Living Fencing For Mediterranean Climate Regions
Fences are a must for your homestead and farm. Fences ensure security and privacy, define property boundaries, prevents intruders, separate production zones of gardens, orchards and pastures, confine our useful farm animals and protect them from predators and so on. Woven or electric wire, boards on pressure-treated posts, welded livestock panels etc. are some choices for manufactured fencing but they are not good choices as energy and environmental crises are worse today. So, a more beneficial and multifunctional system of fencing is required and living fences are most likely the solution. Much has been written about the living fence/hedgerow systems of the U.K’s super-moist, cool-temperate climate, but what of similar systems in other climates? In this article, we explore a selection of hedgerow plants and techniques that may be explored for use within the Mediterranean Climate Regions (MCRs) of the world. It is not the purpose of this article to provide an extensive how-to manual but instead to foster discussion on this and similar subjects.
Some useful species for living fencing in Mediterranean Climate Regions
Mediterranean climate, a very mild climate which has warm to hot, dry summers and mild to cool, wet winters, is common on the western sides of continents. Some trees and plants those are great as living fences along with their many other beneficial sides are discussed below-
Crataegus species are commonly known as hawthorns, mayhaws, thornapple etc. They are small trees or shrubs with thorny branches. Their thorny branches enable them to act as great living fences. Famous in the U.K as primary Hedgerow plants, Hawthorns have largely been forgotten as a food source, but many Cratageus species provide high yields of good fruit, particularly valuable as a heart treatment in herbal medicine. Couple this with their general hardiness, wildlife attracting properties, aesthetic beauty and even hardy rootstock for other more sensitive Rosaceae species. The Cratageus Genus is native to many temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere but can and does germinate and grow happily in MCRs where there is sufficient chill for seed maturation and moisture for growth, however, they can also grow well in a dryer, hotter areas when nursed through the establishment period. Some less cultivated species have serious thorns, intimidating even the most ambitious stock while others have next to no spines and large, bright red fruit.
Prunus spinosa, also known as blackthorn or sloe, is a thorny deciduous shrub. These shrubs grow up to 16ft tall, have blackish bark, and are equipped with dense, stiff, spiny branches. A member of the well-known Prunus genus the Sloe is a suckering shrub wielding large thorns, both traits making it ideal for hedgerows. The fruits are a small, purple and plum like, sour and astringent when raw. A simple liqueur made by soaking the fruit in gin with sugar. The flowers have five creamy-white petals and are 1.5 centimeters in diameter. They are easily adapted to MCR conditions. This species is tolerant of salty, maritime winds.
Hippophae spp. is commonly known as Seaberry and Sea Buckthorn and is found in Britain, Norway, Spain, Japan and the Himalayas. Belong to the Elaeagnaceae family, Hippophae spp. is a very thorny plant and capable of making impenetrable barrier shortly, it is extremely wind hardy and can make excellent additions to hedgerows and windbreaks. Long known to practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, the Buckthorns oil-rich fruits are said to assist the healing of gastric and peptic ulcers. Like their relatives the Elaeagnus, they are actinorhizal nitrogen fixers. Trials need to be done for just how viable an addition this genus would be in a MCR system. This author has successfully germinated and raised H. salicifolia but not H. rhamnoides. The immense potential this genus promises for all regions where it might possibly be grown warrants our efforts to trial it further.
Blackberries, also known as Cane Fruit, are a common species found in traditional U.K hedgerows. Their long, cane growth habit and thorns form the quintessential bramble providing habitat for birds and small mammals alike. Their soft edible fruit needs little introduction and are widely used in desserts, jams, seedless jelly, and sometimes wine. Some with vicious thorns like their wilder ancestors which make them very hardy living fence. Blackberries grow extremely well within MCRs with higher rainfall. In south Western Australia the high moisture, long growing seasons and lack off frosts make a perfect growing environment for cane fruit.
