Pleaching? What on earth is pleaching and how is it related to gardening? Let’s find out!
Pleaching, also called plashing, is an age old method of keeping livestock in and wildlife out of the garden. This is done by weaving dead twigs and branches in among the living branches of a hedge to create a fence or wall. It is also done by partially cutting and then bending living branches. According to Julius Caesar, Gallic tribes used pleaching as an effective barrier against cavalry. Over time, pleaching evolved into an art form known as tree shaping.
Early garden barriers
Many of us have seen (or used) traditional wattle and daub, as a fencing method. Wattle and daub refers to the weaving together of twigs to create a panel, which is then daubed with a mud made of soil, clay, sand, animal dung, and straw. For thousands of years, wattle and daub were the building method of choice for fences and buildings. Because of its low environmental impact and sustainability, wattle and daub, along with pleaching, are becoming popular once again. The difference between wattle and daub and pleaching is that pleaching incorporates living trees into the construction.
Since medieval times, gardeners have protected their crops and their livestock by planting fast growing trees or hedge plants, or pleaches, in a line, relatively close to one another. Then, as branches developed, they would weave those branches together with those of neighboring trees. Any gaps or weak spots would be filled in with dead branches to form a convincing barrier. Very often, branches would be cut part way through, using a tool called a billhook, and pulled down into a more horizontal position. Because the vascular bundle was still partially intact, water and nutrients could still be brought up from the soil. Pulling these branches into a horizontal position also stimulated what were the lateral branches into growing vertically, filling in the hedge.
Thieves and livestock are far less likely to push their way through a fence made of thorny plants. Because of this, brambles, such as blackberries, were and are used in the same way. Traditionally, living bramble canes would be cut in half, bent over and woven together. As the canes quickly repaired themselves, they created a dense, prickly barrier that few thieves or predators would care to cross.
Because of the way trees grow, these branches would, eventually, merge and become one. This is called inosculation. It is a form of naturally occurring graft. This is a variation on free-standing espalier.
In the mid 1800’s, pleaching came back into favor as an artistic way to create living arches, avenues, or parterres. It became popular to use fruit trees as the living portion of the plashing, with the lower trunk exposed and unwoven.
Pleaching also refers to purposefully shaping living trees into furniture, art, ladders, and even houses.
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