The most enchanting structures are not made out of brick and mortar; they are made of stems and leaves.
I remember as a child seeing the side of an old building completely sprawling with Ivy and being mesmerized. The Ivy imparted a primordial look to the wall, as if it had been reclaimed by nature. I’ve always been envious of that look. How cool would it be to completely cover a wall in Ivy? Or better yet, what about clothing your structures in more colorful vines like Clematis, Honeysuckle, or Wisteria?
But vines still rely on structures to create their majestic displays. If you want to extend this beauty into the garden, you have to provide a fence or other structure for your vines to conquer. It would be better still to cut out the middleman and grow a plant structure that stands on its own. The most straightforward way to do this is to grow a row of trees to serve as a privacy screen. Conifers or evergreen shrubs like Cedar, Arborvitae, Cypress, or Boxwood serve this purpose well, since they provide their own built-in structure and they stay bushy all year. This is a simple and effective way to screen light, wind, and sound.
The limitation of this approach is that a simple row of plants does not create a very solid barrier. Just planting a row of plants is like trying to build a fence only using posts with no fasteners and no rows or withes to connect them together. To build a living structure that is elegant, solid, and long-lasting, we have to do some weaving.
Weaving and shaping branches is an ancient practice. Farmers have been doing it for centuries, and several examples of the art have survived today. By carefully interweaving plants, clever (and patient) gardeners have made gorgeous, functional, long-lasting structures out of trees and vines.
Perhaps the most practical method of plant-weaving is called pleaching (or plashing). Pleaching is a traditional British (and Irish) art of hedge laying that creates strong and long-lived fencing to corral livestock like sheep. The first step is to plant a row of hedge plants and let them grow to the desired height. Then the pleacher bends the saplings down to a nearly-horizontal position and carefully chops away a portion of the stem—this ensures that the plant maintains its angle of deflection while allowing the sap to flow so the plant does not die. Then the branches are woven together, often bound together or staked down to hold them in position, and sometimes topped with a trim made of supple stems woven together to form something like a handrail. Willow was a very common choice for hedges because of its supple nature. The best plants for pleaching were inosculate, or self-grafting, like Hazel, meaning that the joints between branches would often fuse into one living mass, creating a very strong and long-lasting bond. Thorny species were sometimes chosen to create a sort of natural barbed wire that made hedges much more effective at keeping livestock in and predators out.
For the modern gardener, we (probably) aren’t concerned with keeping the sheep in and the wolves out, nor are we limited to the plant species native to the UK. A more colorful hedge can be created by weaving the branches of a Dogwood while they are still supple. This living Dogwood hedge will even bloom! A second idea is to weave your hedge from blackberry bushes. For one thing, blackberries are certainly robust enough to be pleached—I don’t think I could kill mine if I tried! Thornless blackberries are easier to work with, but the thorny varieties make a more effective barrier if you are trying to keep pets inside of your yard or pests outside of your garden.
A more decorative, creative method of plant weaving is espalier, the art of training plants with a wall and/or wires to force their growth to fit a particular pattern. This practice began with fruit trees—farmers would train the trees to grow along horizontal cordons rather than growing vertically, and this kept the fruit low enough to be easily picked. Apple, Pear, Cherry, and other fruit trees were the most commonly trained species. This ancient art really flourished in 17th century France, where it gets its name (from Espalier, the name of the structures used to train fruit trees). During this time the practice grew into a decorative art form, and numerous tree and vine species were trained in nearly every shape imaginable. The most impressive living fences created with espalier are the examples of inosculate (self-grafting) species trained in the “Belgian fence” pattern to criss-cross one another, the joints eventually grafting to form very strong structures. Trees have also been formed into impressive tunnel-like structures called allées.
Espalier is by nature a labor-intensive process, but patience and hard work are necessary to achieve such beautiful results, and the modern gardener has one important edge over the 17th-century French gardener: a more diverse and beautiful selection of cultivars to grow! From natives of Asia like Kerria japonica ‘Honshu’ or Cercis chinensis ‘Don Egolf’ to the finest new Camellia, Flowering Quince, Viburnum, Magnolia, or Weigela, the modern gardener has an exhilarating number of options to use in their espalier, creating colorful and creative displays never before seen. Many of these are suitable for making into a living fence, while others are better suited to growing in splayed or candelabra-like patterns. Be creative and experiment!