They are a deciduous shrub and commonly known as Dog Rose, Climbing Rose, Apple Rose, Ramanas Rose etc. They grow attractive flowers and when the flowers are pollinated hips or seed pods are produced. High in Vitamin C, most rose hips are edible but beware the irritating hairs surrounding the seeds. Rosa rugosa, the Apple Rose, sports one of the largest in the genus and is the perfect base for a classic Rose hip tea, syrup or wine. With its disease resistance, sprawling/climbing habit and like most roses formidable thorns, it’s no wonder this too is another tried and true U.K hedgerow addition and it is perfectly acclimatised for the warmer, dryer MCRs.
Maclura pomifera or Osage Orange is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, grows 30-50 ft tall. For generations, this species of medium-sized tree was used as a living fence by north American farmers especially in it’s native range of eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and southwestern Arkansas. It’s tolerance for strong winds, extreme heat, disease/pest resistance and it’s formidable thorns made it the perfect candidate for a stock proof, living fence in an age before barbed wire.
The yellow wood is very dense, strong and durable with an MBTU rating of 30 p/cord(that’s very high). Its fruits are not edible but may present a valuable source of starches and latex for the growing industrial sector of plant-based fuels and plastics. This tree is not so well known outside of the U.S and often needs to be hunted down in arboretums and collections. It is very well adapted for growth in MCRs and use therein as a hedgerow species.
Over the last couple of decades the Ziziphus spp. or Jujubes has gone from relative obscurity in the west to become an increasingly popular fruit tree and for good reason; they are tolerant of climatic extremes, have little pest or disease issues and provide good crops of a delicious, novel and versatile fruit. The spine-laden Wild Jujube of Mediterranean northern Africa, Ziziphus lotus, has been used as a living fence in Morocco for generations.
Forming dense thickets of impenetrable bramble up to 8m in height, even today it can be seen flanking roadways and farm yard alleys offering an easy, affordable means of penning in stock animals and keeping the predators out. In times past the fruits of the Wild Jujube were used to make wines and even bread and today the dense wood is still valued by craftsmen.
Opuntia and other Cactus spp.
Opuntia is one of the largest genera of Cacti. Native to the majority of U.S states, the culinary uses of various species have been long appreciated. The most famous of the cultivated Opuntia is the Indian Fig, O. ficus-indica, native to Central America but now grown commercially throughout the Mediterranean to semi-arid world. O. ficus-indica and other Opuntia species are grown not only for their fruit but in some varieties as a vegetable. Young, tender leaf pads (Nopales) are cut up and steamed. It is also grown as a drought hardy fodder crop with the spines being burned off before feeding them to the animals. Like all Cacti, it is the genera’s spines which make it a great living fence. It has been used as such for hundreds of years wherever the French, Portuguese and Spanish traders have spread it (it’s pads were stored on a ship as a scurvy preventative) Africa, India, the Mediterranean.
They are stemless or short-stemmed, succulent, drought hardy, pest/disease resistant and easy to propagate and establish plants which grow 24-39 in tall. Aloes are the lazy gardeners best friend. Like other succulent plants i.e. Cacti & Agave, Aloes are extremely fire retardant making them a valuable consideration for a fence/hedgerow on the fire sector of a homestead or other building cluster. Their flowers are stunning, boasting rocketing, seasonal spears of bird attracting reds, oranges and yellows. And of course, the healing, cooling, medicinal qualities of Aloe vera and other species are well known.
They are perennial plants with long, strap-like basal leaves. The flowers, the leaves, the sap and the stalks or basal rosettes are four major edible parts of the agave. Aside from Tequila and fibre production agaves have largely been left out from modern plant cropping. Providing, pins and needles for fashioning clothes from hides, many offering nectars, eaten as a sweet food or fermented into a wine called, pulque (be aware the sap of some species can cause acute irritation) and an excellent source of long and short fibre. It is their ease of propagation, their ability to grow together in dense clumps and their characteristic spines that make them excellent candidates for living fencing. Dense enough plantings may even prove to be fox proof.
