How to Make a Wattle Fence

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.

Photo of Wattle Fence

34 responses

  1. Pingback: Ahhhhh … | JordanCornblog

  2. Oh, I’ve always wanted a wattle fence. If you don’t know who English gardener Sarah Raven is, go to your library and try to find some of her garden books or read about her garden here from a visit last summer: http://pgjennielove.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/perch-hill-farm/
    The reason I mention her is because her garden is full of willow craft, including amazing wattle fences. I came home and wanted to surround my garden but wasn’t sure what to do without a willow supply. Though I have gone and planted a young willow sapling this year for the purposes of copicing it in the years to come, I think I might get started on my fence right now thanks to your post. :)

  3. What a neat idea to plant a willow for future coppicing—I love it! It’s definitely possible and fairly easy to create something beautiful, although rougher in texture than a classic wattle fence, using other woods. Maybe somehtng smaller than a whole enclosure, while you’re waiting for your willow to grow? Thanks so much for sending me to your blog. It’s great!

  4. Pingback: JordanCornblog at Play | JordanCornblog

  5. Thanks for the information you provide in your post! Your fence looks charming and beautiful! I’m planning on creating something very similar to surround my vegetable garden and create a barrier that my dog friends know not to pass.

    Do you have any idea how long it’ll take for the post wood to rot? I thought of using hidden steel stakes driven into the ground instead of wood to make the fence more durable, but I don’t know if the added expense is really worth it. If I can get ten years out of the fence, I’d say the metal stakes aren’t worth it. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Andy,
      This little fence is sort of an experiment for me, and it’s small enough that I can risk failure if the posts rot too soon. I was hoping I’d get at least two years out of it; right now, my biggest concern is that it might already have been plowed under by my neighbor (it’s on the edge of my yeard, and very close to his driveway. If I make one again, I’d probably look for cedar posts or consider dipping the ends into some kind of preservative. I think real wattle fences end up being living fences, because the willow posts root in the ground. Steel could work, but it might be hard to cover it adequately to get the natural look you’re after. Good luck!
      Eleanor

  6. Hi I would love to do this to as we have a open garden with not much shade in it and a vege patch at the back which u can see and think it would soften the whole backyard wonder can I put a gate in some how to get access to the garden and also it would be great as it would keep out my 3 pesky but cute ISA brown chooks
    As I was reading I everybody seemed worried about the post rotting I did some fencing as in farm fencing and they used sump oil which I think is the old oil from the cars they would paint it on the bottom of the post My hubby fixes his own car so will have a supply and if u use willow and don’t want it to grow this would also stop it from doing so
    Your wattle weave fence looks great now if I dídn’t have to do housework (bummer my 21mnth old is asleep I would start to do some gardening!) Now I need some saplings we have some ditches nearby think I may have to cruise past!

    • It would be a big task to build it all the way around a garden, maybe best accomplished with a few people working together. I’m sure you could fashion some kind of a gate by building a rectangular frame and somehow attaching a little section of wattle fence to it. Still…a lot of work for a mum with a 21-month old! Maybe a little section to start?

  7. What a gorgeous and green idea. I have planted three willows on my land and have quite a large group of sandbar willows growing naturally in a low area. I think they would make great wattle fence. I wonder if I can make one high enough to keep the deer out.

    • Making one tall enough to keep deer out would be quite a project. You might start by planting the whips along the planned fenceline, while still putting up a wire fence. Something that extensive would definitely benefit from the “posts” being living, so the fence will never rot and topple over. Good luck — if anyone can do it, you can!

  8. May I show your wattle fence photo in a slide show at our local grange hall? I am teaching a gardening class in Florissant, Colorado and want to show people fencing choices. Please let me know if this is okay. Thank you. Kathy

  9. Oh, I am SO glad I came across this post! I was just about to lay down a ton of money to order willow whips online! I love that you used a mixture of what your garden already had! We have tons of forsythia and a hedge of struggling lilacs needing to be removed. I think I will get my hackers out today and go for it!

    In response to a couple of the questions readers had:
    I was planning on sealing my wood With an organic sealant. Nothing too fussy, just brushing an oil on with the hopes of e tending it’s life.

