Saturday, November 20, 2010
Posted by Kate at 11:51 AM
Homesteading is equal parts experimentation, failure, and learning to actually see what's right in front of you. At least, that's the definition I give you today. Over this past year I've been eying the wooden fence that almost entirely encloses our small property. It's old, and not in good shape. I'd been thinking that next year we might have to scrape up some serious money to have it fixed or replaced. In other words, I was thinking conventionally, and not at all like a homesteader. It still happens.
The strong wind storm that visited much of the northeast this week toppled one of the panels of our fence. It might well have toppled a few others at the same time, but the wind contented itself with making just one ten-foot gap in the fence line. I sighed, and wondered whether I should call some fence guys right away, or just wait for spring. Clearly, the wooden support posts on the entire fence are reaching the ends of their useful lives. I expect to see them fail one by one in the coming years if nothing is done to remedy the situation.
Then my husband went out to take a look at it and came back inside with the obvious and fully brilliant idea of scrapping the fence entirely and replacing it with a hedgerow. A hedgerow. A hedgerow! It hit me like a thunderbolt. Why hadn't I seen it? How could I have missed such a neat solution to so many problems? All the years we've been on this property, I've looked at that fence and only seen it as demarcating space we can and can't turn to production. It's not as though I'm unfamiliar with the amazing benefits of hedgerows. They do enclose space, true enough. But they're often more productive than the spaces they enclose. They require little maintenance while providing abundant food and habitat for wildlife. The wildlife, in turn, improve the fertility of the surrounding soil by adding their manure and their dynamic contributions to the immediate area. They provide privacy and often are more attractive than fences. Not least significantly, they cost less to establish than a new fence, have a much longer lifespan than any fence, and don't generate any waste or pollution in their construction. Also, this section of the fence partly defines an underused space on our property that I've been wondering about. Specifically wondering whether it might ever sustainably support a few miniature dairy goats. It's a shady area with marginal soil, so it currently doesn't offer much food to livestock. If it were bordered by a hedgerow instead of a fence however, that could change dramatically.
A hedgerow that replaces our fence could answer all the functions of that fence while dramatically increasing the amount of food that is produced here. I've been coddling a pair of hazelnut plants in containers this year, because the open space I've been planning to put them into is significantly shaded. Now I see that I could have a hedgerow with several hazels in it without sacrificing any open space. We could have so many hazel plants that I could retire my concern about the squirrels robbing us of all of the nuts before they even ripen. We could afford to be open handed with the bounty of our little piece of land, rather than fighting wildlife for every morsel. It's hard to believe that I could have missed something so obvious and so awesome.
Now the challenge is to figure out how to do it. This is where experimentation comes into homesteading. There are no tidy guidelines for planting a hedgerow. All sorts of factors conspire to force me to do my own research: our soil type and climate, the fact that I don't want the hedgerow to grow high enough to shade our garden, and our personal tastes as far as diet go. The challenge is greater because I'm in Pennsylvania, not England. I can't tap a local expert on hedgerows, or pick up amateur advice from the neighbors. A hedgerow should be a densely grown mixture of shrubs and vines. But we have to decide what those should consist of. Of course, if you have no preferences and just want any old sort of hedgerow, there's an easy way to go about it. String a line of barbed wire or other fencing where you want the hedgerow. Wild birds will perch there, poop out the seeds of things that grow well in your area, and after a few years' benign neglect, you'll have your own hedgerow.
Obviously, we're going to be a bit pickier when stocking our hedgerow. I plan to start with just the section of fence which collapsed. If I can establish a few suitable plants there in the near term, I'm guessing I'll be able to propagate from those plants as more gaps in the fence line appear over the coming years. When the plants grow larger, we could remove the panels to either side of the existing gaps if they're hanging on, and encourage expansion to either side.
So, I'm now doing research to see what plants will meet our requirements. We'll need plants that won't grow too tall, aren't fussy, and some that tolerate partial shade. Those that provide food for livestock, fix nitrogen, or propagate easily are going to get extra points. Candidate plants near the top of the list include hazels, elders, black raspberries, Siberian pea shrub, muscadines, and wild cucumber. If you know a perennial or reseeding annual productive plant that is hardy to zone 6, doesn't grow above 12 feet/4 meters, and is suitable for hedgerows, I'd love to hear about it.