Aside from its reputation and status as a declared noxious weed (which has been duly noted by the author) Lycium ferocissimum or African Boxthorn is perfect as a MCR hedgerow addition. Lycium ferocissimum is a tall shrub grows up to 16 ft. The Goji Berry is Lycium barbarum. The Wolf Berry is Lycium sinensis. For years, the Boxthorn’s berries have held the reputation of being toxic (common in Australia for plants categorised as noxious weeds) where it spread ferociously throughout the temperate, semi-arid and MCRs.
It’s small, bright red fruit may or may not hold the same medicinal and nutritional benefits for humans as their more popular cousins but they are at least adored by wildlife; birds, skinks and even foxes. Bill Mollison suggested them as an excellent chicken forage species. It grows as a dense, medium to large shrub and as it’s species name suggests it sports ferocious spines, the kind stock don’t mess with and small, insectivorous birds favour as habitat. Thanks in part to a very strong root system they are very tough once established even withstanding salt-laden coastal winds.
As its name suggests Carissa macrocarpa or Natal Plum is native to South Africa where it is befittingly known as the Num Num by Zulu tribes; and its fruits are indeed delicious. Like its close relative, the Oleander, most parts of the Natal Plum are (said to be) very toxic. The jury appears to still be out on just how potently poisonous it really is. This coupled with its spines mean that most people stay away from it in a domestic setting. However thanks to its heat and maritime hardiness and attractive, shiny green foliage it is used extensively as a roadside planting by many municipalities of the semi-arid/MCR world. This author saw them often planted in car parks and by roadsides in southern California and has eaten from them in Western Australia. Their spine are big enough, tough enough and sharp enough to deter stock however just how dangerous it is if they ingest the foliage is unclear.
Prosopis spp. or Mesquites are spiny shrubs and trees. They have deep root system which enables them to resist severe drought. They produce pod fruits which are high in sugar. They colonise warm, dry, low successional landscapes and produce large amounts of seed pods (potentially amazing food), which helps to colonise more land. Their spines along with their dense bushy growth make them a great living fence. They grow well in MCRs.
Acacia paradoxa is commonly known as hedge wattle, kangaroo thorn, prickly wattle etc. It is a large shrub of Fabaceae family and grows up to 3 meters tall. Its bush is full of spines and the spiny stipules of its base prevent livestock from coming closer.
It grows and act well as living fence in MCRs.
Honey locust or thorny locust (G. triacanthos) is a deciduous tree. The thorns of G. triacanthos (and it’s less well known but very promising sibling G. sinensis) would be welcome in their potential function as hedgerow additions. The Gleditsia species ability to coppice and be laid into more effective hedge means they may function as main plantings within hedgerows much in the way the Hawthorn or Sloe do. Their thorns and pods a major plus as is their ability to fix nitrogen for themselves and their other hedgerow counterparts.
They are Fast growing and multi-functional.
Pros & Cons
There are a few points that need to be thought upon when planning for these kinds of plants in these kinds of systems…
Hardiness in cultivated plants is always a sort after trait. Virility is a plus but can, of course, mean for weed potential. The author strongly suggests a protracted meditation on any plant choices and directs the reader to past discussion on the subject by David Holmgren and Jeff Nugent. It is also worth noting that some plants with formidable thorns can cause tyre punctures. Will you be operating tyred vehicles in proximity to systems with plants like Gleditisia triacanthos?
There are many potentially variable micro-climates within any MCR. If you are using plants from cool-temperate regions and are hoping for them to fruit then make sure that your site has sufficient chilling hours.
Techniques and planting combination need to be trailed.
We will likely see a return to the valuing timbers above more modern, conventional building materials as industrial fabrication drops in productivity. Hedgerows might not provide the timber that Farm Forestry will however as we look to Appropriate Technologies like Wood Gasification, Rocket Stoves units and other wood powered devices, the value of woody by-products of all forms of Forestry(that in recent times have been viewed as waste/liability) becomes clear. In this case, maintenance results in a yield. Add photo of old school dudes collecting wood from HR thinnings