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The Woven Hedge

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For two years I have owned a small booklet entitled "Le Plessage de la haie champtre--Clotre Vivante". It describes how to weave a wild hedgerow into a living fence, an art that today survives in only two places in Europe: the Perche region of France (in the department Loir-et-Cher), and in Kent, England. This is a subject I have long wanted to write about, but having not had the opportunity to visit the rather remote area where plessage is still practiced, I didn't have any photos to supplement such an article.

To my delight, at this year's garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire the theme was "Gardens have memory,", and the most beautiful display garden on this theme was dedicated to the lost art of plessage. Entitled De Branche en Branche (From Branch to Branch), this garden used an artful design consisting of a swirling path delineated by these woven living fence to guide the steps of the visitor through the stages of the transformation of the primeval French forest into the rural landscape that characterized much of France from the Middle Ages onward. This landscape was characterized by bocages, the division of parcels of land by hedgerows or trees planted on raised berms--a system still visible through much of northwestern France today.

This transformation has a fascinating history. When most of France was still covered with virgin forest, the growing population cut the timber profligately to clear the land for agriculture. These forests showed signs of depletion already in the fifteenth century. At that point, the reigning king of France--fearing undoubtedly for his own hunting grounds and timber sales--issued royal edicts severely limiting common people's access to and cutting of trees in the forests. Farmers were forced to find a means other than wholesale cutting in the forests to supply their needs for wood for heating and other uses.

Necessity as always is the mother of invention, and so the system of bocages was born in the planting of "linear forests" on property boundaries where they wouldn't take up valuable cultivated land. Over generations, farmers developed a set of specific techniques for managing these linear forests as renewable resources.

For instance, the technique of "pollarding," or heading back a tree's leader to a point above where grazing animals could reach, then severely cutting back the branches each year, developed as a means of harvesting wood for heating, cooking, and other uses without cutting down the tree. In the present-day European landscape, pollarding is known more as an aesthetic pruning style appreciated by some as attractive, and considered aberrant by others. It is interesting to remember that this technique originated as an entirely practical solution to supplying basic needs for firewood on a renewable basis, and had absolutely nothing to do with landscape fashion.

Likewise, the technique of plessage, or weaving a hedge into a living fence, was developed as a means of managing a hedgerow as a renewable resource for firewood and building materials, while also transforming it into a living fence, with all the implicit untility. Looking at such a woven hedge today, we are struck by its incredible beauty as a living tapestry of branches and foliage. But it becomes even more beautiful when we understand the utilitarian history that informs this practice we now view as purely aesthetic.

Today, a woven hedge not only serves as an object of beauty or landscape accent, but retains the following functions and benefits: an enclosure for animals; a screen or windbreak; wildlife habit; source of plant diversity; erosion control; natural fence; filtration of run-off water; and even today, source of firewood, garden stakes, etc.

Classically, a woven hedge is created using an existing wild fence row--the sort of scrubby growth that develops naturally at the edge of fields. In France, typical hedgerow plants include wild plum, hawthorn, chestnut, hazelnut, broom, elder, wild rose, and beech, to name a few. In my native midwestern U.S., a fence row typically contains shrub dogwoods, elder, hackberry, wild rose, hawthorn, maples... Every region has its own characteristic mix of fence row plants. Note that usually they are a mix of mostly native species with some introduced plants, almost all of them "planted" by perching birds who have consumed their fruits.

To transform a wild fence row into a woven hedge, take the following steps, during the dormant season (late fall through late winter).

1. Remove any existing fence wire.

2. Remove brambles, poison ivy or sumac (in the U.S.) and any other noxious species in order to make the foot of your hedge accessible and workable.

3. Conserve all trees of caliper with upright trunks that are or could develop into attractive specimens or trees of future value for wood harvest. Renew any existing pollards (that is, cut them back). Cut back less desirable, single-trunked trees just above ground level. Their future suckers will be incorporated into the hedge.

4. On all clump-forming or multi-trunked trees, cut at ground level all trunks that are larger in diameter than a man's wrist and that you do not want to conserve as uprights in your hedge.

5. Pound or sink 6-foot-long posts of 2-3 inch diameter at regular intervals of 3 to 4 feet along your proposed hedge line where you do not have upright trees to fill this function. Natural posts of a rot-resistant wood (such as locust) look best.

