The Brushwood Fence
As a consequence of removing loads of invasive brush from the woodland understory, I find myself absolutely drowning in brushwood. I considered quite a few ways to use the wood constructively, but none seemed quite right for this land and this farm. I even considered burning it just to make it disappear, but that felt wasteful and environmentally irresponsible. Then my friend Julie from Lightning Bug Valley sent me a picture of a brush fence she was building along the edge of her field. I knew immediately that this was the answer to my problems. The brush fence serves multiple useful functions, it looks nice and tidy, and it requires few materials. I started building my own brush fence that same day.
What is a Brush Fence?
Brush fences are constructed with pairs of vertical stakes spaced about 5 feet apart lengthwise and about 1.5 feet wide. Once you’ve driven in the stakes, you simply stuff in as much brush as you can between the stakes. After you’ve filled the section with brush, you can also stuff in weeds, leaves, and any other compostable materials. This keeps the brush contained and looking tidy while it naturally biodegrades. The structure itself serves as a windbreak, a shelter for small animals and birds, a privacy screen, and provides some protection against agricultural spray drift. The multi-useful nature and minimal inputs make this style of fence very well suited to permaculture designs.
Note: If you live in an area with a high fire risk, you might want to look into building hugelkulture beds with your scrap brush instead of a brush fence.
Building a Brush Fence
If you want to build a brush fence, all you need are some T Posts. T Posts are made of steel, and they are heavy, sturdy, and rigid. They are different from U Posts, which are somewhat flimsy and bendable. Choose any length of T Post that will give you the fence height you desire, keeping in mind that about 1.5 feet of the post will be underground. I used the 7 foot posts.
It will be much easier to drive the T Posts if you also have a post driver. When I first started this project, I was using a rubber mallet to drive the posts. I didn’t want to purchase a new tool, and the post drivers looked heavy and clumsy and loud. However, I finally invested in a post driver, and it has improved the process tremendously. Invest in some good ear protection while you’re at it.
You may also want some rope or wire to tie your pairs of T Posts together to prevent them from bowing outwards under the weight of the brush.
Use a rope or a long measuring tape to mark the line where the outer line of your fence is going to be. Try to make it straight, and ensure that it is on your side of the property line. Aside from that, it is up to you how precise and orderly you want your fence posts to be. As long as your pairs of fence posts are spaced 3-5 feet apart and the width is about 1-2 feet, it doesn’t have to be exact to be functional. I chose to set my posts on demand. I started with about four pairs of T Posts, and I add another pair whenever I run out of room to stash cut brush. I will say that this as-I-go approach makes it harder to set the fence posts in a perfectly straight line, but I am okay with that. Building the fence slowly allows me time to save up for the materials, and to spread out the labor over a longer period of time to reduce my risk of repetitive motion injuries.
My intention is to add a privacy screen and some overspray protection to my field, but I do not plan to enclose the field completely with this brush fence. If you don’t have a significant need to fully enclose your space, it is best to leave passageways in your fence so that wildlife can travel freely.
Loading A Brush Fence
Once you have your frame in place, you can begin loading it with cut brush. The first frame is the most difficult to load, but don’t worry if it is not packed densely. When you begin loading your second frame, you’ll be able to wedge the new brush into the gaps in the previous frame. This helps to increase density as you go. I find that it is much easier to load brush that has been drying for at least two weeks after it was cut. The wood becomes more brittle after it has rested for a couple of weeks, so you will have less resistance when you are loading it into the fence. If you have any big logs, place them in first on the bottom. Then load your biggest, bushiest pieces into the fence, and then add straighter branches to fill in the gaps. If you have any crazy branches that spring outwards from the main frame, you can use a straight branch to wedge them back in, snap or cut them off, or let them stay a little wild. This is not a formal, tidy kind of fence like a woven English wattle fence. Brush fences have a wild look to them, but they are much quicker and easier to build than woven fences. They still look much nicer than a brush pile.
A Note About Drift
I believe in healthy organic living and healthy organic farming, and I am committed to managing this land in a healthy, holistic way. My land is bordered on two sides by a large corn and soybean farm. In my first two or three years here, everything I planted within 30-40 feet of the perimeter on those sides was killed or damaged, presumably as a result of herbicide drift. My organic sensibilities aside, this was a functional barrier to the success of my farm. If I wanted to grow anything other than genetically modified, herbicide-resistant plants, I had to find a solution to this problem. I tried everything I could think of, and the one thing that really worked was registering my land with DriftWatch. This was a complete game changer for me, and even with no other signage or barriers along that perimeter, the damage completely stopped. I am sure there are still a few stray chemical droplets that float in on the wind, but I never again saw visible signs of overspray damage after registering on that site. The brush fence is meant to serve as a second line of defense to catch some of the stray droplets that might try to splash up or float in, and it also serves as a visual cue in conjunction with informative signage to remind anyone who may be working in that field about the organic management style on my side. Adding human-made signatures to each of my fields has proved to be important for preventing all kinds of human-caused damage on this land. If you are living through a similar battle with overspray, I highly recommend working the prevention angle as much as possible. Register on DriftWatch if that is available in your area, and have some respectful and honest conversations with your neighbors about your needs. An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of fences.