Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Aha! Moment

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.


The Mom said...

Great idea! I think I'd be looking at things like blueberries, black and raspberries and cranberries intermixed with a few things. They all tolerate soil that isn't that great and, at least in my yard, do quite well in partial shade. Plus they're food!

Vera said...

We have had to fence our fields so the animals don't wander off into the roads, but we would have prefered to put in hedging. So, fence posts and fencing wire being done, then will put hedging alongside it as time and money permits. But to fill in the gap in the fence which has become damaged is a good idea. You can put a selection of plants in that gap, and see what grows best. Good luck with your hedging project. Have just found your site and look forward to reading more of about your life in the future.

Unknown said...

we are considering osage orange for a hedge row. The instructions and where we got the idea is in one of the more recent Mother Earth News.

Sarah said...

Rugosa roses. Dense, thorny, very pretty and you get rose hips.
We have a Siberian pea shrub or Caragana hedge It is almost impossible to kill and fixes nitrogen. I am slowly replacing it with more interesting plants. As roses and hazels get bigger I chop back the Caragana. I am also going to put in some Saskatoons which get pretty tall here, some choke cherry and some bird cherry.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say roses, osage orange, and black locust. The locust will get tall, but it's apparently very good firewood, too. A fair few things on this list will grow in your area, too:

And what about willow? You could weave it into a fedge and have withes for baskets and garden supports.

louisa @ The Really Good Life said...

Most of the (wild) hedgerows around here are a mix of blackberries, wild roses, sloes and elder - great foraging in the autumn.

In our garden, we use large rosemary and lavender shrubs too - but that tends to be for internal dividers as they're not really big enough for external ones.

becky3086 said...

I would go with The Moms suggestion and use blueberries. I don't really know what a hedgegrow is but I would put plants that produce edibles for you in it. As far as the hazelnuts go, I wouldn't use them there if you don't want them to get tall. I have two. Just two that I planted by the driveway. I don't know how long ago it was, maybe 4-6 years but they are HUGE and spread out a LOT. I had to cut them back so we could still get in the car(and they weren't even planted that close to the driveway!). However, they do produce a quite a few hazelnuts each year, however they are smaller than you would buy in the store.

teekaroo said...

I hope to do a currant hedge someday, and wild roses seem to naturally grow with them around here. I'd like saskatoons, elderberries and chokecherries too. My grandma had a beautiful lilac hedge, but that's just for prettiness, not food.

Brad K. said...

About the old fence - is there an opportunity to combine Hugelkultur(sp?) with the hedgerow plan?

As I understand general Hugelkultur, you make a long pile of unwanted wood, stumps, trunks, clippings, and build an earthen face over it. The wood rots, releasing nourishment to the soil, and warmth to encourage plant growth, making the assembly quite fertile.

So - maybe dismantle the wood section to remove the nails, and dig a complete or partial ditch at the fenceline, bury the wood from the fence panel making either a flattened mound or even just pull up enough dirt to make a distinct mound, and plant the hedgerow on top. Much less trash (just the nails or bolts) to haul off or burn. Just a lot more digging.

Just a thought - I haven't tried this.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

What a fertile post! Love all the ideas. More heads, brains, the better the solution. Called brainstorming, I guess.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Here's what I don't get: why don't we have hedgerows in America? I had only the haziest notion of what a hedgerow actually was -- gleaned mostly from Victorian novels -- but once I figured it out, I thought we should have them everywhere.

Let's hope you're starting something here. Great idea.

Svetlana said...

Blueberries: if you've got acidic, well drained soil otherwise forget them they are a lot of trouble to manage.

heirloom roses with big hips, they are related to apples and make good tea and jam. A row of rosemary in front interspersed with garlic is a winning combination

My mother has Osage orange. Unless you are really going to use them, they are thorny and aggressive spreaders and we hate them

I like the hazel idea best.

You could leave the fence post and run wire between them and have grapes. Or you could espalier apples and pears or rose of sharon or quince.

M L Jassy said...

Plant anything that attracts hedgehogs. They're so sweet!

meemsnyc said...

Hedge rows are a great idea. You can also do blueberries also, they make great hedges.

Hazel said...

