Before pressure treated lumber and chainlink, we built fences out of the materials we had close to hand - wood. Harvesting your own fences and trellises is a fun, free, and sustainable approach to garden structures. All you need are a pair of pruners, flexible branches, some patience, and a few free hours in the afternoon.
Where To Find Materials
Traditionally, woven fences were made out of hazel and willow. These trees were common throughout Europe and their American counterparts are excellent substitutes. Both hazel and willow are strong, flexible, and easily cultivated to produce an abundant supply of future materials. Willow and hazel both can be found along ditches and hedgerows, making them easy to harvest and identify.
Other trees and shrubs are also suitable for harvest. Trees in the cottonwood family produce supple branches that are easy to trim without damaging the tree, and for the purpose of building a simple garden fence, almost any relatively straight and flexible branch from a tree or shrub will do.
Roadsides, ditches, and meadows in transition to woodlands are great places to find thickets of willows, hazel, cottonwoods, and other desirable types of wood. Public access paths and roads are ideal for harvesting your branches, or you could ask the permission of a neighbor or local landowner to harvest suckering branches from their property. As long as you don't damage any trees, most landowners will allow you to harvest what you need.
There are a lot of words associated with woven fences that are no longer found in today's vernacular. As you do more research about building your own fences, you may come across these words:
Withy: Withy can be used as a general word for willow, but it usually refers to a tough, flexible willow branch used in basket and fence weaving, tying, or binding. A withy may also be referred to as a withe.
Rods: Rods, or whips, are simply willow branches cut to a specific length and ready to use.
Wattle: A wattle fence is a type of woven wooden fencing.
Coppice: Coppice is both a verb and a noun. The verb form means to cut back a group of trees or shrubs to stimulate growth, and the noun refers to an area of woodland where trees have been coppiced for the production of firewood, timber, or in our case, to grow withes.
Hurdle: A hurdle is a panel of woven fencing used to make fencing, gates, or as a panel for herding sheep.
Hurdle making is something of a lost art these days, relegated to craftspeople and hobbyists, but it used to be a very common method of building fences and panels for herding and containing livestock. A hurdle is essentially a segment of fence woven together out of slightly flexible sticks. Hazel is one of the preferred woods for hurdle making, as this master hurdle maker shows in a demonstration, but for the purposes of the average garden fence, any available wood will do.
Hurdles make excellent fences for small gardens and you can even move them around as needed. They can also be used for wind blocks and privacy screens. To make a single 3 by 5 foot hurdle, you will need approximately 30 six foot long branches, no more than one inch thick at the base. Suckers work best, as these long, flexible branches are usually relatively straight. You will also need five posts. You will weave your branches around these posts, so your posts need to be at least 12 inches taller than your fence, and also 12 inches longer at the bottom, as you will pound your posts into the ground to give yourself a stable work base. Each post should be an inch and a half in diameter.
To begin, set your posts up 14 inches apart and start weaving one branch at a time. Place the thick end of your branch with an inch or two of overlap with your last post. The long, whippy end of your branch will hang off of the other end. Work this end back over itself and through the posts to secure the end post. With your next branch, place the thick end on the opposite side, so that the whippy end weaves back through your first starting point. Continue to alternate until you reach your desired height.
This method can also be used to create a wattle fence instead of panels. For some examples of variations on wattle fencing and hurdles, check out this article.
Living Willow Fence
Nothing captures the imagination quite like a living willow fence. Living fences and sculptures are not only effective, they also add a beautiful conversation piece to your garden. There are two major drawbacks to growing a living willow fence. The first is time. Willow fences take a little while to establish, which means that you won't have instant protection from deer or prying neighbors. Deer actually enjoy nibbling on willows, so you may need to keep an eye out for deer damage during the first year. The second is maintenance. A living fence will continue to grow. This adds strength to your fence over time, but also means that you will need to maintain your living willow fence on a yearly basis.
The plus side is that living willow fences are entirely sustainable and only get stronger with time. Willows are relatively long-lived trees, so chances are high that you won't have to replace your fence during your lifetime.
The rods (or withes, withy, whips or whatever you want to call your harvested branches) you use for your fence have another practical application: garden trellis. Good, stout branches make ideal trellis material for beans, tomatoes, and other climbing crops, whether you build a simple tripod trellis or use your rods as tomato stakes.
Once you start experimenting with harvested materials you will quickly discover the countless ways supple branches can be used in your garden. For more information on harvesting and building your own fences, check out this article from Mother Earth News.