The Osage Orange Hedge

The common name for Maclura pomifera where I live is Hedgeapple, which comes from the fact that the tree was once widely used as a hedge (before barb wire was invented) and has large green fruits that look vaguely like an apple from a distance. They are inedible, or not worth eating, though I have read that they are not toxic. The fruits do make among the finest improvisational targets, being highly visible at a distance. You can read all about the tree, and that is interesting, but I will focus on the few facts that make it a good hedge candidate.

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These are the Hedgeapples I collected last Fall with my family; they are only about one layer deep in my 4×8′ trailer.

First, let’s start with why someone would want a hedge, and even back up more and really understand what an agricultural hedge is. When the word “hedge” is used today most people think of bushes or similar plantings around a suburban home. My parents had both a very old Yew hedge in their front yard and a long “Japanese” Honeysuckle (a plant I now dislike, but didn’t then) hedge in the backyard. They provided a privacy screen more or less and were NOT expected to work like a real fence. They were easily penetrated by children (I did), and I’d imagine just about any farm critter could breach them if desired. I am not talking about this sort of hedge that you trim to look like a topiary. No, I am taking about a thorny tree or shrub that grows thick and low and so provides an impenetrable barrier to livestock. It works like a barbwire fence.

There are a few reasons why I am enamored with hedges. The first is that I am biased towards long term benefits for any given activity. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely erected a woven wire fence around my farm and recommend electric fencing, but ultimately any constructed fence requires two inputs—labor and capital—and is dead and so therefore will  eventually succumb to the ravages of nature and time no matter how well built. The idea of fencing is to get the most utility for the lowest level of input. I sincerely think my hybrid fence already detailed is about as efficient as it gets, but even that fence may only last 15-20 years before it will need to be replaced. By comparison, a hedge is alive, and will last indefinitely with rather minimal labor input. That hedge maintenance labor actually yields firewood, forage, and fence posts as an output quite unlike a “dead” fence, so even this maintenance labor input is rather worthwhile. A dead fence has ongoing maintenance as well, but it yields nothing. It doesn’t really take very long to realize that hedges will always win in the long term vs. anything else.

That said, they do have some weaknesses, and this is why they are not common at all anymore. The major weakness is time. They take a few years at least before they become effective barriers. This makes them “uneconomic” in the short term, and this is why any “real farmer” (a farmer that has borrowed money) cannot afford to wait for them to grow. The second weakness is that they may not be as good of a barrier for excluding some predatory animals, not that most agricultural fences are very good at excluding coyotes, foxes, etc. either. But in theory, at least, at tight wire fence can exclude predators. I thought mine was working until I noticed the neighbors’ dog was digging under it to go on vole hunts (he has some serious terrier in him). It was the one bit where the barbwire along the ground got pulled up (last year by an errant mower probably). Well, I fixed it, and so far so good, but it goes to show you that it is very difficult it not impossible to truly exclude a determined predator with ANY kind of barrier.

My idea with this hedge is to afford it time. Since I’ve erected a fence, I will simply plant a row of Osage Orange trees, and then let them grow into a hedge to replace the fence. I am planting the row a little more than one lawnmower width from the fence on the inside. My thinking is that I will be able to control the weed growth along both sides of the row with the lawnmower at least until the little tress can grow above the grass. Fortunately, Osage Orange is well suited to this regime because it is an aggressively fast growing tree. Perhaps the fastest growing tree in our area. My neighbors all spray herbicide, usually twice a year, and so I continue the spray my fence lines. It is the only herbicide I use, and I use it because if I don’t my neighbors will anyway (even spraying onto my side), and they are a lot messier and use a lot more of it than I do. One of the great merits to am established hedge, is that you don’t need to conduct the annual spray! All you need to do is trim it and keep it mowed so it doesn’t spread laterally too much.

Osage Orange leaves are palatable and nutritious to livestock (unlike Eastern Red Cedar). In fact, when the trees are young, they can be browsed to death. So I will  have to protect them like other trees with a strand of polywire. But once they are a few years old, the thorns on them should protect them from heavy browsing, and enough leaves should be above browsing height. In fact, moderate browsing of an established hedge is good for it, encouraging it to grow upwards. Since I always confine my animals to small paddocks using portable polywire fencing (Management Intensive Rotational Grazing) anyway, this isn’t too too difficult, but it would be for the typical set-stocker of livestock. One shouldn’t set-stock anyway, so let this be one more reason not to.

I consider the fact that a substantial hedge can provide an emergency supply of forage in a drought, too. Of course, you would have to laboriously cut this yourself to make it browse-able, but it is a known fact that feeding many tree leaves to livestock is good for them. In fact, the practice of “shredding” deciduous trees in late summer, after the leaves have done most of their job of photosynthesizing  for the year but still contain most of the nutrients, is still practiced in Eastern Europe I’ve read.  Just another reason why hedges are better than dead fences. This reminds me of something a dog-sled racer once said about snowmobiles: “when it gets bad you can’t eat a snowmobile.” Now the thought of eating a dog will probably bother most folks, and it bothers me, too, but I realize that in an emergency this is an advantage to the dog-sled.  The same could be said, I suppose, about horses vs. an ATV or tractor.

Now for the how-to: Obviously, I could have made many mistakes and the outcome isn’t known yet, but the project has already been underway since the Fall. Last fall my family and I collected as many hedgeapples (the fruits) as we could from our neighbors’ pastures where there are a few Osage Orange trees growing (picture above). These were all placed onto an old tarp in our barnyard where they were allowed to weather. They broke down over the course of November, December, January and February to a sticky mush. We then rolled the sticky mush into a halved 55-gallon plastic barrel and carted them out to where we were going to plant.

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This is the “sticky mush” state before water was added to think it out to a “slurry.” 

We mixed in a few gallons of pond water (I suppose chlorinated water may be less ideal) to make it into a slurry like consistency that would dribble out of a plastic pitcher, which we used to “plant the seeds.”

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Each hedge apple contains approximately a bazzillion seeds, so we planted this slurry thinly into a little “furrow” I made with a subsoiler. You can also do this what the sharp end of a square digging spade.

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This furrow was made with a square shovel and would be appropriate for distances in the hundreds of feet. This is probably and excessive amount of seed per linear foot! But I can always thin!

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Here is the subsoiler method, which is a bit messier (and louder), but makes much quicker work of the job. Obviously this would only work with a small tractor, as a big one couldn’t get that close to an existing fence!

I took my little tractor (this can be done with a shovel much more slowly) and ripped a shallow groove through the sod/soil with a subsoiler a little more than a mower’s width from the fence.

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Then we spooned (literally) the mush into the groove and walked along it pressing it back down. Hopefully these little guys will germinate, and I will mow right along side them to keep the grass at bay. Precision spraying with herbicide may work, too. This is very important, since I think even Osage Orange may be choked out by  Tall Fescue.

Next year I will asses their density. I am planting them anticipating needing to thin them, but I may have to add more. We’ll see. I want a seedling every foot or so.

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