Thursday, December 26, 2019

Planting a Fencerow

I'm sure you are familiar with the saying, "Good fences make good neighbors."  You might also be familiar with the one that goes something like, "Good fences are expensive, time-consuming, and often frustrating to build if you do it yourself and even more expensive if you hire someone to build them."  Which is why I thought the idea of planting what is called either a fencerow or a hedgerow was particularly brilliant.  If you don't know, a fencerow is basically a mix of trees and shrubs that are planted along the property line.  It creates a great place for wildlife as well as delineates the property.  In some places (particularly European countries, I think), the fencerow is called a hedgerow and it is a bit more of a formalized process that involves piling dirt several feet high and planting specific kinds of trees and shrubs.  There is also a technique used to basically graft the trees/bushes to each other, which creates a stronger fencelike structure.  Virginia was colonized heavily by European settlers, so that style of property division is common in many areas.  We already have a fencerow on one side of our front acreage, and while I thought it was ugly and messy at first, I've come to appreciate it for the habitat it provides for wildlife as well as the visual and physical barrier it sets up.

The reason a fencerow appealed to me is that it is relatively inexpensive to buy bareroot trees and shrubs and plant them close together to create a fencerow.  Some types of trees or shrubs (like willows) are particularly good because they can be grafted together or even woven amongst each other as they are growing to create an almost impenetrable fence.

So this spring I decided to buy 300 Osage Orange trees as bareroot stock and plant them along the 300+ property line of our front acre.  I choose that type of tree because it is known to create a fence that is "horse high, hog tight, and bull strong."  Its wood is incredibly strong; I learned that it makes longer-lasting fence posts than cedar does, and it is covered with thorns that are big enough to dissuade even the most determined of predators.  I figured it would be a great experiment and I was armed with a few bits of knowledge from YouTube and a diagram from Pinterest, so what could possibly go wrong?

I mean, how hard could it be, given these pictures???
First off, the plants arrived on a Friday right before I had a clinic to go to with Nimo over the weekend.  So I ended up not being able to stay after my rides and watch others.  Instead I had to had over to our acreage to start planting the trees because the box was really clear that they needed to be planted IMMEDIATELY.

There are 300 trees in this box!
Of course, I was completely unprepared and hadn't even marked the property line yet, so that was an exciting exercise in what should be easy but isn't.  We had two end markers from the survey and a middle one.  But we couldn't find the middle one and our string kept snagging on grass and blowing around, so it was hard to get a straight line from end to end.  Finally, I called it good enough.  I was planting the trees about 3 feet in from the boundary, so I figured if we made a minor error, I had some room and the neighbor that owns the property next to us would not be upset if we accidentally planted a tree on his side of the line.

Then I had to figure out exactly how to efficiently get 300 trees planted.  I had watched some YouTube videos where people dug a long trench, but that was too much to do for us.  I had also gotten a couple of recommendations to use a sort of auger that attaches to a drill.  You drill the auger into the ground and then use the slim hole to put the tree root into.  That method sounded logical, so I got the auger, attached it to a drill and prepared to plant a whole bunch of trees really fast.

Yeah, so heavy clay soil is probably not the target for that particular product.  And it might be that it is designed for a hydraulic drill rather than an ordinary drill.  What happened is that I couldn't get the auger more than a couple of inches into the ground.

So I decided to flip the auger over and use the long, straight part that would normally attach to the drill.  I wrapped the tree root around the metal and pushed it into the ground.  My thought process was that I would push the root into the ground with the metal rod and then pull the rod out while leaving the root in the ground.  That worked OK a few times, but I had trouble keeping the root wrapped around the rod while I pushed it into the ground.  And sometimes the root would get damaged in the process.

Take 3 ended up being my husband's suggestion.  I used a shovel to split the ground open, then I tucked the root into the opening with my hands and stepped on the split to close it back up and seal the root in the ground.  That worked pretty well, and after using it over 400 times, I can say that it would be my method of choice in the event that I am ever stupid enough to order 300 trees that all need to be planted quickly.

Now you might be asking, why would you have used it over 400 times when you only bought 300 trees?  That is an excellent question.  Remember I said there was a middle marker that we never found when we were marking the property line?  Well, I found it about halfway through my little project, and I realized we had really screwed up our line.  I ended up going back and pulling out all but maybe 10 or 15 trees that I had already planted and moving them about 3 feet over.  So I planted closer the equivalent of almost 450 trees by the time I was done.

It was not particularly difficult work, but it took awhile to get used to avoiding the thorns on the trees.  Even tiny, bareroot saplings were loaded with evil thorns.  Handling them carefully became my number one priority after touching a thorn the very first time.  I was impressed.  If the fencerow grew as planned, I couldn't imagine anything getting through those thorns.  It was also was time consuming just because of the sheer number of trees.  I got to the point where I could plant about 25 trees every half hour for up to two hours.  After two hours, I would start to drag and really slow down.  So I spread out my effort and went out to the acreage every day for a week and got all the trees planted.  I was pretty proud of my effort.
All my little trees are planted!
I was especially excited when I went back after about 3 weeks to check on them and it looked like 95 percent of them had leafed out really well.  And that was regardless of the method I'd used to plant them.  I had hope that my little trees would be tough enough to withstand my lack of a green thumb and the not-so-great growing conditions.

In late October, we went back out to the acreage to brush hog in preparation for the ducks' arrival.  That is a great time to mow one final time because there typically isn't much growth until spring.  So we went to Home Depot to rent a brush hog and drove out to the acreage expecting to spend several hours clearing as much overgrown grass and brush as we could, so the ducks would have room.

