A nagging problem confronted me in my new front yard kitchen garden: an unsightly view of my neighbor’s driveway with its several cars, just a couple of feet away.
My garden is located in the sunniest part of my small yard, which just happens to be adjacent to this eyesore. A four-foot cedar stockade fence stops short of hiding it; continuing that fence several feet more toward the street would create a shadow over the edge of the garden and just wasn’t aesthetically what I was looking for.
A wattle fence was the answer.
Wattle fences, traditionally made from willow, have been in use since medieval times. With posts made of sturdy willow, and smaller, flexible willow suckers or saplings—”withies”—woven back and forth between the posts, these fences served early farmers well. The willow posts would usually take root in the ground, creating a strong, living, long-lasting fence that kept animals from wandering between fields and provided a wind break as well.
Farmers “pollarded” or “coppiced” willow trees to produce a continuous supply of sucker growth for use in fence building and other willow craft—an impressively simple renewable resource. The practice continues in some places throughout Europe today, where wattle fences and willows can be found side-by-side.
I love the look of traditional wattle fences, but there’s one problem: I don’t have access to any willow available to cut. I do, however, have lots of saplings and stump growth of various kinds, so I decided to create a wattle fence of mixed materials, in my own style.
I used three-foot grade stakes for posts, spacing them about 18 inches apart and pounding them into the ground a full foot. Though I would have preferred to use saplings, my sapling and sucker supply was fairly small in diameter, and I doubted I could come up with posts strong enough to endure the pounding and last a few years. I’m counting on the grade stakes becoming gray in color over time and more or less disappearing into the withies.
I cut down as many saplings, suckers and as much stump growth as I could find in my own yard, before paying visits to two friends’ yards to gather more. (I knew it was time to visit a friend when I found myself eying my lilacs, loppers in hand.)
The optimum withie diameter for the 18-inch post spacing seemed to be 1/2 to 3/4 inch, although I used some much smaller pieces here and there, and a few that were closer to an inch in diameter. I discovered that the pieces had to be at least 40 inches in length to be able to grab a few posts and hold tight. The longer the better, really. Stripping the withies of leaves and shoots was fairly quick and easy.
Weaving the withies in and out among the posts was straightforward. I’ve read that you can use dry material if you soak or steam it, but using it green is easiest. I used cherry, maple, hemlock, beech, dogwood, oak–even forsythia–and found that the variety of colors and textures worked out beautifully.
This project was simple, and I’m happy with the outcome. Authentic willow wattle fencing can actually be ordered by mail from England, and plenty of other fencing materials are available for purchase locally. Making something myself from readily available materials was infinitely more satisfying. For the few hours invested in cutting saplings and suckers and weaving the fence, I got exactly the rustic, handcrafted look I wanted.
The end result is two feet tall and about 12 feet long. Although I can still see the driveway full of cars next door, the wattle fence does exactly what I hoped it would do. It stops my gaze as it moves through my garden and provides a beautiful backdrop for the herbs and flowers planted against it. It has become a new focal point in the garden.
Now, when I tend to the herbs planted along my wattle fence, I’ll think of 12th century farmers and the long tradition of farmers and gardeners who have continued to use available, local materials to build what is needed.