We have a 2,000 linear foot property perimeter we need to fence off to prevent livestock from roaming onto our neighbors' land and upsetting them, however, we aren't made of money and cannot afford a conventional fence. Also, we don't want one. They take too much upkeep over the years and don't provide anything additional to being a plain, boring fence. And so, we decided that planting a living fence was for us. The finished product- at least in theory- will be "bull-strong and hog-tight" -unlike most other conventional fencing methods- will provide a habitat for wildlife, and will be an indefinite, sustainable source of firewood for our family from the yearly trimmings we'll be giving it to keep it at a manageable height.
What is a living fence? Our definition and goal for this project is the following: a 4 foot high, thorny, impenetrable, living barrier that will prevent unwanted living creatures from entering our land and keep our livestock on our land, even if they escape. From what we've gathered, this is possible within 4 years time under the best circumstances.
There are very limited resources out there describing just how to construct such a fence, but from various sources (online search engines, books, YouTube videos, etc.) we pieced together our plan. What follows is how we chose to go about it. Some sources spoke of planting the Osage Trees five feet apart and simply using the mature tree trunk as the fence post. It seemed silly to us when we could spend a week or two each year for a couple years to train it in the shape and strength we desired and never have to worry about repairing it over the years with expensive wire or wooden fencing. This fence would be something we'd construct once in our lifetime and if it was kept up by our offspring and their families after our passing, it would be a fence that would be used for generations!
Enough blabbering on for now. I'll get to the step-by-step now.
Step 1: Collect enough hedge apples for your fence
Some people call them "monkey brains" and use them to ward off spiders in basements, but we call them hedge apples. We knew that we needed A LOT of them as we were hoping to plant enough to cover 2,000 linear feet of property perimeter. And so, my 4-year-old and I spent about 2 hours collecting enough hedge apples to completely fill the trunk of my Toyota Yaris. Here in Ohio, collecting them is a breeze as they can be found in great abundance in parks, yards, and roadside ditches near us. We collected them in November and as it turned out, this trunk load was the perfect amount. We had some leftover, and realize now that we could have poured with a heavier hand in some locations. Thus, a full trunk-load is perfect for 2,000 linear feet.
Step 2: Place the hedge apples in buckets, troughs, bins, and overwinter
In order for the Osage Orange seeds to germinate, they need to be stratified (the chilling and warming that takes place to break the dormancy of the seed) and scarified (refers to the "coat" of the seed breaking or cracking which allows germination to take place) or exposed to the cold temperatures over the winter in order to germinate with success in the spring. If you live in an area where it stays fairly warm during the winter, you'd want to use your fridge for this purpose, I suppose. The tree is said to have a "hardiness zone" of 4-10.
When we arrived home with our Osage Orange "fruit", we placed them in various buckets, bins, and containers that weren't in use. We placed them out in the elements to allow them to break down slowly over the course of the winter. Some of our containers had holes in the bottom while some did not. It didn't matter one way or the other. When we looked in on them in the spring, they had broken down quite a bit and were soft, mushy and smelly. This, as it turns out, is completely normal and just what you want.
Step 3: Plow the space for planting or otherwise prepare it
In late winter/ very early spring when the ground was soft enough, we plowed the area to be planted. Then, we went back and removed the sod and broke up large clods of dirt to give our seeds the best possible start. In hindsight, if we had access to soil and had the time to spend to haul it to location, it may have been helpful to cover the sod with paper or cardboard, mound compost on top and plant into that. Also, having the "right" tractor attachment wouldn't have hurt either. We just went with what we had and did what we could and they did great!
Some sources stated that the land could be plowed in late Fall or early Winter prior to planting, but we didn't fully commit to our plan till it was too late. Thus, we opted for Spring.
Above is what the land looked like right after being plowed and below is what it looked like once we'd removed the sod and broken the large clods of dirt down to loose soil.
Step 4: Break apart the hedge apples
Once Spring comes along, break apart the individual hedge apples to ensure the seeds are more evenly spaced when pouring the slurry. A slurry is simply a seed mixture poured into the area/ trench to be planted. We wore gloves because this was a smelly job and we didn't want that stink following us indoors. It didn't take as long as you might think after having seen the trunk-full I showed you earlier. After being stratified and scarified, they are much easier to break apart.
