Planting live fences: why and how

What is a live fence?

A live fence is composed of living tree cuttings (madrocas or estacas) that are planted and maintained as fence posts. They are connected with barbed wire and serve the same purpose as a conventional fence.

A live fence in the process of being built. c. Leo Mena

Why plant a live fence

  1. To save money
    • There is very little need to purchase new live posts
      • Live posts last a very long time
      • Each post generates branches (madrocas), which can be cut and planted to create new live posts.
    • Some live post species can produce fodder, fruit, timber, and/or firewood
    • According to a Costa Rican study, live fences are cheaper to establish and maintain than conventional fences (López and Ibrahim 2008)
  2. To conserve nature
    • Diverse tree species attract birds, butterflies, and monkeys (Harvey 2005).
      • Live fences provide perches for birds, which facilitates seed dispersal.
    • Live posts reduce the need to cut down trees for dead posts.
  3. To increase soil quality
    • Some live fence species are nitrogen fixing: they increase the availability of nitrogen in the soil.
  4. To reduce erosion
    • Live fences protect soil and water quality from erosion, especially when planted on slopes.
  5. To offer protection
    • Shade for cattle reduces heat stress, which can increase weight gain, milk production, and rates of reproduction 

Disadvantage of live fences

They need regular maintenance. Because of their shallow roots, trees grown from cuttings are more prone to blow over than trees grown from seeds. Live fences, therefore, must be pruned.

Property line responsibility

There is a traditional 50/50 division of responsibility for live fences on a property line. The divisions, seldom documented, have generally been in place for generations and are typically distinguished with a marker (large tree or corner). It is each owner’s responsibility to maintain their part of the live fence, including pruning the fence and planting new cuttings to replace bad posts. New property owners should discuss the division with their neighbors and record it on a map. Where cattle are concerned; a property owner is held financially responsible for damage that his cattle cause in a neighboring property as a result of not maintaining his part of the live fence.

Pruning and planting

In the Azuero it is custom to plant cuttings about 15-20 cm. in the ground so that the plants do not dry. It is also customary to prune large branches from the fence so they do not tip over during the windy dry season. In other areas, however, such as in the dry forest of Costa Rica cuttings are planted 30 cm. into the ground so that they do not tip over and do not have to be pruned as much. Consider planting the cuttings 30 cm. into the ground to reduce the need for pruning.

Live fence tree species

There are certain tree species that can be used for live fences; however, the trees that you choose will mostly depend on what is available. Consider using non-conventional trees for fruits, timber, or for promoting biodiversity.

 Common live fence tree species 

[table]
Scientific name, Common name
Bursera simaruba, "carate, cholo pelao, indio desnudo"
Gliricidia sepium, "balo, ballo, bala, mata ratón, madero negro"
Jathropa curcas, "coquillo"
Pachira quinata, "cedro espino"
Spondias mombin, "jobito, jobo"
Spondias purpurea, "ciruela, ciruela traqueadora, ciruelo"[/table]
Live fence species for a diverse fence (timber and fruit)

[table] Scientific name, Common name

Anacardium occidentale, "marañon nacional, cashew"
Cedrela odorata, "cedro amargo,  cedro rojo, red cedar"
Cordia alliodora, "Laurel"
Citrus sp., citrus fruits
Diphysa americana, "macano, cacique"
Persea americana, avocado
Pseudosamanea guachapeleguachapali
Swietenia macrophylla, "caoba, caoba nacional, mahogany"
Tabebuia sp.,guayacán roble [/table]

How to plant a live fence?

A typical live fence uses a combination of cuttings (madrocas) for the fence line, large existing or planted trees for added stability, and dead wood posts for fence corners, gates, and support.

  1. During the dry season (January – April) collect healthy cuttings from the live fence or from appropriate trees. About 575 live posts and 60 dead posts are required for 1 km. of fence.
    • Cut the living post branch neatly with a machete. Make sure to cut the branch at its base or right above the circular head on living posts. Harvest cuttings that have a minimum height of 2.0 – 2.5 m. and a thickness of 5 – 15 cm. Cut the bottom flat.
    • Remove side branches and cut the top on a diagonal to avoid decay from rainwater.    
    • Store cuttings upright in the shade (they can be stored for many months).

      Planting a cutting of Bursera simaruba (carate, indio desnudo). Note the diagonal tip c. Leo Mena
  2. Plant live fence posts every 1 or 2 meters, 15-30 cm. in the ground, about two shovelfuls.
  3. For corners, fences, or for more support, plant dead posts where necessary at least 30 cm. (1 foot) deep into the ground. Select dead posts from trees that do not rot and have been harvested sustainably (beware those posts taken from Cerro Hoya or other protected forest).
  4. Attach barbed wire.
    • Wrap barbed wire around a large tree or sturdy post and tie a knot.
      Barbed wire knot on a live fence. c. Leo Mena

       

    • Stretch the barbed wire to the next large, sturdy posts. Tighten the barbed wire with pliers.
    • Attach a staple to the taught barbed wire using a hammer. Drive the staple far into the post.
    • Hammer staples into other posts so that the wire line looks neat and tight. Repeat this process until you reach a corner, at which time you can staple the post and cut the barbed wire leaving enough of it to tie a knot.
    • Repeat steps i – iv to make other barbed wire fence lines. Usually people have 3 – 4 lines of barbed wire: at the top, middle, and bottom of the fence posts.
      Barbed wire lines attached to a live fence post. c. Leo Mena

       

  5. Maintenance: To prevent live fences from tipping and at the same time to harvest cuttings (madrocas) it is necessary to prune the live fence.
    • Prune the live fence as needed during the dry season (January – April).
    • While pruning the live fence plant the harvested cuttings to replace older, worn out live fence posts. The cuttings will root and propagate during the dry season and produce new branches when it starts to rain.  
  6. If you would like to create a live fence that promotes biodiversity consider planting a bio-intense fence with maximum variety.

Collaborators

  1. Jairo Batista
  2. Silverio Jiménez,
  3. Vernon Scholey
  4. Sixto Ballestero Madrid
  5. Carlos Navarro

 References

  1. Estrada, Alejandro, Rosamunda Coates?Estrada, Alejandro Estrada, and Rosamunda Coates?Estrada. 2001. “Bat Species Richness in Live Fences and in Corridors of Residual Rain Forest Vegetation at Los Tuxtlas, Mexico, Bat Species Richness in Live Fences and in Corridors of Residual Rain Forest Vegetation at Los Tuxtlas, Mexico.” Ecography 24, 24 (1, 1) (February 1): 94, 94–102.
  2. Harvey, C.A., C. Villanueva, J. Villacís, M. Chacón, D. Muñoz, M. López, M. Ibrahim, et al. 2005. “Contribution of Live Fences to the Ecological Integrity of Agricultural Landscapes.” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 111 (1–4) (December 1): 200–230.
  3. López, D.T., M. Ibrahim. 2008. “Valor de los sistemas silvopastoriles para conservar la biodiversidad en fincas y paisajes ganaderos en América Central. Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE).  
  4. Villanueva, C., M Ibrahim, F. Casasola. 2008. “Valor económico y ecológico de las cercas vivas en fincas y paisajes ganaderos.” Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE).