Fences inspired by the boma

Nomadic tribes in Africa raise livestock amid the most ferocious predatory mammals in the world. Keeping their families goats and cattle safe, particularly at night, is not easy. Long ago, the kraal was devised by cutting wickedly sharp thorny brush to stack into a dense, round enclosure for protecting both human and animal overnight. During colonial times, the word “boma” was applied to these uniquely circular enclosures made of local materials throughout Africa.

One desert dweller was so inspired by the boma that they built an American version on their remote getaway. This circular fence was created by using grid wire and a lot of very long straight branches, often tree-pruning waste, dried stiff and straight before lashing.

Often huge quantities of such branches are the result of pollard pruning styles that require yearly cutting of the new growth to harvest uniformly-sized branches. For some, this much material can be the result of having trees trimmed or removed at your house or around the neighborhood. Often they will be a treasure trove that offers enough material to make something really fun.

For example, whole home orchards or commercial ones are pruned in winter to yield a huge volume of material often free for the asking. Don’t delay, go out and select the best of it for your project, then lay each branch out on a level surface or concrete slab to dry out and season without twisting.

Another resource is the clearing of drainage ditches of willow scrub, which eventually compromises its capacity. Removing willows in the channel yields an excellent source of flexible whips for woven wattle binding during the growing season. When you work with living willows, they will root where contacting the soil to give your fence a much longer life span or much greater screening ability. They can be woven through pickets, used for lashing, bundled into overhead arbor gates and dozens of other ways that have been requisite skills since ancient times.

Where palms are common and other wood sources are minimal, other types of fences have emerged using the fronds themselves and the stems of the palm flower stalk as pickets. To turn a transparent fence solid, weave the fronds into openings to create a thatch wind or privacy screen. Try this method with rolled field fencing, which can be attached to an existing chain link to create a solid barrier. Because palms resist decomposition, these are great choices for humid or dry climates.

Perhaps the most ancient skill of the gardener is the ability to recycle or repurpose necessary pruning waste into something more productive than chipping for mulch. You may find great free materials around the neighborhood when set out on the curb for green recycling.

All over the world people have used these kinds of fencing with almost exclusively recycled materials from wild and cultivated woody plants. But where wood is not plentiful, another method is to use Arundo donax, a global reed common on almost every part of the globe. This material is also used in Africa for a fancier kind of boma fence you find at upscale camps and villages.

Rather than buy new materials for a garden fence, a kids play area or dog yard, consider using what’s local, available and cheap or free for the asking. Sure, it takes time to make such a lovely semitransparent partition to create more enclosed areas, outdoor living spaces and for freestanding privacy screens.

Travelers to developing countries quickly realize almost everything is made of mud or plant materials. It’s very organic and affordable for the poorest American renter to the high-end modern texture panels. Above all, they blend with the local aesthetic no matter where you go, demonstrating how folks created fences before the rise of home improvement stores.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer.

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