Long post warning!
I don't think berry plants will give you what you need.I don't think they will be high enough or dense enough.
A traditional hedgerow should have a mix of plants/trees, so you can have a mix of edibles and wildlife plants.
In rural Oxfordshire our hedgerows include Louisa's list-sloes (blackthorn), elder, hazel, hawthorn, wild/crab apples, cherry plums/damsons/bullaces,field maple with blackberries, wild roses and honeysuckle growing through them.

I know you've said before you don't have hawthorn in your area, but I would recommend sloes. Do they grow in the US? They have white blossom in the spring and tiny black fruit with a bluish bloom in the autumn. Very high in tannins, but macerated in vodka or gin, they are absolutely delicious. :0) I add a few to hedgerow jelly too. T\hey are slightly thorny and so make a good perimeter hedge.

Going for the full on traditional hedgerow will mean it is reasonably tall and wide and you will lose some space to it. You can obviously keep it pruned and goats will keep the bottom part of their side in trim.

Hazel is also grown as a coppicing wood here. Plants are cut to the ground on rotation, causing long straight 'poles' to grow from the stump. Depending on how long you leave these to grow, they will still flower and fruit but you also get either small sticks (think largish bamboo canes and walking sticks- a traditional use) or large staves (bean poles etc). I get our twiggy pea sticks and bean poles from a managed hazel coppice near us, and then the nuts in the autumn from the same man.

Once the hedging trees are established, you could underplant with scramblers like blackberry, climbing/rambling roses and honeysuckle which are all edible as well as ornamental.

Something else to watch is that 'English' hedgerows can become leggy. The plants want to become trees and when left form trunks with big gaps in between. Hedge laying has been the traditional answer to this, leaving a stock proof hedge that grows right from the ground up, but that is something of an art form! Thoughtful pruning (ie not just slashing at it with a hedge trimmer on a trailer, which is what most farmers here do now) should stop that.

Sorry if this is all obvious to you, but I'm not sure how much translates from England to the US. Hopefully some of it will be useful and not too UK-centric!

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to reading about this project! The selection process will be very interesting, so many choices and growth habits to weed out, as they say.

Kate said...

The Mom, I love berries, and I think the bramble types could work well. But the blueberries will probably require a soil pH that is unsuitable for other crops, and I think the cranberries will be too overshadowed by the bigger stuff.

Vera, you make a good point. I think we actually have the ideal situation for hedgerow creation. We don't yet have to contain livestock, and we only have to work on creating a small bit of hedgerow at a time. The hedgerow project will be a long term experiment, so result will be slow to materialize. But I'll definitely keep posting about it as long as I'm blogging.

Melody, thanks for the reference to Harvey Ussery's article. I hadn't seen it previously and he's great on all topics that he covers. Osage orange is probably too large a species for our hedgerow, but it certainly has lovely properties.

Sarah, nice suggestion for the rose and saskatoon. I would like to include rugosa or something similar. Siberian pea for sure since it serves so many purposes. I understand that saskatoon/aronia may become the next nutrient "superfood" but that it's slow growing. That could work just fine for me though.

Emily, the locust family is on my list to research, but again, I'm leery of anything that wants to get too tall. Very interesting link on goat browse. Thank you. I'd love to have a willow in our hedge, but again height at maturity is a concern. I'm willing to do some maintenance of the hedgerow, but I'd rather not constantly battle something that wants to be 50 feet tall. Do you happen to know of any diminutive willow species?

Loisa, hi. Your comments make me think that my short list of top candidates is a pretty good one. Blackthorn is not native here, but I'm sure it would grow here. Thanks.

Becky, certainly edibility, by humans or livestock, is a high priority for our hedgerow project. I've already addressed my misgivings about blueberries and their soil pH preferences in my response to The Mom. Additionally, I'm not sure how well they'd do in a tangled thicket with other, taller plants. As for hazels/filberts, there's quite a bit of variety in nut size and plant height at maturity. I'll be researching this in the near future.

teekaroo, I've come across references to chokecherries, but have never eaten them. Have you? How would you describe them?

