The Great Fence Dilemma

We love our little cottage in town, and it’s great to live in a small rural community. But, as with all places, it’s not perfect and it has a few key opportunities for improvement. Unfortunately those opportunities usually come with a hefty price tag, so finding a creative solution can sometimes be daunting.

Fencing and space are two of these areas. First of all, we live on a small corner lot. It’s close to a quarter acre in reality, but the property is a bit oddly laid out in that it’s really front yard heavy and the garage takes up a good chunk of what backyard we do have. The other challenge is the fact that none of it is fenced.

Our initial opinion on the question of fencing was to have a six foot privacy fence installed in the back yard, and a picket fence in the front yard. But after really examining that as an option, we’re not sure it’s the way to go. First, since we’re on a corner lot, half of our back yard has street frontage, and town code says you can’t have a privacy fence butting right up to the property line parallel to the street – it has to have a minimum six feet setback. Secondly, have you priced fencing? The DIY option would cost us about four thousand dollars to buy at a home center and spend a back breaking weekend installing, and significantly more than that to hire out the job. Woe, the trials of homesteading.

But I didn’t want to give it up – with having edible vegetable beds, we need a way to control access a bit from hungry critters. And with a young child on what turns out is a busier street than we realized, we’d feel a little more secure having a more defined space. We’ve been mulling over this problem for the better part of a year now, with no real solution coming to the fore, until I happened upon this idea called permaculture. I’d heard of permaculture for years and years, but never really dug into it for some reason. But now I’m devouring everything I can on the subject because it’s really a holistic way for integrating our lives into the natural environment, and vice versa. I’m still very much in the learning phase, but for us, using permaculture practices seems like it will make the most sense.

Permaculture came into being in the mid-nineties and was introduced by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Austrialia. The word is actually a hybrid of PERMAnent agriCULTURE, which makes sense as you’re really setting up your “garden” to just exist without being completely redone year over year. It’s a method to replicate natural ecosystems, centered on food production, in human-oriented environments by focusing on use zones – the closer you are to the center of human habitation, the more organized it is, with the things you need most close at hand. It focuses on sustainability and a “closed loop” system that supports itself, while being functional to both human and environmental needs. I was first introduced to the concept in a way that had me wanting to know more when I took Caron Wenzel’s class on Foraging & Edible Landscaping earlier this month at our community college. So I got a few books from the library, one of which was Permaculture for the Rest of Us by Jenni Blackmore. It’s certainly more of a memoir of her personal experience rather than a how to manual, but I was interested in it because she’s practicing permaculture design on about an acre. I’d always had the impression (with what little information I had) that it could only be truly practiced on a much larger scale (think food forests). But apparently not so, and that’s sparked an idea that I can and should give it a try on my own lot. It’s also becoming apparent to me that I find so much more beauty in that naturally ordered type of environment, rather than stark rows of things, box beds and straight lines. And then of course, there’s the fencing.

Never thought we were going to get back to that, did you? There is also a fantastic picture in the book of a living willow fence, and of course the moment I saw it, a light bulb went off – there’s the solution! We don’t have the space to do a proper hedgerow, but a willow fence is definitely possible. There is no restriction on what kind of plants can be placed on our property, no restriction on where they can be located (right on the property line, though neighborliness suggests a setback of about a foot) and there is no permit (with fee!) to plant anything, whereas there is for traditional fencing. And the beauty of a living fence is just that – it’s living. Once well rooted it can be companion planted with other bushes and plants in front and vines can even be trained up it to some degree, forming a nice screen and a secure perimeter. In short, it meets all of our needs. Well, most of them. Price is still a consideration of course. I’m not sure that it will come out much cheaper than a fence honestly, since to do it properly the willow whips have to be spaced mere inches apart for the more robust woven grid designs. It may, in the end, prove to be more expensive in the initial outlay than fencing, but oh – the reward! A sustainable, beautiful solution that works with the natural environment… it’s nearly irresistible. And like all things, there are more affordable ways to get things done – if I buy willow starts and grow the crowns from that instead of buying long whips, that’s less money too, though it’ll take more time to get the finished hedge. So, decisions, decisions still. But I’ve learned more than I bargained for when I set out to answer the fencing question, and am pretty excited about a new to me way of gardening and being a steward of the environment.


4 thoughts on “The Great Fence Dilemma

  1. When I was on a mission trip in Mexico, I saw fences made out of bamboo. Some were trimmed like a hedge. Others left to grow to their full height.


  2. There are plants that can be grown as hedges that have edible fruit. Many people grow Natal plums here as hedges because they grow thick and have thorns. However, most don’t know the fruit is also edible.

    There is probably plants like that that you could grow.


    1. Thanks for the tip! I’ve actually never heard of natal plums, so I’ll have to do a little research on them. Having an edible fence would be even better than willow I think, so I’m certainly going to look into it.

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