Imagine my complete shock when we got out to the acreage and discovered that it had already been brush hogged.  I realized with a terrible feeling that we should have told one of our neighbors that we had planted trees.  I had left my orange stakes up to mark the approximate location of the trees, so we wouldn't accidentally mow over them, and also so our neighbor wouldn't mow over them.  But he must not have realized the significance of those and in his thoughtfulness, he had mowed both his acre and ours, probably thinking he was doing us a favor because he has a tractor with a pull-behind brush hog that makes short work of an acre.  And he did a really good job.  He got so close to those orange stakes that only a few blades of grass survived.  The only trees he missed were the ones near the road that I had mulched.  I had meant to mulch the whole line of trees, but it was an expensive and time-consuming process, and I kind of gave up on it after I got through about 10 trees.

So the moral of this story is really that good fences do make good neighbors.  It's possible that some of the trees will survive being cut down.  It's also possible that they would have died anyway given that we had a fairly lengthy drought this summer and I didn't have a good way to water them (I do now, though!!!).  In fact, I'm not sure the trees I mulched fared very well even without competition from grass and the mulch helping with water conservation.  I'll have to see what happens in the spring.

In the meantime, I am planning on getting started building a fence this spring.  While I very much appreciate our neighbor's thoughtfulness, I don't really want to have to call him every time I plant something to make sure he won't mow it over, especially because I've got much more expensive fruit trees ordered for spring planting.

I had been putting off building the fence because I was thinking it was going to be this big ordeal.  We'd have to either hire someone (I don't know if I can deal with a contractor again!) or we'd have to rent a hydraulic fence post hole digger and be prepared to dig as many holes as possible and fill them with posts immediately.  Having almost 100 heavy duty fence posts bought and ready to fill holes is a bigger project than I want to think about.

But I recently realized that I could use metal t-posts instead.  I originally expected to use the front field as a horse pasture, but I'm definitely changing direction a bit on that.  It's fairly marginal land and it is going to need a lot of help (I'll post more about that maybe tomorrow).  Plus it has a tendency to be quite wet, which means it isn't going to work well to have horses on it very much, except if we have a drought or during July - September, when we typically get less rain.  For horse pasture, I would have wanted sturdy wooden posts.  But for just regular use like as an orchard and garden, t-posts should work just fine.  And they are much easier to install and cheaper.  And I could literally just do one or two a day over the course of a few months instead of having to put in a concentrated effort.  I could always add an electric component to it in the future if I decided to put horses on it or I could even replace the posts.  The most important thing is that I get the fence set up in some form because I definitely want to get started planting this spring.

And so the adventure continues...:)


  1. Oh no your hedge! What a nice neighbor though. I planted a hedge around our front yard - only about 32 cypress. They're perhaps my most proud accomplishment because I keep them trimmed at about 4 feet so they provide year round privacy. They're thick enough to keep dogs out but our cat can get through.

    Our other accomplishment was the fence. Although we hired someone to put in the street-side wooden fence, we did all the rest of the 5 acres with T posts ourselves, standing on a ladder, a two-person job. One holds the ladder/post and the other hammers. It took us months but it will last forever. I always thought T post fencing was so ugly but now I realize lasting forever is important. The wooden fence is sagging in the middle and has had to have a few posts replaced already. It's 10 years old. It also wouldn't survive a tree falling, but every time a tree has fallen on the rest of our fence, it's just a matter of removing the tree and hanging up the wires again. (Sometimes the insulators break, but no T post has ever been damaged by trees). I find that it's not as ugly as I expected, even though we're amateurs, cuz we put them in at the fanatical (OCD) distance of 3 meters apart, and they're the tallest posts you can get. The main mistake we made was not using end sets or corner sets at every corner, and those T posts are no longer straight.

    Our third most proud accomplishment is that we have the ability to walk all over our (original) land now, after spending 2 years removing blackberries. Simply being able to walk through the trees is bliss after being banned by nature.

    If it's as wet as you say, then removing a T post isn't that hard even by hand.

    1. Wow! This is great information about the t-posts, lytha! Thanks for sharing! It would actually be really great if we could use t-posts on the whole property because the back five acres is all wooded and it is going to be a chore getting equipment back there. I absolutely don't want to clear cut it, although we will have to cut down some trees to make room for a barn and arena. But I want to leave as many as possible, especially around the perimeter of the property, for privacy, shelter, and just because I love them. I grew up in North Dakota, where there aren't many trees, and the ones that do grow tend to be small and scrubby. So I love, love, love all the trees in Virginia!

      If we could use t-posts for fencing the whole property, that would really help, because we could do it as you described - over time and just my husband and I. As for how t-posts look, I'm with you about thinking they aren't very attractive. I tend to associate them with barbed wire cattle pastures. But you're right to point out how durable they are. Our solid wooden fence at our house (which we built ourselves) has started having issues in the past year or so. Posts are leaning, boards are rotting. It's been about 10 years since we built it, but it's kind of frustrating to have put in that kind of money and labor and only get 10 years out of it.

      I think horse people tend to get into a certain mindset about how things should look and how functional and durable they are sometimes is less important. And at a big facility, where there are staff and handymen and contractors, maintaining attractive fencing and barns and arenas is one thing. But as a mostly DIY owner with a couple of horses, it makes more sense to pay attention to function and longevity instead of how it looks.

      I'm really excited now to be thinking about using t-posts for all our fencing:)

    2. One detail that helps with the appearance of a t post fence: the caps. Having matching insulators and caps in black looks pretty sharp. The t posts themselves will get rusty but you have to get close to notice that. To be fully honest, they are not the safest material even with the caps. We've only had one injury so far but Mag will always have an obviously-t-post-induced scar on one leg. Lesson learned, I won't put him in the orchard again because it's too small for him to roll without hitting a post.

    3. Thanks for the advice! I will definitely check out the caps.