Step 5: Prepare the slurry
Mix the hedge apple seeds in with some water to create a viscous mixture the consistency of pancake batter. We had some extra compost on-hand so we tossed a couple handfuls in per bucket for good measure. We used a drill mixer and it did the job beautifully!
Below: Finished slurry mixture. Ready to pour!
Step 6: Pour the slurry mixture onto the prepared space
Step 7: Cover slurry
Cover with compost or whatever soil you have on hand. We had some wonderful, life-giving compost created over the past several years that we treated our slurry to.
Step 8: Wait and watch...
It took a little less than a month for our Osage Orange seeds to sprout. When they began sprouting, life around here had kicked it up several notches and we were knee deep in work. As a result, weeds surrounded our seedlings. Interestingly enough, however, they all seemed just fine. It may have been unnecessary, but I performed a combination of weeding and weed whacking the area surrounding the living fence. There didn't seem to be any clear sign as to whether the ones that were weeded and tended to fared any better than the ones who were left "neglected." The ones that look the weakest are actually growing next to a field that was, within the past two years, conventionally farmed. Thus, I assume the nutrients have been depleted in that region of our perimeter and they were treated to compost as a result.
Step 9: Fill in the gaps
While the germination rates were out of control (probably about 90%), there were some areas where growth was sparce. My initial plan was to transplant seedlings from other areas into the areas that were barren. Transplanting when they were teeny tiny (2 inches tall or less) proved effective. Transplanting when they had grown taller than a couple inches, however, wasn't effective. As you can see below, I spent the better part of a day transplanting a ton of "teenage" Osage trees only to find these sad, dead guys a week later. We didn't have much rain this particular week, so that could have greatly added to their demise, but making sure they were adequately watered wasn't a possibility at that time.
Instead of spending any additional time this year transplanting tiny Osage trees, we're planning on collecting mulberry seeds in the spring from our property and planting them in the gaps. Why mulberry? Mulberry trees are cousins with the Osage Orange and their roots will fuse together over time and become one single, living fence! Thus, we'll have sections of our fence that will be fruit-bearing which will be great for all the livestock we have on our land and great for us as well as we love mulberries!
One of the reasons I don't think they survived is because their taproot was well-established at this point (4 months old) and even being incredibly careful and taking my time resulted in some damage to the root structure; compromising the tiny tree.
Below is an up-close view of the roots on these little suckers.
Step 10: Thin out seedlings to 6-12 inches
In addition to transplanting to fill in blank spaces, they need to be thinned out to 6-12 inches to provide enough room for adequate growth. We read 12 inches, but I erred on the side of 6-12 because some areas of the fence fared better than others. Where sprouts were plentiful and deep green, I thinned to 12 inches. Where sprouts were slightly more yellow in color and less plentiful, I thinned closer to 6 inches to provide some wiggle room should some not fare well over the winter. Next spring, I plan on fully thinning to 12 inches.
Here are some photos of thinned out sections of our fence. Some heavily "wild" areas were treated with cardboard and a layer of mulch or wood on top to hold it down for longer-term weed prevention.
These thorns are no joke; even at this stage.
Once the rest of the fence is thinned out, we'll be done with the fence until next Spring. If we have the time and some extra compost, I may run through and add it to any that are looking worse for wear.
Step 11: Carefully bend the plants over and bury the "heads"
The next major step that awaits us will take place next year- likely in the Fall- when the trees are about a foot tall. We'll bend the plant over and plant the top of the plant into the ground six inches toward its neighbor.
Photo taken from a Mother Earth News article titled "Living Fences: How-To, Advantages, and Tips"
"Shooters" will emerge from the plant and can then be woven together the following year.
Photo taken from a Mother Earth News article titled "Living Fences: How-To, Advantages, and Tips"
We'll be sure to post updated pictures as we move along this process, so stay tuned, friends! For updated information on the happenings here at Humble hive Sustainable Family Farm, be sure to "Like" us on Facebook and check out the rest of our website!
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