Brad, the old fence panels are still in reasonably good shape since they never were in contact with the soil. It's mostly the posts that are deteriorating. I would definitely try to re-use the panels. If we get goats at any point, I imagine they would come in useful for containment. The hedgerow would serve nicely, but only for one or two sides of their enclosure. But I like the hugelkultur idea. I came across it in Gaia's Garden. We might do something like that with material pruned from the hedgerow in future years.

Kate said...

Sharon, thanks! I agree.

Tamar, I know. It seems odd that we don't see them much here, given how great they are. Apparently George Washington thought we should have our own version, with honey locust forming the backbone of American hedgerows.

Svetlana, thanks for your comments on various species. I'd never heard that rose of sharon was a productive plant. How is it used?

Mitzi, that would be a tall order. As far as I know hedgehogs aren't native to my part of the world.

Meemsnyc, blueberries are a popular suggestion, eve though I don't think they'll work. Luckily I have a small patch of them on the property where I'm working to acidify the soil.

Hazel, see what I mean about you having your own blog? You have information to share! A designated place to do it would be a wonderful thing. None of what you say is obvious to me; we have no tradition of hedgerows here. I haven't walked or driven past them for decades on end as you probably have. Blackthorns have been on my radar for a while, though they are definitely not native here and sourcing them is not terribly easy in the US. I know it can be done however. Possibly, hawthorns could be sourced as well. I'd love a hawthorn if I could identify and source a variety that can be managed as a bush. Same goes for a mulberry. Mulberries here are big trees, so I'm mystified by the mulberry bush of the nursery rhyme. Perhaps hawthorns and mulberries could simply be coppiced into bushes? I don't mind losing some space to the hedgerow because right now the area where the fence is in worst shape is an area that we hardly get any benefit out of. So we might as well lose a little space and make it highly productive. I saw that hedge laying clip in one of the River Cottage episodes. I wonder how much expertise it takes to do that. Could an amateur manage an amateurish version of it? I may find out several years on...

Ali, I'm pretty excited about starting the project myself. It'll be an experiment in slow motion, but I promise to post about it from time to time.

Laura said...

hi, i'm a bit of a lurker here, but have been reading for a few months. just a caution, not certain what your boundaries are like and what your neighbours are like, but if they are anything like mine, be careful...neighbours will come along and cut down anything planted that they don't think should be there even if it is on your property and not theres. :/
best of luck

Jen said...

We grew a rugosa hedge, it was impenetrable within a few years. A little tricky to trim but it doesn't get taller than 10 ft or so. And a good barrier, it's so prickly. I love the idea of some hedge material you could coppice for basket material, ramial wood chips, etc.

Hazel said...

I think you could probably have a go at hedge laying. It would take a while, but I bet you could do a serviceable job.

Hawthorn and Blackthorn could definitely be managed as shrubs rather than trees. Mulberries in the UK are all huge too and I think they're all non-native. Certainly I've never seen any growing other than in parks and gardens.
I have seen a weeping mulberry for sale here, which seems a slightly more manageable size.

Another thought- hedgerows can be interspersed with taller trees; it doesn't have to be uniform height all the way along. A mulberry may still be too much, but an apple/plum or nut tree of some sort?

I think with the nursery rhyme the general consensus is that it started out as 'here we go round the bramble bush' and mulberry got substituted because it sounded better/was easier to say. Why mulberry other than any other bush or tree nobody seems to know.

Ruth Trowbridge said...

This is an awesome post! We are on such a new grand adventure. I am all for the hazelnuts as they will grow like weeds once established. They will grow from cuttings taken in both winter and summer. The food crop is tasty and easy to harvest They are pretty in the spring. When they are pruned the poles are perfect for staking tomatoes and such. The wood and nut shells are good for garden mulch. I am also a fan of the caragana or siberian pea. Hardy to zone 2, it is lovely in bloom, a fast grower and drought tolerant. You can even use the peas for feed. If you are trying to keep predators away the brambles are the best. Goats love raspberry leaves. Goats also love kudzu, a tender perennial here that is a noxious weed down south of you. Off to read about gobo, I too have always wondered what to do with it. Peace

Bellen said...

Hedgerows, whether specifically planted or just random growth, are seen all over the US. Here in FL they tend to be scrubby palms, maybe elderberry and some other as yet by me unidentified bushes/trees.