5. Now comes the essential step that characterizes plessage, or hedgelaying. On the trunks you have kept (wrist-sized or smaller), make an oblique cut about two-thirds through the trunk as low to the ground as possible, taking care to conserve the bark and enough of the living wood on the remainder to allow the cut trunk to continue to grow. In France, a tool called a serpe--sort of like a machete with a curved blade--is used for this, but you can use a chainsaw or handsaw. Now bend this cut trunk outward at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees, and weave it and its branches through the upright posts, pruning branches as needed. As you bend, keep the cut surface of the trunk oriented toward the top; this assures a cleaner healing of the wound and a better sap supply to the living wood. Cut the half-stump remaining from your cut at ground level. See photo above for a closeup of how this cut and bending looks.

6. Repeat this process down the length of your hedge. Shrubs will not need the half-cut process described aboveon their smaller branches. Simply cut back some of the older stems at ground level, then bend and weave the remaining ones as above. As you work, you will gain a feel for which branches and trunks need to be half-cut, as they simply will be too difficult to bend otherwise. Normally, nothing is needed to attach the branches to the upright posts; the tension and interweaving of the bent branches is sufficient to keep them in place.

7. To finish the hedge, a strip of nonliving (but still supple) branches are woven along the top like a basket-weave edging. Use supple branches of around an inch in diameter, with all side shoots removed. This gives the hedge a finished border and reinforces its rigidity. Some farmers in France perform this last step using hawthorn or other spiny branches to act as a sort of natural barbed wire. Finally, equalize the height of all the posts with a machete or chainsaw.

Alternatively, a woven hedge can also be planted, starting with a "blank slate". In this case, all your uprights will consist of posts. You will not need to use the half-cut technique until your hedge becomes mature. In the development stage, you can simply weave new branches into the framework each year. Many different species can be used to create a living woven hedge. Which ones you choose depends on your taste and the final effect desired, as well as on the role the hedge will play in your landscape. You will want to take into account the effects that various plants will bring to the "tapestry" you are weaving. Candidates include shrub dogwoods (potentially colorful winter stems), willows, forsythia, crabapples (ungrafted varieties), privet, sea buckthorn, hawthorn, halesia, deciduous hollies, kolkwitzia...the list is almost endless. You can even incorporate shrub roses if you don't mind working with the thorny branches. Imagine the sort of living, flowering and fruiting tapestry you can create! The hedge can also be used as a support for vining plants, or, woody vines can be used as part of the hedge itself.

What today we would view as maintenance chores on a woven living hedge, historically was considered the reward: firewood for the coming year. Maintenance consists of cutting back untoward vertical shoots and/or weaving them into the hedge.

A plessie, or woven hedge, is like a piece of living sculpture in the landscape. Its posts give it a regular visual rhythm, while the diverse branches woven into it create a tapestry of flowers, fruit, fragrance, texture, and fall color with the passage of the seasons. The plessie is strikingly beautiful in winter. It can be planted to sinuously follow the contours of the land, and its horizontal branches provide a strong visual point in the landscape. It is the perfect melding of wild and domesticated, of man and nature in harmony.

In "laying" a living woven hedge, you are not only creating an incredibly beautiful, original, and ecological landscape feature, but you are bringing back to life a practice that goes back practically to the dawn of our memory. In the plessage garden at Chaumont, the swirl of hedge-lined paths leads the visitor to a sort of conic depression in the center of the garden, which is lined decoratively with pieces of natural slate interspersed with plants. From a hole in the very center, a voice speaks continuously. It is a recording of one of the few surviving practitioners of plessage in its agrarian, utilitarian form in France. He is explaining, in a patient and humble tone, how to lay a hedge. The effect is extremely moving: it is as if you are listening to a ghost speaking from this "source" at the heart of the garden. And this effect is not accidental: hedge-laying will become just that--a ghost--if we do not engage outselves in preserving this beautiful tradition.


About Trucs d'artan
Snow may be thick and slushy on the ground, but now and then, there's just a hint of spring. An emerging crocus, a swelling, velvety magnolia bud, a quickening of your pulse when you walk outside during a thaw. Now is the perfect time to treat yourself...to French kitchen ware, French flower vases for indoor bouquets... And to dream of this year's garden, embellished with French vegetables and wild flowers, planted using French garden tools. Choose from hundreds of ways to bring a touch of French country into your home and garden... Barbara Wilde
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