Living fence


This week, I’ve been working in my backyard garden, nicknamed “The Brickyard” for its dense red clay that I’ve been trying to improve over the last several years. Last year I tried double digging two of the three small beds, and was amazed at how well my vegetables grew. It was if the dead earth had sprouted.

As I was double digging the third bed this year, I suddenly remembered my first backyard garden. I was in graduate school at Clemson, and Joyce and I lived in a married student duplex on the edge of campus. Somehow I had discovered Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, which in those days was a newsprint, no color, no frills monthly. While the format was plain, the content was inspiring, and I soon found myself digging up a small section of our backyard and planting a few vegetables.

My neighbor in the duplex, a doctoral student in animal husbandry, watched me without comment. We got along fine as neighbors, but he seemed to merely tolerate my lack of a proper degree (I was an English major).

A few days later, an area adjoining my garden and about twice its size mysteriously lost the grass that had covered it, and a surprising number of tomato and other plants appeared. When we next saw each other, Scott complimented me on my garden.

“It’s nothing compared to yours,” I said truthfully. He nodded without saying anything.

After a pause, he said, “Have you thought about a fence?”

When I said I hadn’t, he said he worried about leaving the vegetables unprotected from campus lawnmowers and wild animals that might come out of the neighboring woods. He offered to put a fence around both our plots if I would share expenses and help him. I agreed right away.

The fence material, simple chicken wire, cost very little as I recall. He may have had a source through his department. Anyway, a couple of rolls were in our backyard when I got home from class one afternoon. Scott said we’d get the fence posts on Saturday.

When Saturday morning came, I met him in the backyard.

“Where will we get the fence posts?” I asked. I imagined a small stack of metal posts coming from the hardware store or something along those lines.

“Right there,” Scott said patiently, motioning to the woods next to our yard.

“Oh,” I said, as Scott retrieved a saw from inside his apartment.

Soon we had cut down a tulip poplar tree about six inches thick and cut it into fence post lengths.

We carried the posts into the yard, and Scott got out a post hole digger. We took turns digging post holes along the perimeter of the garden, then we set the posts and tamped earth in the holes to make them solid. Finally, we strung two widths of chicken wire, one above the other, around the fence posts. Scott fashioned a gate, and our fence was done.

But nature wasn’t finished with our fence. Within a week, I walked out back to check on my crops. Where dead tulip tree posts had been the day before, sprouts had appeared. The garden was alive, for sure! Worried that the fence posts would starve the vegetables they were supposed to protect, I quickly cut off all the sprouts.

A few days later, more sprouts appeared. As I was cutting them off, Scott came out.

“Will these sprouts hurt our crops?” I asked.

“No, I doubt it. But I’ve never seen dead fence posts sprout this much. If we leave them alone, I think they’ll die pretty soon,” Scott replied.

So we let the fence leaf out and waited for the dead limbs to get the news of their passing. They were still green at the end of the summer, with over-sized tulip poplar leaves waving in the breezes.

The crops did fine, though. It was one of my most successful gardens ever.


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