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How to Build a Living Ocotillo Fence

It seems that we forget to mention something important on our blog: our special use permit application was APPROVED UNANIMOUSLY by the Bisbee City Council last December. Oops. But now you know. And we’re so EXCITED!

Still, as a stipulation of that hearing, before we can start building actual sustainable structures on our 80-acre plot of land south of Bisbee, first we’ve got to build a fence around the entire thing. That’s roughly a mile-and-a-half of fencing, so it seems we’ve got our work cut out for us from the start (and we say bring it!).

Our initial plan was to just repair the barbed wire fence that was already there. Well, sort of there. Let’s just say that “pieces remained.” Anyway, a patch job wasn’t really in the cards.

Then, the more we thought about it, a barbed wire fence wasn’t exactly in line with our sustainable goals, either. And, let’s face it, they don’t exactly scream “inviting,” which isn’t good when you’re trying to build something meant as a resource for your entire community. So, it seemed we were stuck.

And then a friend with a lot of experience in a wide variety of non-profit and sustainability projects recommended a brilliant idea -- why not build a living ocotillo fence?

The Idea: What Is a Living Ocotillo Fence?

Those of you who have seen our photos on social media know that ocotillos grow in abundance near Bisbee. Our lot, in places, supports a small forest of the strange, woody plant.

According to our expert, ocotillos are incredibly hardy plants. Each long branch, even after being harvested and set aside for months, can still survive and flourish once planted. Those same branches, if laid out side-by-side and bundled together, can then be planted in rows to form a rather beautiful yet formidable living fence -- a structure that will continue to live and grow for decades, if cared for properly.

To be quite honest, many of us knew that the skeletal structure of the ocotillo could be used to build a fence, but not one strong enough to keep a herd of cattle on one side or the other (our objective). And none of us knew that it was possible to build a fence out of ocotillo that could continue to flower and flourish for years. But once the idea was planted in our heads (no pun intended) we knew that was the way were going to go.

How It’s Done

The trick to a project like this is to make sure you have a whole lot of bailing wire, access to an ocotillo forest you can legally and sustainably harvest, and a bunch of really good friends to help lighten the load.

Matt, our expert, came down from Tucson with a buddy on a Tuesday morning to show us the ropes. The rest of us rounded up another half-dozen volunteers, then we compiled all of our tools and headed out to the property for our first Ocotillo Fence Building Workshop.

We started out with a brief safety talk and an introduction to the plant itself, and then moved on to the logistics. Here’s the long and short of it

Step One: Dig a Trench

There’s no skipping this part, unfortunately. We had plenty of rocks to dig up to make a clear trench about six inches deep and four inches wide, where we would ultimately plant our ocotillo fence.

Step Two: Set Posts

You can also wait to set the posts based on the size of your fence panels, but they need to be in the ground when you’re ready to start putting the fence panels in place.

Step Three: Harvest the Ocotillo

The important thing is to treat the plant with respect. Cut cleanly and carefully, and never take so much that it’s going to kill the plant. Twenty percent from any one individual specimen is a good rule of thumb. Look for the straightest and sturdiest branches you can find, make sure they are long enough to match the height of your final fence plus the length you intend to bury and cut as near the base as possible. Straighter branches are easier to bundle into a fence panel.

Step Four: Create Your Panels

Take three lengths of bailing wire, each about six feet long, and wrap each one tightly around a single piece of ocotillo. Make sure your wires are equally spaced-start at least 6 inches up from the bottom and then space them from there (our fence started about 18 inches up for a 5ft fence. Lay the next branch parallel to the first one and wrap it with wire to bind the two branches together. Repeat until your fence panel is the desired length.

Step Five: Install Your Panels

It will require at least two people to lift and move each panel, but it’s even easier with three or four. Place your panel in your trench and secure your panel to posts with bailing wire. Repeat for a mile and a half (or maybe that’s just us).

Now It’s Your Turn

That’s the long and short of it. And now that we’ve got maybe 100 feet of fence in place after our first workshop day it’s a sure bet that we’ll be spending quite a bit of time out on the land building our living ocotillo fence. No confirmation yet but we’re thinking the finished product might even turn out to be a record-setter!

That said, we’ll need plenty of help from the community to make this happen, so keep your eyes peeled for our next big fence building workshop, coming soon to Bisbee. You can attend any one of our workshops by donation which will include a plant-based meal. The workshops will be Tuesday, June 11; Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 15; Tuesday, June 25; Friday, June 28 and Saturday, June 29. All workshops will begin at 10am by meeting at the Warren Ballpark to be shuttled out to the property.

We will have water and food, but be sure to bring your own bottle and dress for the weather (hats, sunblock, etc). We can’t wait to see you there!

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