Saturday, July 29, 2017

Madonna in the Garden - 1400s Virgin in an Enclosed Garden or Hortus Conclusus & the timeless Wattle Fence

Martin Schongauer (German artist, c 1450-1491). The Madonna and Child on a Turf Bench

This is one of my favorite depictions of Mary in a Hortus Conclusus, an enclosed garden used in religious allegory, both because it is early & because it has an amazing depiction of a Medieval wattle fence. A wattle fence is a sort of basket-work made by weaving thin branches, often of willow, between upright stakes to form a woven lattice surround.

Thomas Hill described garden walls & fences in his The Gardener's Labyrinth which was the 1st popular gardening book published in the English language, appearing around 1577.  Hill reviewed the "forms of the Inclosures," which he declared the ancients invented: "First, the skilful & wary Husbandmen in time past, being those of good abilty, built them walls about of Free-stone artly laid, & mortered together, & some did with baked bricke like handled. Others of lesser ability, & of meaner sort, formed them inclosures, with stones handsomely laid one upon another with morter orclay; & some of them couched the broad salt sontesk, with other bigge & large stones (in like order about). . . but very many of the baser & poorer sort, made them fences & wals about, with mudde of the ditch, dung, chaffe, & straws cut short, & wel mixed together. Others there were, which with bigge Canes set upright, by smal poles bound together, so fenced their garden plot, in handsome manner round about. Some also with young Willow trees, set by certaine distances, & the drie black thorne (purchased from the wood) being bound in (between the spaces) so framed their inclosure. . ."

Another similar willow wattle fence:


Rose [folio 020v] MS. Douce 195 (Le roman de la rose) Robinet Testard 1490

The wattle fence seems to have made an early appearance in 17C Virginia. Archaeological investigation of Wolstenholmetown, one of the Martin's Hundred sites in James City County, revealed a curving line of small post holes defining what was probably a domestic yard protected by a wattle fence.

At the Clifts Plantation site in Westmoreland County, Virginia, wattle fences appear to have been constructed in conjunction with ditches about 1705. Archaeological findings suggest that such an arrangement enclosed the rectangular gardens, kitchen yard, & possible orchard adjacent to the main house. 

At the very end of the 18C, just such a combination fence was specified by George Washington in a letter to his farm manager: "When the Angle of Wood, adjoining the present Cornfield at Mansion house is cleared let all the Poles which are of a proper size for a wattled fence, either in whole, or by being split in two, be preserved; as my intention is, when I come home, to have a neat fence of that kind, on a ditch from the White gates along the road to the turn of it, as Allisons stakes will run to the present-fence."

As late as 1850, The American Agriculturist reported that the wattle fence was a common Virginia type & supplied instructions for assembling a "cedar-brush fence:...1st, throw up a ridge of earth about a foot above the level, & in this drive stakes on a line 2 to 3 feet apart, 3 & a half to four feet high, & then wattle in the cedar limbs, beating them down with a maul as compactly as possible." 

That wattle fence construction required less labor than other types is suggested by the comments of Landon Carter of Richmond County: "I fancy I must put a Watle fence round my new corn fields for I see what with idleness & sickness I can't get rails ready nor all in place."

Philip Vickers Fithian viewed the wattle fence with greater equanimity & wrote an account of fence building at Nomini Hall, Westmoreland County, in 1774: "I walked to see the Negroes make a fence; they drive into the Ground Chestnut stakes about two feet apart in a straight Row, & then twist in the Boughs of Savin which grows in great plenty here..."

On March 1, 2007, Adrian Higgins wrote in the Washington Post of recreating a wattle fence in the United States.
"The wattle fence, made from woven panels of willow sticks, was known to Colonial Americans but was soon replaced by sturdier forms of barrier...Garden historian Wesley Greene uses wattle fencing & edging at Williamsburg's re-created vegetable garden as pedestrian barriers, as insulation enclosures for growing frames & for general decoration. Some arrive premade from England, where wattling is alive & well, but he makes the other fences from sticks obtained by pollarding sycamore & chaste trees.

"People absolutely love it," he said. "I think they would love to do it. The problem is coming up with the sticks."

"The 7-foot sticks, known as withies, are commonly available at garden centers in Britain, but finding them here is nearly impossible. The answer may be to grow your own from cuttings. The willows are cut to the ground each February, & after 2 or 3 seasons, the resulting annual suckers are thick & long enough to use. For the fence stakes, you can take suckers that have been allowed to grow for 2 years, but using rot-resistant posts of cedar or locust will significantly lengthen the fence's life span. Even then, wattle fencing is good for only 3 or 4 years in our hot, humid climate. Because the withies are woven horizontally, a fence can be as low or as high as your posts will allow.

"The withies are harvested in late winter as a byproduct of coppicing & when the sticks are leafless. At this time, you can take some of the cuttings to expand your coppice planting. "It's a renewable resource," said Deirdre Larkin, a historical horticulturist in New York. "You can have a little willow coppice of your own, & from there you can make your own fencing & edging." She recommends Salix viminalis, the common osier, or Salix triandra, the almond-leafed willow."