Tricks of the Trade: Living Fenceposts

Tricks of the Trade: Living Fenceposts

The crown of this young beech tree has been pollarded, allowing it to be used as a living fencepost without worry of falling branches. Photos by Brett R. McLeod.

Fenceposts have always baffled me. Why would anyone take a perfectly good tree, cut it down, dig a hole to set it in, and then spend the next 20 years watching it decay? In my early days of agroforestry work in the tropics, it was assumed that all fenceposts should be living as a hedge against termites and decay.

To be fair, farmers in the Northeast have long used trees as fenceposts, much to the chagrin of the sawyers (and loggers and firewood cutters) who discovered embedded fence hardware decades later. In fact, the common and haphazard approach of stapling a spool of barbed wire to trees at the edge of the pasture is partly to blame for the dismissal of living fenceposts as an appropriate fencing option. Fortunately, a couple of tricks can help to ensure both the health of the tree and a long-lasting fence.

To prevent your fence hardware from being consumed as the tree grows, you can attach a pressure-treated board to the trunk of your living fencepost using either ring-shank galvanized nails or polymer-coated deck screws, and then attach your fence hardware to the board. As the tree grows it will push against the board instead of growing around your fence hardware.

Another common concern with using living fencepost is that you’re inviting branches to fall on the fence. In Europe, this is addressed by pollarding, or aggressively pruning the crown of the tree to keep it low and small. While many arborists shudder at the thought of pollarding a tree, I have seen pollarded fencepost trees in Europe that are more than 100 years old. The tops of these trees are trimmed every couple of years, with the young shoots (known as pollard hay) used as livestock fodder.

Tricks of the Trade: Living Fenceposts Image

Barbed wire was stapled to this white pine approximately 40 years ago. Always consider future safety and timber uses before introducing metal hardware into a tree.

Finally, it goes without saying that you should avoid nailing or screwing any sort of hardware into a tree that might someday become lumber. Not only does it create a potential safety hazard, it also generates a wound that can promote decay and jeopardize the value of the log. On the other hand, using undesirable trees with poor form can serve as an inexpensive, effective, and long-lasting living fencepost option.

Tricks of the Trade: Living Fenceposts Image

The board method prevents the tree from growing around the fence hardware.

Brett R. McLeod is an associate professor of Forestry & Natural Resources at Paul Smith’s College and the author of The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing), available summer 2015.

 
Discussion
  1. Shawn → in Ottawa, ON
    Sep 01, 2015

    Hi Brett,

    I am very happy to come across your post (no pun intended).

    Down one side of our property we have hedges that have gotten out of control. They are about 20 feet high and at least 12 feet wide. This hedge marks the property line with our neighbours. I loathe the hedges and have been wondering if it would be possible to trim the branches down to the trunk from the ground up about 10 feet. Then I would install fence walls for a barrier/privacy with the neighbour. Meanwhile the remaining 10 feet of hedge at the top would continue to live. Do you know if this would work ok? How would it appear?

    Thanks,
    Shawn

  2. Declan McCabe → in South Burlington VT
    Oct 24, 2015

    I have seen blackthorn and white thorn grown as naturally ‘barbed’ fences.  They were grown in a row spaced a couple of feet apart.  Once they reached a desired height a slash hook was used to partly cut through the main leader.  The partly cut leaders were bent over the adjacent shrub, and the leader of it’s neighbor was bent over that and so on down the row.  The last one in the row was tied down with bailing twine and the result was an impenetrable thorny living hedge.

  3. Tom → in Richmond VA
    Feb 02, 2017

    Thanks for this short but information packed article. I often wondered why not use living fenceposts? Thanks to you I have some good ideas on just how to do it.

  4. Gary → in NJ
    Jun 12, 2017

    I have many trees down both sides of my property and a large deer population that is devastating my gardens. If I run the wire across the tress like your picture and then attach mesh fence to it will that solve the problem?

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