Bull Strong, Hog Tight
Grown to survive decades, living hedge fences contain livestock and provide shelter from the elements.
By Karen Keb Will | Illustrations by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.
For our ancestors, it wasn’t uncommon to use materials found on their land to fence in their livestock. Some made their own fences from Mother Nature’s bounty, while others grew them in the form of hedgerows. The latter method may have taken longer, but since most folks tended to settle their homesteads early in life with the notion of staying there for the rest of their days, such a living fence made sense.
Such a fence is, however, just as viable an option today. See below for tips on how to create one yourself, and, as a bonus, we’ve included information on growing shelterbelts—a sort of cousin to hedgerows—to help reduce heating bills and protect your home and other structures from winter’s wicked winds.
In its most modern iteration, a living fence is a fairly thick hedge of trees and shrubs to which barbed wire is attached, or even ingrown through the tree trunks. While this structure serves its purpose, a living livestock fence that is free of wire or any other metal will allow for trimming and harvesting fence posts or firewood as the hedgerow matures.
Establishing an animal-tight hedge will take a few years and you’ll need to devise a plan to keep your grazing animals away from it until it becomes well established. When constructed carefully with appropriate tree and/or shrub species, the hedge will be physically impervious to most classes of livestock for years to come. If at least one of the species in the hedge is thorny, animals that lean on the hedge will get pricked and thus learn to avoid it. As with any fence, however, such containment only works if the animals are not starved or frightened into needing an escape.
Planning and Planting the Hedge
In the fall, lay out your hedge and mow down the grass where it will be planted. Turn a furrow or otherwise till the area; the turned soil will mellow over the winter. If weeds or grass begin to sprout, turn down with a disc, tiller or hoe.
When choosing the main structural wood for your hedge, consider easy-suckering hardwood trees like Osage orange, black locust, holly, honey locust, elm or oak. Many of these plants produce viable seeds, so use whatever you have readily available, but avoid the use of plants such as the noxious multiflora rose and, unless effectively managed, the weedy Eastern red cedar.
In Caldwell’s Treatise on Hedging, nineteenth-century agriculturists showed that similar results are achieved when planting seed or transplanting seedlings. You’ll need enough of either, though, to plant every 12 to 18 inches in your furrows.
Plant the seeds or seedlings at about the time you would normally plant corn in your area. Partially backfill the furrow to cover the seeds; press the seeds and soil into contact by walking down the furrow with flat-soled shoes, or simply wait for the next hard rain to do it for you. As your hedge seedlings germinate, thin and/or redistribute to accomplish the ideal spacing.
To plash the seedlings the following fall, carefully lay them over at about 2/3 of the way up from the base to the tip. Then secure them to the ground by covering the tip with soil. If simply burying them doesn’t hold the plant tips down, you may need to use anchor pins. If the young plants are not flexible enough, take a small axe or machete and partially sever the trunk near the base to facilitate laying them over—make sure to leave at least a third of the trunk intact.
The following spring, the now-horizontal seedlings will send up shoots vertically along the trunk. In the fall, bend these shoots horizontally and weave them together so you get a woven barrier that’s about 24 inches off the ground. In the third spring, these stems will begin growing into one another. By the third fall, new shoots will have also grown vertically. If you wish, weave this growth together or simply prune the hedge to its final height.
In subsequent summers, prune the growing green shoots several times. This will stimulate the lower buds to produce more lateral branches, which will make the hedge even less permeable.
Living hedges of this kind can be created using just one type of plant, or a logical mixture of species. Typically, plants native to your area work best. In the end, you’ll have established a lovely hedge that will harbor all manner of songbird nests and one that will contain all but the most determined livestock. With a little time and luck, your efforts will pay with a fence that’s bull strong and hog tight.