The Living Fence: Ocotillo Fencing is Friendly for Desert Yards
As a desert-friendly accent for yards and gardens, ocotillo fencing is uniquely Sonoran.
By John Roark | Photography by Art Holeman
The ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is one of the most recognizable—and versatile—plants that graces the Arizona landscape. The Tohono O’odham used the plant’s thorns to pierce their ears; dried flowers were fashioned into jewelry and nectar was hardened into candy. Durable and pliable, the canes were used to frame structures and roofs, and because of their inhospitable texture, were an excellent means of fencing out unwanted guests such as rabbits, rodents and snakes.
“Native peoples didn’t mind wildlife when they could put it on the evening menu,” says Ray Leimkuehler, ethnobotanical horticulturist for Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. “But by the same token those visitors can do a lot of damage to crops.”
Leimkuehler assisted in the installation of an ocotillo fence around a vegetable patch in the Garden’s Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail. He dug 4-inch-deep trenches around the plot’s perimeter and placed 6-foot-high by 5-foot-wide panels of ocotillo canes bound with wire, reinforcing them with barbed wire and anchoring them to posts and existing trees. Once the panels were in place, they were watered with a soaker hose for two hours once a week for two months. With time and patience, the canes began to take root and leaf out. Some of the branches may not survive, but that’s part of the rustic charm.
Installing an ocotillo fence today is infinitely simpler than it was for our Sonoran forebears. Rolled panels are available at many local nurseries. Look for canes that have a bit of green beneath the surface and are not dry or brittle, says Leimkuehler, who adds that spring and fall are the best times to plant, giving the canes time to establish before summer.
Ocotillo fences are a uniquely and undeniably Southwestern accent for yards and gardens, whether surrounding a perimeter, as accent walls or used to conceal on-ground air conditioners and pool equipment. “The nice thing about seeing our fence completed is that it seems to belong here, as an extension of the desert,” says Leimkuehler. “It’s very much a product of the place. There are easier, more practical ways to protect a garden, but if you want your yard to become a part of this landscape, this is a way to do it.”