Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Mending Fences

At long last, spring had arrived in Ipswich. Of course, snow was always still a possibility in early spring, but the signs were everywhere, with trees budding their colorful blossoms and green springing to life from the ground up.   Although the mornings still had a chill in the air, by afternoons the sun had warmed things considerably, and this got Goody Prymm thinking about her fences.  Planting time was close at hand, and she needed to get all in readiness.  Years ago, she had planted a little willow coppice, one that would be specifically used to grow and harvest willow suckers to be made into seven-foot "withies," or "weavers," for wattle fencing.  These woven panels of willow sticks in a sort of basket weave fashion were very good for keeping wild animals, as well as wandering farm animals from other homesteads, out of her gardens.  And it was the type of fence that she could build quite easily herself, which suited her.  However, the nature of their structure remained good for only about three or four years before needing replacement, and now that time had come.  She had taken care to rotate the making of her fences, so that all would not need replacement at one time.  At almost seventy-one, Goody Prymm did not move as easily as in earlier days, but fortunately she had Remember, young and strong, as her helpmeet, making building wattle fences a task they could accomplish together in time for planting.

They stepped out into the gardens to survey what needed to be done this year.  Goody Prymm's gardens were the most productive gardens in Ipswich, and it was rumored that she spoke to her plants, almost as though they could hear her and understand her.  Regardless, it seems she had a magical touch when it came to her plants.  Not only did she grow copious vegetables for stews and pottage…lettuce, spinach, carrots, turnips, melons, squashes and more…she was a master of growing herbs for flavoring.  But her chief concern was propagating those herbs that would be used in the various ointments, salves, poultices, teas, and astringents necessary for healing.  She was, after all, a healer and midwife first.  She had numerous raised rectangular beds, all laid out wherever they would fit in her dooryard.  Many would need new fencing, and Imagination and Remember would have to clear the footpaths around the beds, packing the dirt firmly.  After figuring what needed doing, she and Remember went to the coppice to harvest the saplings, which, newly cut and green, would form the basket weave.  Late winter was the perfect time to harvest them, and to Goody Prymm's way of thinking, they were right on schedule.  Remember brought with her the tools needed for harvesting and they both set about their business.

After a time, they had harvested enough for the weaving.  The upright stakes, called "sales," were made of hardwood and so a few on the old fencing were still quite good.  Nevertheless, Goody Prymm sent Remember to the edge of the woods to cut some branches of hardwood, approximately 1 1/2" in diameter, for additional sales, if needed.  After removing the old fencing around the beds, they sharpened the bases of the newly cut hardwood posts using a hatchet, and drove them down into the ground, about 14" apart and 12" deep. Then began the weaving.  Beginning at the bottom, each row of willow saplings was alternated around the sales, while the next row up was woven on the opposite side of the stakes, Goody Prymm and Remember pressing each sapling row firmly down as they went.  It was hard work for hands more accustomed to linen and thread, but it was gratifying to see their weaving become beautiful little enclosures for their soon-growing gardens.  As they worked, Goody Prymm spoke of what would grow where, and how, like the Indians, they would fertilize their plants with herring caught in the nearby streams.

The spring afternoon passed pleasantly with productivity and the sharing of dreams, their taking breaks only for sustenance and tea, until the early vernal sun began to dip below the horizon, lending the air a chill once again and signaling that it was time to clean up and put away their tools.  But before going in, as gardeners are wont to do, they stood back, arm in arm, admiring their work of the day.  Tomorrow they would concentrate on the garden paths and begin the task of preparing the soil.  Tonight, though, they would take out the ancient seed chest in the lean-to room and pour over what seeds would be planted.  And then... sitting in the settle by the fire... they would together dream aloud of their gardens to come.

***With a nod to Adrian Higgins' "The Lost Art of Wattle Fencing" (March 1, 2007); and Keiren's post "Wattle Fence" of Nifty Homestead's blog (June 2016).

© Nancy Duncan 2017


  1. I need wattle fences for my new garden! Alas, no willow coppice! Perhaps another wood would suffice...

  2. Hi, Mary A! I have read where they used sycamore and chaste tree sticks, as well…but I think any pliable green wood would suffice. Some that I saw in my research were quite "sticky," not as neat as in the picture above.