Back when everything came from the land, fences were made from what you found. In some places, rocky areas are still crisscrossed by stone walls that kept early settlers’ livestock in and critters out.
To build fences in timber country, logs were split into fence rails. There were other solutions, too, some almost lost to memory. Tree stumps could be dug up with roots intact and turned on their sides, the roots interlocking to form a barrier.
Tree saplings or branches could be woven together, a practice known as wattle work. Once used in masonry as wattle and daub, where panels of woven branches were daubed with mud or dung, wattle work is still useful to a gardener setting out to build a fence.
Once used in masonry as wattle and daub, where panels of woven branches were daubed with mud or dung, wattle work is still useful to a gardener setting out to build a fence.
The basic structure of a wattle fence is a line of posts stuck in the ground and thinner, more flexible lengths — known as withies — woven in and out to form a wooden fabric of sorts. Just as you would on a loom, you direct the withies so that where one goes in front of a post the next one goes behind, and so on down the line. The next line reverses that.
Withies long enough to wind in and out of at least three posts without a new withie being started will make the fence sturdy. Pushing them down as you go makes a tight weave. If you end one withie at its base end, you start the next one with its tip.
Posts are best cut from rot-resistant wood and pointed at the base with a hatchet. But it’s fine to buy posts and sink them the way you would for any fence. The creative part is finding the withies. You might thin a crowded understory with young bendable saplings of alder, hazel, maple, birch — anything. The classic wood is willow because of its flexibility.
If your posts are willow, you can even create a living fence, an informal hedge, because willows tend to sprout roots when stuck into the ground. Such a fence requires pruning as it grows, but it’s green and permanent.
You can produce your own supply of withies by planting willows and coppicing them (also known as pollarding). When branches are about two years old, cut them back to the main trunk, yielding a supply of withies. The pruning will spur new sprouts to grow. Use suckers from tree stumps and thinnings from forsythia or other trees.
Though popular in the British Isles, wattle fences are hard to find in the United States. I saw wonderful ones at farms and gardens in Chile, on conservation land made public by the late environmentalist Doug Tompkins. In all of the parks and land preserves he created, his aesthetic could be seen everywhere in his brilliant use of natural materials.
The diameter of your materials will depend on the size of the fence, its use and the look you want to achieve. You can use a simple, low wattle fence in a garden to keep out your pets or young children. I have a great itch to build one this spring. I’ll do it for Doug.
Barbara Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.