What is a Living Fence and How Do You Grow One?

leaves on a fence to create a living fence border

Living fences have long been popular in the U.K. but thanks to homesteaders and DIY culture, they have seen a spike in popularity here in the U.S. But what is a living fence and how do you grow one?

Read on to discover what makes this natural barrier so special and how you can start growing your own living fence.  

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What is a Living Fence?

hedges used as a border

Photo credit: Old Photo Profile / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A living fence goes by many names, including agricultural fence, hedgerow, and natural fence. These natural barriers come to life when trees or shrubs interlock to form a tightly knit row. The closely grown plants create a privacy screen, windbreak, and complete ecosystem full of biodiversity. 

Living fences serve the same functions as traditional wooden and chain-link fences, while requiring minimal maintenance once they mature. The living walls comprise trees, shrubs, or other plants to create live barriers. Some homeowners opt to use trees as live fence posts to support traditional fencing materials

Natural fences offer many benefits to homeowners and homesteaders, including:

  • Reduced maintenance costs
  • A balanced ecosystem inviting beneficial pollinators
  • Natural wind and noise reduction
  • More nutrient-dense soil

Examples of Living Fences

Living fences come in all shapes and sizes, and many plant species can create the lush boundaries. Depending on your specific climate and seasonal needs, deciduous, evergreen, coniferous, or leguminous plant species make great choices for your natural fence and require little maintenance once established. 

Smaller yards can benefit from shrubs that grow between 3 and 6 feet tall. For more privacy, you can select taller, fast-growing trees. However, these plants will need to be pruned more regularly to maintain their height. 

Some popular living fence plants include:

  • Lilac
  • Forsythia
  • Weeping willow
  • Evergreens: Yew, privet, juniper, holly, boxwood
  • Fruit trees: Osage orange; dwarf apple, grape, pear, and plum
  • Honeysuckle
  • Bamboo
  • Hawthorn

How Do You Grow a Living Fence?

Growing a living fence requires patience and time. Your new fence will need access to soil, water, and sunlight. When grown correctly, living fences can be as sturdy and impenetrable as man-made fences and last for over 100 years. 

Choose the Right Plants

Setting your fence up for success starts with choosing the right plants. Ideally, you will choose a fast-growing species that thrives in your area. Consider watering needs, light and soil requirements, and your USDA growing zone

You can choose one or multiple species of plants depending on your desired outcome. Deciduous, leguminous, coniferous, and evergreen species can all be used to create a natural fence. Coniferous and evergreen species maintain their green color year-round. Additionally, some species have thorns, a built-in defense mechanism, to prevent animals like deer from grazing. 

Prepare the Soil

It is important to prepare the soil before planting your new fence line. Start by removing all weeds and debris to avoid competition. Till the dirt to loosen compaction and feed the soil a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Use a string running the length of your fence as a guide for planting.

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Plant the Living Fence

Planting your living fence is one of the most important steps and the most labor-intensive. You want to plant close together to encourage interlocking branches for tightness and security. Start by digging a 12-inch deep trench along the length of your fence line using your string as a guide.

Regardless of your selection, trees or bushes, seeds or saplings, space your plants in a straight line between 4 and 8 inches apart for smaller shrubs and 18 to 30 inches apart for larger trees. 

Things to consider:

  • Plant in late fall
  • If starting from seed, consider sprouting indoors before sowing
  • For a denser fence, plant a double row of shrubs or trees
  • Stake small saplings in a tripod formation until they can stand on their own
  • Use mulch to prevent weeds
  • Water new plants several times a week using a soaker hose 

Train the Living Fence

Train your newly planted living fence by crisscrossing and weaving neighboring branches together. You can achieve many unique patterns and ensure a secure barrier

When training, connect neighboring branches using plant ties, leaving room for growth. As the plants mature, the tied branches will induce inosculation, the self-grafting of two plants to grow as one

Maintain the Living Fence

As your fence works to establish roots, remove weeds regularly. A thick layer of mulch at the base of your living fence can block weeds and aid in moisture retention. Your unique watering scheduling will depend on your climate and the species of plant you selected. 

Pruning helps establish fresh growth. Cut back the branches of your living fence in the summer unless you’ve selected a flowering variety, in which case you should prune your fence during the winter months when the blooming season has ended. Most living fences require one annual pruning to control basic shape and size. 

Pros and Cons of Living Fences

Living fences provide many benefits to a property and the surrounding environment. With a little effort you can have your very own magical, green ecosystem that also serves as property designation and a secure barrier. 

ProsCons

✓ Inexpensive to maintain

✓ Sustainable

✓ Natural windbreak

✓ Contributes to a healthy landscape

✓ Increase resale value of your home
✗ Takes several years to mature

✗ Pruning can be labor intensive

✗ Can encroach on neighboring property

FAQ About Living Fences

What is Coppicing? 

Coppicing is the practice of cutting back trees to ground level to encourage fresh growth. Once your newly planted living fence establishes roots, you can coppice your trees or shrubs. You can then weave the new branches to form a tight privacy screen.

Why is Inosculation Important? 

A living fence relies on closely planted, interlocking trees or shrubs to create a barrier. When you plant saplings in a row and weave their branches together to create a privacy screen, you are encouraging inosculation to take place. This process occurs when two plants self-graft to grow as one and will cause a more even and dense living fence.

Are Living Fences Secure? 

Living fences can be as secure as a man-made fence, and sometimes, even more secure. Some plants, like the honey locust, are a fast-growing option for living fences. These plants contain large thorns that act as a deterrent for invaders — animal and human. Other common plants for living fences with built-in defenses are regional and include cacti, blackberries, and rose bushes. 

Ready to Grow a Living Fence?

With a little hard work and a lot of patience, you can complete your backyard getaway with your very own living fence. Your new fence will provide all the necessities of a manufactured version while being sustainable, cost-effective, and low maintenance. 

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Main photo credit: milaborka / Pixabay / License

Kimberly Magerl

Kimberly Magerl is a writer and data analyst specializing in home improvement, DIY, roofing, and solar technologies. She enjoys growing vegetables in her garden, getting outdoors, and transforming her space with DIY projects. A resident of Texas, when she isn't gardening, Kimberly enjoys trying new recipes and cooking with her home-grown herbs.