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Shrubs: Edible fences make well-fed neighbours

Part of the Roots and Shoots Garden - an educational garden for children and the public - at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, U.K..

Mary Ann Van Berlo

If Fort Knox isn't what you need for a garden fence, consider something edible, instead of the usual cedars, boxwood, privet, or forsythia.

A dense planting of fruit- or nut-bearing shrubs or small trees is a beautiful, ecofriendly choice, offering privacy, providing the bees with nectar, and the birds – and you, if you're quick enough – with delicious produce.

Europeans have been planting rows of edibles for centuries, says Mary Ann Van Berlo, a certified master gardener in Ottawa. Unlike most North American homeowners, Europeans don't share our addiction to interlocking brick, pressure-treated lumber fences and green lawns. In England, homeowners often plant gooseberries and currants to delineate property lines, and Van Berlo is starting to see a shift toward this with younger Canadian homeowners. "They're very interested in backyard food production," she says. "They want to know what they're eating, and if they grow it themselves, they know."

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Klaus Tiessen, of Glen Echo Nursery in Caledon, Ont., has been in the plant and landscape business for more than 50 years, and has seen an uptick in fruit-tree sales, especially cherries, for the blossoms and the fruit. "A trend that has come from Europe, just last year, is the $10 fruit tree; the price lets people put in fruit hedges," he says.

According to Tiessen, his supplier, Winkelmolen Nursery of Linden, Ont., is barely keeping up with the demand for 60-centimetre, $10 apple, cherry, plum, pear trees.

"It's a trend that started in Germany and Holland – they sold 20,000 little fruit trees last year – and is going to be big here, very soon," he predicts.

But before you start digging, consider these factors:

Patience: It takes three to five years for most fruit-bearing shrubs, vines, and trees to establish, fill out, and bear fruit. Asparagus takes five years; nut trees need seven to 10 years.

Purpose: What is its function? Are you visually delineating an area, creating privacy or a windbreak? To discourage trespassing, go for prickly varieties: blackberries, raspberries, stinging nettles. For something more open, a border of asparagus is delicate and soft. To create a wind barrier, think of a row of tall shrubs, such as serviceberry, Nanking cherry or hazelnut.

Plant for the right conditions: For a shady spot, think fiddleheads (ostrich ferns). Sunflowers and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) are good choices for sunny, dry areas – they're tough, drought-tolerant, can grow upward of three metres and with time, as the plants spread and mature, you'll be able to harvest more, while still maintaining a lush screen.

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Support: Climbers and trailers (raspberries, blackberries, grapes) need a little lift, direction and containment; a framework of bamboo, wooden stakes and wires is advised. An existing fence that faces south or west can be upgraded to an edible fence, by adding espaliered fruit trees or climbers.

All-season or single-season: For privacy and to break windy conditions year-round, look to evergreens (although there are far fewer edible options). Juniper (whose dried berries are the dominant flavour in gin, and can be used like peppercorns) and evergreen huckleberry are the two most common species available.

Neighbours: Will your edible fence affect them? Raspberry canes hanging over a walkway can become a thorny issue. Birds, berries, and cars don't mix; that arbour of purple grapes alongside your neighbour's driveway might not be appreciated. Communicate your plans, welcome feedback, and share the bounty.

Spacing: To calculate how much to buy, select your plants first, then research: How fast does it grow, what is the spread, will it be dense or sparse? For quick impact, raspberries, blackberries, and sunchokes grow quickly and spread like weeds.

Companions: Include various heights, growth habits, and blooming times, in the same fence. Think of a row of standard chokecherries, their grey trunks softened by the green filigree of ostrich ferns; or an alternating row of Nanking cherries and purple leaf sandcherries – spaced well apart – with an understory of rhubarb or elderberries, punctuated at one end with tall, full-size pear trees.

For a continuous supply of fruit, create groupings that flower and fruit at various times throughout out the season. Planting different edible annuals each season alongside and in between long-lived shrubs and trees keeps the fence fresh and interesting, season after season: for example, rambling ground cherries filling the spaces between weeping mulberries.

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