Living Fences: How-To, Advantages and Tips

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By Harvey Ussery

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.

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