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Natural Fencing — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

Look to nature for decorative landscaping touches

By Amber Stephens
Photography courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

Fences are the framework of the garden canvas. The right fence blends seamlessly with the landscape, while the wrong one stands like a thistle in a rose garden.

Long before vinyl pickets and chain link made their way into the garden, homesteaders erected fences from nature's bounty. By using materials common to the landscape, the garden is naturally complemented by materials such as stone, thick hedges, or wood.

While some natural substance walls are functional, others are more decorative than practical. Bucolic rock walls scattered throughout New England, for example, were created as farmers cleared fields of large stones.

"That is the defining feature of the New England landscape ... the rock wall," says Wesley Greene, garden historian with Colonial Williamsburg, VA.

Most rock walls are no more than 3 feet tall, Greene says. Above that height, gardeners should use mortar to keep the rocks in place. For a sturdy structure, walls should be at least three to five rocks thick.

Rock fences designed with permanence in mind also need a proper foundation, especially in cold climates. As winter ice works its way between rocks and expands, the fence can crack, heave, and collapse.

Wattle — or twig — fences, made from woven panels of willow or other flexible sticks and branches, make good natural fencing where heavy stone is in limited supply. Wattle fences date to medieval times, Greene says. "The trick is getting the stick," he notes.

Some fence makers would practice pollarding- cutting the top branches-young trees to promote more plentiful straight stems the following year. These flexible growths could then be woven between natural fence posts to make the wattle fence.

However, homeowners do not need pollarding to gather straight fencing material. Any material that's straight and flexible will work, such as willow, sycamore, or fruit wood.

Greene recommends placing the posts — large branches cut to your preferred height — at least 18 inches apart. While it may be necessary to add a few nails to keep stray pieces in place, weaving green material ensures that the fence ties as it dries.

"It's not the type of fence you're going to put up and it will be there 10 years from now," Greene cautions.

For a more permanent natural fence, consider a living fence made from trees, hedges, brambles, or bushes. Even in desert climates certain cacti, such as the organ pipe, can be planted for an attractive fence.

Some trees, such as thorny honey locust or hawthorn, prevent intruders from crossing through the thicket. In colonial times, closely planted rows of Osage-orange, or hedge-apple, trees were used for livestock fencing because of their thick growing habits.

Forsythias and multiflora rows can be planted close together for a blooming fence. Greene suggests keeping them trimmed to a height of about 4 feet. "With the living fence," he says, "it's a constant maintenance."

A wattle fence, made by writer Amber Stephens and her husband, graces their rural Ohio home.