The best place to get information, free at that, is your local county Extension Service. Your tax dollars pay for it and they provide specific to your area information. Often someone will even come out to your property to have a look see before making suggestions

When we lived in CT we had a pond specialist come out to see what we had to do to enlarge our pond, a forestry person to advise us on clearing and maintaining our woods. In Florida we've had a master gardener help us with specific varieties of veggies to plant as the weather conditions are so very different than CT.

A productive hedgerow is a wonderful idea - makes me think we should look into for some much needed privacy - building a 2 building 3-story apartment complex directly behind us.

timfromohio said...

I look forward to seeing how you implement this on your property. I have thought of doing the same and found a page or two of suggestions in John Seymour's book, "The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It". A must have reference if you don't already have it.

Also, you might go over to and do a search. I posted some questions about this a while back and there were many good answers. I was looking for some form of natural fencing with thorns or impenetrable to most livestock with a secondary goal of something flowering that bees might like. Not sure if a single species can fulfill both of these objectives?

Best of luck!

Kate said...

Laura, welcome and thanks for delurkifying yourself. Fortunately, our neighbors are pretty cool. I can't imagine any of them daring to cut down anything on anyone else's property, even if they weren't thrilled with it. It's pretty respectful around here.

Jen, thanks for the comments on rugosa rose. From comments and my own research I now consider it a top candidate as well. It should be a hit with our bees too.

Hazel, thanks for the explanation about the nursery rhyme. I had wondered about that for some time. And for the encouragement on the hedge laying as well. We're usually game to try our hand at anything which doesn't obviously require expertise or expensive tools we don't have. I'm considering a dwarf crab apple for the hedgerow at some point, but it would have to be carefully situated. There aren't many parts of the fenceline where I'd want anything tall. Our property is fortunate at the moment in its solar exposure. Wouldn't want to mess with that.

Ruralrose, thanks. I'm interested to hear your report that Siberian pea shrubs grow quickly. This contradicts what I've heard from the one person I know personally who has one. Maybe she picked a bad spot...

Bellen, I suppose if we count totally wild hedgerows that eventually merge with surrounding woods, then we have them in PA. But I've never seen anything in the US like the hedgerows I've seen in various parts of the British Isles. I like your suggestion of asking the Extension agent's advice. I'll be sure to do that. My own experience with them is just as you say - they are quite cheerfully helpful as a rule.

Tim, I look forward to seeing how it goes too, though it's going to be a very slow moving experiment. I'll definitely rely on several species for the hedgerow. I wouldn't want a monoculture and I'm sure a monoculture would never give all the benefits I hope to get from a hedgerow. I'll post about the experiment from time to time. Thanks for the references; I'll check them out.

Bureinato said...

I've been thinking about a hedgerow myself. Mine would run through sun and shade. My current plant ideas are hazelnuts, currents both red & black, serviceberry aka juneberry aka saskatoon berry. Juneberrys are tasty and the ones we have at work grow ~10-12' high.

Chokecherrys are astringent and need to be cooked and sweetened before eating. They are used for jam and syrups mostly. They are common and grow wild in CO and NM, I have no idea if they grow back east.

We have nanking cherries where I work, and they are wide 6' tall shrubs, and covered with small (too small to use a piter on) cherries in mid-summer. I'm thinking about where I can fit a pair.

Other plants I'm thinking of are siberian pea shrubs, and elderberry. My main concern is drought tolerance since I'm in an arid climate.

Kate said...

Bureinato, there's so much specificity in gardening and agriculture, isn't there? What works for one part of the US might not be remotely feasible in another. That's why it's so valuable to develop and preserve local knowledge. I wish you luck in establishing your hedgerow.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an older post but I've been on the hunt for blackthorn in the US for use in a hedgerow. I have recently come across Oikos tree crops (google it for the website) and they have blackthorn bushes available for a reasonable price and very inexpensive shipping ($10.50 up to a $70 order).

Just wanted to pass the information along to anyone on the hunt for sloes!

good luck with the hedgerow!

Kate said...

Allie, thanks for chiming in with that information. In the past Forest Farm in the Pacific northwest has carried them too. And everything I've ever gotten from them has been very high quality. I'll check out Oikos. I like the name - one of the few words in ancient Greek I know.