Wattling, my gardening friends, is an old fashioned way of making fencing out of branches. Not only does it look lovely but if your garden has trees, it will not require store bought fencing materials. In other words, it’s free. And you get to re-use and use up waste garden branches. What’s not to like?
You can purchase wattling materials from a garden centre if you do not have trees of your own to prune. Also, if you would prefer to use particular types of wood or you wish to make your wattling fence later in the year, after pruning season.
But What is Wattling?
Wattling is weaving branches horizontally between vertical posts. Sort of like basket making, but you are just making a single wall or panel. Like basket making, you can get fancy with the design and pattern, but in general it is a very simple process. (More on the actual ‘How To’ below.)
Wattling can be done as a fence, door or wall. You may have heard of ‘wattle and daub’? This is making a wattle wall as the foundation and then daubing on clay (and dung, and straw…) to make the wall solid and more air tight.
When to Wattle
The best time to make a wattling fence is when you prune. For me, here in France, that is the early winter. February ideally. I prefer to prune the branches I need while they are still dormant but also when the weather has warmed up enough that I am starting to work in the garden, clearing and rebuilding.
As some woods can dry out fairly quickly, I have found it better that the branches be as green as possible. They are easier to bend and less likely to break.
What to look for
When you are pruning, look for the slender and long shoots or branches. You want them to be as straight as possible, and the longer the better. Any length will do actually, but it will take a little longer to make your fence if branches are shorter. Don’t worry about additional spurs, buds or small branches, these can be taken off the main shoot/branch when it comes time to use it. Or, if you wish a really rustic look, leave them on.
Wattling typically comes from the branches of a hazelnut. A hazelnut produces young straight shoots fast and regularly. A bit like raspberries, the tree needs cutting (coppicing) to stay healthy and to give you more nuts, so pruning for wattling is a very good thing to do. Also its shoots are particularly bendy yet strong. It is a win win situation all around. Willow trees are next best, but truly almost anything will do if it produces young straight shoots or branches. I have used branches from almost every tree and bush in our garden, but some do work better than others.
Depending on how tidy or tight you wish your weave will determine the thickness you ideally want. This could be anything from 1 cm (½ inch) to 3.5cm (1.5 inches) normally. If, like me, you are collecting branches and shoots from the garden prunings, sometimes you just have to work with what you have.
No vampires allowed
You will also need some stakes. Again, a perfect time to find them is when you are pruning. These want to be about 3 – 5cm (1.5 – 2 inches) in diameter, but thicker or thinner is okay. If you have some thinner, offset with a few thicker ones to make the fence as strong as possible. How long your stakes should be is dependent on how high you wish the fence to be.
I recently made a short wattling border for my strawberry patch (see the picture at the top of the page) which was only 15 cm (6 inches) high. The stakes were double the height of what I wanted to make my fence height, so 30 cm (12 inches). You double the length because you want to whack a good portion, about 1/3 at least, into the ground so they are stable and solid.
The Actual How to
With good size stakes, pound them into the ground about a foot (30cm) or so apart where you want the perimeter of your fence to be. Then, starting at one end, take one of your branches and begin to weave it in and out of your stakes. The beginning of the branch should go only a little beyond the first stake.
When you get to the end of the branch, take another one and continue along, repeating until you reach the other end of the fence. If your branch is too long at the end, bend it around the stake and weave it back along the stakes, on the opposite sides from the one below. Think basket weave.
If you have trouble bending the branch around because it is too thick, cut it just after the last stake instead. It does look tidier and prettier going around the last stake, but it is not truly necessary. Weave the next layer of branches in the opposite direction, so where the lower branch goes in front of a stake, the next branch goes behind.
Sometimes, due to lengths or doubling back, you may have to weave along the same way. Don’t worry, just try to make the next layer go the opposite way. Your fence gains its strength from the opposing weave. Continue weaving branch after branch until you reach the height you desire.
A Tip or Two
If your branches are not very flexible or not so green, take the time to bend them a little either before or during the weave to give them added flexibility. You can also weave near the top of the stakes and when you have a couple of layers, then push them down. With a fence only knee height this can be done by pressing lightly with your foot.
Wattling creates a really strong wall, but also allows flow of air while still screening. For this reason many people will make garden or patio screens from wattling as well.
Although a wattling fence is easy and can be free to make, it does also have a shelf life. Because it is wood, after a time it will begin to rot. Our wattling raised bed lasted 3 years before we had to replace it. You can make it last longer by putting a liner up against it, protecting the wood from the damp soil.
The other time factor is in the making of it. It does take time to prune, choose your branches, collect lots and lots and lots of branches and then actually go about making the wattling fence. But as you were going to prune anyway (right?) then you are weighing up the selection and building against clearing and hauling away, and with the latter you don’t get a fence out of it. To my mind, it’s worth the time and effort.