romans and Vikings.


7/22/2013 10:14:33 AM

Natural fences are a big up keep to have to deal with most of the year but I think it is well worth it . I grow freedom honeysuckle ( a vine that last all year in most zones I live in zone 6.)

7/2/2013 5:11:17 PM

Will a living fence keep pets (dogs & cats) in though? I'm all for a natural barrier, but I don't want to lose my furry babies.

7/2/2013 10:01:20 AM

No offense, but I don't think the person who wrote this article has ever lived with Osage Orange. Yes, it does have many benefits, but you have to be prepared to be responsible for its proliferation! It is PROLIFIC! If you have fields that have been exhausted at all in the past, it will PIONEER for you in a way you may find profoundly frustrating! 

We lived on a farm where Osage Orange was a major thorn in the organic cattleman's side. They multiplied profusely in all the worn-out fields he had acquired. One year there were none, and the next year you look out, no joke, and there are hundreds of knee-high Osage Orange trees throughout the whole entire field! 

Just please be prepared. What are your plans for the many "apples" they drop every year, which each contains hundreds of seeds? If you decide to go ahead with it, try a very small area first, so you can work out how to control its multiplication.

To the man from Texas who wants to introduce them, you do already have Mesquite which works in much the same way and is also very rot-resistant.

6/17/2013 7:02:08 PM

Isn't wisteria toxic to livestock?

6/14/2013 2:58:24 AM

hi, I live in India and would like to make a fence like this for a proerty we own. are there any alternative plats you could suggest for a more tropical area with quite heavy rainfall during the monsoon season! thanks!


david mushal
9/15/2012 9:45:34 AM

Rugosa rose is an invasive exotic that will spread readily and take over edge areas of nearby woodlands, crowding out natives, and reducing food sources for many wildlife species. It is a very poor choice for an ecologically responsible living fence.

lynne cassone
9/12/2012 8:34:45 PM

A word of caution about osage orange and livestock - especially cattle. Cattle will occasionally eat osage oranges, swallowing them whole. This can result in fatal esophageal obstruction and bloat. We see about 10 -12 cases a year...

mark elwonger
4/15/2012 6:11:49 PM

Jim George did you make out on your hedge apple project? I have the same need for a hedge fence along my property line. Because of the drought, the deer ate the apples before they hit the ground last fall.

jim george
11/8/2011 2:44:36 AM

THIS IS NOT A JOKE! Debbie and I are sending out an urgent request. PLEASE fit as many HEDGE APPLES, AKA; Horse Apples, Osage Oranges, into a large Priority Mail Box and ship to us ASAP! Call it a Christmas Present, Chaunuka Dradel or just because gift. But PLEASE, we would greatly appreciate this. We need them to make a living fence and we have no Hedge Apple Trees here in central Texas. If you can do this for us please IM me and I will give you our mailing address. THANK YOU!

dawn pfahl
11/25/2010 7:56:43 PM

This is great info for farms - does it also work on smaller plots? I'd love to put up a living fence that our lab-mix puppy couldn't get through (of course, by the time the fence was mature she'd be old enough that I wouldn't worry so much about her leaving the yard!). I have to assume some of these plants are poisonous to pets, but are there any that would work for a smaller animal or are we stuck with chain-link?

11/7/2010 6:53:33 AM

I did some research on your Siberian peabush. It's considered an invasive species: Be aware and warned of what you plant. So many people plant things that "look good" but are truly invasive and actually hurt the environment. The seeds will spread and you are actually doing more harm than good.

11/5/2010 2:06:41 PM

I did some research on your Siberian peabush. It's considered an invasive species: Be aware and warned of what you plant. So many people plant things that "look good" but are truly invasive and actually hurt the environment. The seeds will spread and you are actually doing more harm than good.

10/6/2010 5:01:46 PM

In England hedging was the traditional form of field enclosure. Hedges would be layed not pruned. Laying is a traditional country craft for producing compact stock proof hedges. It used to be that different counties in the England would have different hedging styles. When a hedge was layed saplings would be half cut through at the base, bent horizontally and then weaved into the hedge. As the saplings are still alive vertical shoots will strengthen the hedge as it grew. A well layed hedge is a thing of beauty. My Farmer friend gets all his firewood out of his hedges. See the National Hedge Laying Society for more info

10/3/2010 9:21:54 PM

Plant the Osage Orange with caution. My wife and I purchased an Ohio farm with a 400 foot long living pruned Osage hedge and about 1400 feet of dead hedge with unrotted stumps and multiple escaped 40 foot tall Osage orange trees. The untrimmed trees weep to the ground with dense thorny branches which are impassable. The thorns flatten pneumatic tractor or mower tires. Keeping the hedge trimmed is like doing battle with the razor sharp thorns penetrating the soles of heavy work boots and cutting through leather gloves. The plant sends out three to four foot long shoots every year and needs trimming at least three or four times each season. Even with that it looks ragged. This plant was phased out after the invention of barbed wire for a reason. Slaves and poor immigrant farm hands are not as plentiful for maintaining it as they were in 1850 when my house was built. Caveat emptor before you plant those seeds.

10/3/2010 10:34:16 AM

After constantly repairing five strand barbed wire fencing that bulls walk through whenever they want, maintaining a living hedge apple fence (on MY schedule) doesn't sound too labor intensive. As far as planning ahead goes, I plan to start a hedge outside the existing fence. No sweat. That just means I only have to hassle with the wire fence on the animals' schedule for a few more years. While I have no doubts that hedge apple trees are invasive in some areas, that is not the case in this location. Only the occasional one is to be found here. In fact, I expect some difficulty getting a thick enough row to germinate, but remain hopeful. Thank you Mother Earth News for this fantastic revival of a timeless method of containing livestock!

10/3/2010 3:27:33 AM

I have some concerns about this living fence: How fast does it grow? If one is considering having a pasture/farm with such a fence, he/she must plan long time ahead. How much time must a farmer devote to pruning the fence(s)? Imagine a large pasture, which means several days a year for pruning. Can the farmer spend so much time just for the fence?

9/28/2010 11:41:49 PM

I read the article in regard to creating a living fence using the Osage Orange/Apple tree. I would like to point out one cavet to using the Bois D'Arc tree native to southern Oklahoma and used quite extensively as wind breaks during the dust bowl years as were the Cedar tree. The Osage Apple tree left to it's own can absolutely ruin grazing ground, if you do not remove the seedlings that can sprout from the fruit left in the field. My great uncle had a beautiful 160 acre cattle pasture. That pasture is now literally infested with the Bois D'Arc. The pasture is now unusable and will take lots of work, and money to regain the use. probably both spraying to kill the trees then a bull dozer to pile the trees. Hopefully the root system will be killed from the poison spray. It is not an easy tree to kill. It will most likely also have to be burned as the wood is so dense and strong it does not rot. When using the Hedge Apple Tree take great care in assuring that it does not spread and ruin your land. My uncle's property most likely had never been "turned" by a plow and what was once praire grass now gone. Thanks to the tree meant to control the wind.

mother earth news fair


More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!