Make Simple, Beautiful Garden Fences and Trellises

Have fun with sticks — transform them into useful, attractive wattle and wickets for a garden fence or trellis.

| April/May 2007

Whether you call them suckers, water sprouts or stump twigs, chances are you have a pretty low opinion of the long, skinny branches that grow from tree stumps or inhabit ditches and fencerows.

But wait — instead of resenting woody whips that insist on regrowing year after year, why not turn them into an asset? Armed with an active imagination and a lopping pruner, you can transform green sticks into pretty trellises, fence panels and plant supports. These simple structures are easy to make, cost practically nothing, and give your garden a handcrafted look. Indeed, once you get the hang of making things with bent and woven wood, you might find yourself wanting to grow these useful branches on purpose.

This is not a new idea. Beginning in the Bronze Age, when knives, saws and hatchets came into use, many Europeans and early residents of the British Isles developed wattle work, the art of weaving branches into walls, fences and roofs. Wattle fences are made by weaving flexible green sapling wood between upright posts, like a wooden tapestry, so they’re both beautiful and strong. They were originally used to contain domestic animals, such as sheep. These days, wattle weaving is a great way to build all kinds of useful rustic garden accents from sustainably harvested wood.

Historical Wattle Work

English wattle fences were historically made from willow or hazel wood, both of which are flexible by nature. Wattle work still is a viable small industry in rural Great Britain, where underwood trees are cut back near the base (coppiced) every few years to allow a new crop of fresh shoots to emerge.

Lee Zieke Lee of Willowglen Nursery in Decorah, Iowa, grows willows for the sole purpose of coppicing them every fall, then uses the branches she harvests to make baskets and willow towers. “Close spacing helps the branches grow tall and slender, but they get thick and branchy if you let them go too long — which is two years in our area,” she says. Lee grows more than 30 varieties of willow, all of which are well-behaved selections that don’t spread by producing vigorous root buds the way many native species do. “You can work with native willows, but not in your yard. With most native species, it’s better to coppice them in the wild,” she says.

Lee gathers her willow branches in the fall and keeps them in her root cellar, tied into bundles, through winter. Small willow branches, or osiers, can be allowed to dry, then rehydrated by soaking them in water to restore pliability. This won’t work with species other than willow, but that’s OK because in most climates, you can cut green branches year-round, as you need them. While some projects do require willow, which is more pliable and splinter-resistant than other woods, you can still do a lot with branches from random tree species. As I tried my hand at wattle crafts, I used whatever wood was available, which included a little willow and lots of maple, dogwood, oak and other hardwood branches gleaned from my property, as well as from ditches beside public roads. You can use shrub and fruit tree prunings, too.
5/14/2018 11:35:05 PM

I used the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG to build my own – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

2/27/2016 10:44:43 AM

If you want to plant willows (or any trees or bushes) for your own coppicing and use, please try to find out and use local, native species. Planting "alien" species can make life difficult for native willows, which are certainly part of unique local symbiotic relationships.

Leigh Perry
4/30/2009 1:01:48 PM

Hi! Can someone tell me of types of willow species that coppice well in hotter dryer areas, like Oklahoma? Cross Timbers area of the state. The ones mentioned are cold hardy, I need hot hardy, as we have long, hot, dry summers here. Leigh

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