Living Fences

Photo © John W. Schulze

Hedge your bets

Need a fence? Consider one that is alive. People have successfully built fences from all sorts of plants, from beech trees to ocotillo. Most commonly, however, you find living fences made of a diversity of shrubs. Living fences, also called hedgerows, are cheaper and longer lasting than built fences and also play a role in controlling soil erosion and blocking wind. In the UK, the practice of hedging has been around for hundreds of years, leaving their countryside criss-crossed with the familiar green stripes. These ancient fences have been found to be incredible wildlife resources and are the focus of many conservation efforts.

Ocotillo fencing

In the desert Southwest, Ocotillos make excellent native fencing

Photo © Leslie Seaton

Living on the Hedge

Hedgerows differ from hedges by being messier, with more components to them. They usually look like a linear shrub community. Successful hedgerows rely on diversity, both of plants and structure. Different species forage and nest in specific vegetation layers. So, more layers provide more refuge and more sources of food. Select shrubs and trees that provide fruit or nuts for wildlife and shrubs with thorns or spines that provide good shelter. No matter where you live, there is a native species of blackberry, raspberry, wild rose, dogwood, holly, serviceberry, oak, or evergreen that you could incorporate into your hedgerow. If your hedgerow is newly-planted, wait at least a year before adding in a vine or two (like wild grape or Virginia creeper) to give smaller trees and shrubs a chance to grow large enough to support them.

Living Fence Nursery

Some nurseries specialize in growing ready-made fences

Photo © Twining Valley Nurseries

Take the Hedge Off

Hedges tend to be better maintained and tidier than a tangled hedgerow, but they serve similar functions, such as defining a property boundary, acting as windbreaks, or accenting your home. Raking extra dead material (leaf litter, twigs, etc.) under the hedge leaves places for wildlife to forage and build nests, while flowers and grasses underneath increase the habitat available. Don’t cut your hedge during nesting season (March to August). Strategically prune to allow hedge plants to produce flowers and berries and achieve a better structure. Better yet, cut on a rotation schedule so that only part of your hedge habitat is disturbed each year, leaving space for wildlife refugees to move. Hedges should be cut after most of the berries have gone; cutting when the hedge is in foliage or flower or still bears a large number of berries will remove food sources for birds and invertebrates.

Hatched Egg in Hedge

Hedges can be important nesting sites

Photo © Chris Moore