Fencing Our Orchard

Posted by Nick  | 16 Nov 2015  | 6 comments

Almost all of the weekends for the past two months had been designated fence building weekends. The grass in our orchard sky-rocketed come spring, so it was imperative that we fenced the orchard shelter belt ASAP to get those sheep grazing around our orchard trees.

We had never built a post-and-rail fence before, so there was a lot – a lot – of trial and error. Especially considering the surprising lack of information online. We had to nut most of it out ourselves. There’s plenty of info out there on how to build your typical suburban boundary fence, but rural post-and-rail? Nada. We put it down to it being just “one of those things” country-folk know how to do. Maybe we’ll put out some DIY instructions down the track. In any case, this was our first attempt:

First, we banged some steel Y-posts into the ground to anchor a string-line.

Once the string-line was strung, we put standards at measured intervals to mark where the post holes would be dug.

Then, hole digging.

Much hole digging. The general rule of thumb for post hole digging is to dig to a depth of about one-third the length of the post, which in this case was sixty centimetres.

I’m just thankful for the soft soil out here. I know I mention it all the time, but I come from Auckland, the land of clay. This dirt is a godsend. We were considering getting a mechanical rammer in to do the job, but it was easy enough by hand not to warrant it. Also, the feeling of accomplishment is greater when you haven’t cheated.

With the holes dug, it was time to plonk in the posts.

This was the method of transporting the wood from the driveway to the orchard:

Each hole had to be shaped a second time to get the post behaving correctly and level. Much fluffing was involved.

It was starting to take shape.

It was beginning to feel like a real boundary.

Then came the fun part of putting up rails. What we thought would be the fun part, anyway. We were umming and ahhing about how to transport them since they were so long, but the quad bike came to the rescue in the end, again.

Experimentation begins…

We didn’t quite know how to go about following the contour of the land. We wanted it to flow gently, but we were concerned about making the gap between the ground and the bottom rails too inconsistent. So we made our first mistake of following the contour too closely, which resulted in a fence that curved too suddenly in the vertical plane.

It still looked nice, but we soon realised that with such sudden curvature it was difficult to follow through with the joins without a resulting scalloping look. Hard to explain, but trust us, we learned something valuable here. We decided it could be aptly summed up as a compromise between spacing and contour. You’ll know what we mean if you build one yourself (or if you have already). I later returned to dismantle the work we had done in the above photo. It was a kick in the nuts, but hey, lesson learned.

Another important lesson we learned was not to do this:

Nailing a rail on and then being forced to cut it awkwardly instead of measuring it, removing it, cutting it, then nailing it on.

You’d think this was obvious, but when you’re manhandling six-metre long rails, clamping them onto posts, and fussing about, you sort of forget which step comes first in the flurry. It took us a little while to find our rhythm.

Also, get a god-damn cordless circular saw. Especially if you’re doing work outside of a workshop. Get a cordless everything. After a few days of tripping over the one pictured above, we gave in. It’s such a wonderful tool it can make a grown man cry. The battery technology nowadays is good enough to power one of these bad boys for a couple of days’ work.

But no matter how good the tool, sometimes you still forget to measure and cut before nailing the rail on. D’oh. I think at this point we were still coming to the realisation. It was a slow realisation.

To ensure we’d have uniform gaps between the rails, we used an extraordinarily complex piece of technology. A wooden stick with lines drawn on it.

Usually Char would align a rail by pushing down or pulling up on it and then holler at me to nail it in place. In most cases this was un-photograph-able, because we were both otherwise entangled. But here’s me nailing anyway, for err, posterity:

Below you can see there’s a gap in the fence. At this stage we had yet to dismantle the botched left side where we had forced too much of a curve, so had begun railing further down. It wasn’t a perfectly methodical process, but we were getting our bearings slowly.

Once we’d redone the left side and filled in the gap, it was starting to look like a real fence!

Gaining confidence!

Tools of the trade:

Next up was to join rails at a forty-five degree angle on a twenty degree slope. You can guess that this required some tricky geometry. We argued a bit over this, but Char nutted it out in the end. She’s incredibly logical. It turns me on.

Mica Jackson loves to be needy when we’re busy. Watch out pussy cat – you want to be a Manx?!

Getting the fine angles right took some experimentation with making templates.

This is the result:

Not too shabby, eh?

Here’s the fence with the forty-five degree corner connecting the south side to what would be the west side:

Before beginning on the western fence, we couldn’t help but saw the tops of the posts off on the completed southern fence – a finishing touch.

At some stage before erecting the forty-five-degree section that would connect the southern and western fences, we had to put the posts in for the western fence.

This was so we could line up the forty-five degree section effectively and actually have something to nail the rails on to.

The western fence went up pretty quick. By that stage we had a good rhythm going and some practice under our belts. In fact, it went so smoothly I don’t think there’s any photos of it going up! It wasn’t until we were faced with an entirely new problem that we took some more photos.

This is the part where we learn another valuable lesson. You see, here we intended to curve the fence on its horizontal axis to eventually become the northern orchard boundary (which we’ll erect at a later date). Again, it’s difficult to describe, but our mistake this time was that we’d continue the bend in the rails on every consecutive post. This resulted in a warped look – the curve wasn’t smooth. We corrected this by creating a curve along the six-metre length first between two posts six metres apart. We had to extract a few posts and relocate them to conform to the improved curve. That probably makes no sense to read, but hopefully these pictures help:

You can see above that we’ve created a visual curve with the rails by buttressing them in place before adding extra posts. In fact, at the right of the picture you can see the two posts lying on the ground which we had to dig up because they were disrupting the curve.

The result is a uniform curve once the extra posts have been added.

We have yet to fence the other side of the western shelter belt to protect the trees from stock, but the southern and western shelter belts of the orchard are now fenced! Yay! Eventually we’ll curve it around to enclose it on the north, but that’ll be next year some time. The reason being for aesthetics mainly, so it will follow the lay of the land and won’t feel too boxed in. Curves are sexy. You can kind of see the beginning of the curve in this photo, but shh, there’s a spoiler going on in the background!

Here it is in its nearly-complete glory, with sheep and all, doing what it was designed for – keeping those hungry critters away from our treasured trees. Success!