    Also, I have to consider deer protection as well. I’m planning on using 6-7 foot tall branches about 2 feet apart. If you tie every other branch together at their tips, you get a beautiful cathedral arch effect. Then I am planning on horizontally weaving the whips only a few feet high. I’m hoping the tall “arches” will be enough to deter the deer?

    Thanks for your tips!

    • Great! You’ll be surprised at how much you need, so you may find yourself raiding friends’ yards, too. After a few weaves, you’ll get a feel for what bends, what doesn’t and how to tuck the loose ends in. I’m still happy with my little fence.

  10. Hi! I was inspired by your fence pictures, and am halfway through putting in a very similar one around our vegetable garden. We’ve also used grade stakes, spaced 18″ apart, and are weaving in saplings & green branches (we’ve gotten about half the weaving done and have to run our own raids on neighbor’s yards here). I love the way it looks so far, but am also hoping that the stakes will weather nicely and won’t be so starkly contrasting with the branches, and am trying to get a sense for how quickly/if that might happen. Would you happen to have any recent pictures of your fence? I see that it’s been two years since you put it in, and I’d love to see what it looks like now.

    • Hi! I’m so glad you’re trying this; it was a fun project, which I hope to do again soon. The stakes will weather to a silvery-grey, but it will probably take a turn of the seasons for that to happen, as I recall. They’ll sort of recede in view, and you’ll notice the weaving of branches more than the stakes, but you’ll still see them. I suppose with finer weaving material (like 1/4 inch), you’d hide more. Winter seemed to remove an inch or two of the top saplings on my fence, so it’s on my list to top it off a bit. When I do that, I’ll take some photos and do an update post (or add photos to this post). It’s not a perfect substitute for a “real” wattle fence, but I’m still happy with mine. Good luck; it’s surprising how much material it takes, isn’t it?

  11. Beautiful! I have been exploring ways to use bamboo – I bet it would work for wattle, too! The living fence concept really appeals to me… so strange to have to relearn these simple, lovely ways. Thank for helping to spread them.

  12. We just moved into a house that the previous owners didn’t do anything to landscaping-wise. There’s an 18’x18′ raised bed garden, but that may have been here before them; I really have no idea. It was a foreclosure, so we worked directly with the bank. It’s a 1970s ranch house on an acre of lawn. No trees, shrubs, flowers; just plain lawn. At least it’s a nice one.

    Anyway. I wanted to make a front courtyard with about a 4′ fence, and I wanted to do it on my own since my husband already has enough projects to take care of. First I came across the concrete-bag wall idea. But then I checked out The Small Budget Gardener from the library and the author had a chapter called Don’t Throw it Out. In it was a section about wattle fencing. Willow is pretty much an invasive weed where I live, so I called the DNR this evening to ask about collecting it from roadside ditches. I was told there isn’t any statewide law and that I should ask my municipality.

    I’d asked last week if chickens were OK. We live in a small village, so I didn’t want to break any “no livestock in town” law. I was told “We really don’t have any laws, but if you do something you shouldn’t, we’ll just let you know not to do it again.” LOL Soooo, in the morning I’m heading out with loppers to “buy” some fence material.

    Tonight I also ran across a pile of stuff from a house demolition. It just got bulldozed into a huge mound maybe 10-12′ high. There are tons (probably literally) of old timbers and boards in it. I’m hoping I can salvage some to make the chicken coop. Another project I hope to do as much of on my own as possible.

    I just wonder what happens to the branches you use for the fence posts once they take root. Are they going to sprout tons of shoots that’ll need to be pruned?

    • Wow! Lots of projects in your future! Congratulations on your new home; you’ll be busy for a long time. My version of a wattle fence is nontraditional, in that I used grade stakes (1X1 stakes from the farm store) for posts. Since I’m not lucky enough to have willow, they were the strongest, easiest thing to use. Since you have willow, I’d definitely use that. Maybe you should aim to get just one section in the ground as a first step and as an experiment? I’ve never read that excessive sprouting is a problem, but I can’t promise. Good luck!
      Eleanor

  13. Pingback: Photography: Fences, Part 1 | Theo Fenraven

  14. Thanks for the excellent post, very informative and helpful…I have a yard with no privacy and LOTS of non-willow branches that I did not want to burn. Your fence is beautiful…

  15. Great idea – nicely executed!! I knew you were creative, but not in so many ways!!! You are just full of surprises!

    M

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