Cheerful Cherries

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Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) is a great quick setting plant for hedgerows. I’ve been pleachering some in a field at Leafhopper Farm for the past few years and my work is finally starting to take shape. This past winter,  I cut a second pleacher layer off these cherries and they are leafing out beautifully.

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Pleaching allows the living trunk of the shrub or small tree to lay down from it’s main stump with an angled cut which only partially disconnects the living tissue of the plant from its roots. This stimulates new growth in much the same way coppicing does, only you do not take away the upper growth, instead, laying it over to create more vegetation and a living fence. The young growth below will turn four cherry saplings into many more, in a web of new growth. The bitter cherry is also a fruit wood, producing flowers and small berries for wildlife, as well as livestock to brows.

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These thickets of pleachered branches weave together into an impenetrable living boundary to keep deer off sensitive plants, and hem in livestock, keeping them out of replanted ecosystem for wildlife habitat and native plant nursery. Bitter Cherry grows rapidly, so you’ll see the “fruits” of your labor within a few years. I’m thrilled about this corner of the pasture, and know the cherry will set a well rooted hedge, which we can add other plantings into as the hedge grows and expands. Livestock and deer will keep it trimmed back, and my shaping will guide it’s upward growth into a solid living fence.

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When you pleacher your shrubs and small trees, you bring them down to browsing level for livestock and wildlife, you’re also opening up the canopy, and encouraging new, young growth on the root stalk of the plant. I think the bitter cherries thrive on this practice, as most stone fruit can take heavy pruning, in fact, it thrives on it. Other native species that would work well in a pleachered hedge are vine maple (Acer circunatum), hawthorn (Crataegus), and Oregon crabapple (Malus fusca). When you set a hedge, give it 3-5 years to grow initially, as I am with a new hedge on the west fence line of zone 1 on the farm.

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This hedge needs to establish enough woody stalk for pleachering. When the plants are this young, you can actually pin them down sideways by bending the tops over and putting a heavy stone or stake in to hold them down. I am trying that with a few maples, but letting the other hedge plants like dogwood (Cornus), and cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) bush up a bit, gives the plant a “set of legs” to stand on (healthy root system) before we pleach them over.

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Once the plantings have taken root for a few years and gained some trunk mass, I’ll pleach them the same way I did the cherries to form a living fence for the farm. This hedge is very diverse, and will continue to receive more plants as it thickens in. The advantage of picking your plants for the hedge means more diversity and usefulness of your living fence. There is a well established, even overgrown hedge on the north fence of the property. It’s mostly on my neighbor’s side fo the fence, and dominated by European holly (Ilex aquifolium), a great pollinator and tool wood, but an invasive in King County Washington. Be sure that if you are planting a hedge, you use species you won’t regret later on. Since your hedge will probably outlive you once you put it in, make sure you maintain it well so future stewards will recognize the living fence, and reap the benefits of diverse fodder for livestock, medicine and food for people, and a long lasting boundary on any property.

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