The Lost Art of Wattle Fencing

This Williamsburg wattle barrier shields artichokes and helps guide foot traffic.
This Williamsburg wattle barrier shields artichokes and helps guide foot traffic. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Thursday, March 1, 2007

The wattle fence, made from woven panels of willow sticks, was known to Colonial Americans but was soon replaced by sturdier forms of barrier.

This is a loss of sorts, because people who see it at places such as Colonial Williamsburg are beguiled by its basket-weave good looks, rustic charm and capacity to spruce up the lowly vegetable plot.

Garden historian Wesley Greene uses wattle fencing and edging at Williamsburg's re-created vegetable garden as pedestrian barriers, as insulation enclosures for growing frames and for general decoration. Some arrive premade from England, where wattling is alive and well, but he makes the other fences from sticks obtained by pollarding sycamore and chaste trees.

"People absolutely love it," he said. "I think they would love to do it. The problem is coming up with the sticks."

The seven-foot sticks, known as withies, are commonly available at garden centers in Britain, but finding them here is nearly impossible. The answer may be to grow your own from cuttings (see main story for suppliers).

The willows are cut to the ground each February, and after two or three seasons, the resulting annual suckers are thick and long enough to use. For the fence stakes, you can take suckers that have been allowed to grow for two years, but using rot-resistant posts of cedar or locust will significantly lengthen the fence's life span.

Even then, wattle fencing is good for only three or four years in our hot, humid climate. Because the withies are woven horizontally, a fence can be as low or as high as your posts will allow.

The withies are harvested in late winter as a byproduct of coppicing and when the sticks are leafless. At this time, you can take some of the cuttings to expand your coppice planting.

"It's a renewable resource," said Deirdre Larkin, a historical horticulturist in New York. "You can have a little willow coppice of your own, and from there you can make your own fencing and edging." She recommends Salix viminalis, the common osier, or Salix triandra, the almond-leafed willow.

Wattle fencing "has never really been an American thing," she said. "But certainly Americans who have been exposed to it are attracted to it, because it's very handsome." For pictures of wattling, see the Web site of English Hurdle Ltd., http://www.hurdle.co.uk.

Adrian Higgins


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