November 2014
The Magic of Gardening

Living Fences

Pyracantha can be used as a free-form living fence or as a deterrent to intruders near a window.   

People plant trees and shrubs for many reasons, but we may not often think of planting something as a security fence. However, there are many plants that could serve this purpose. Historically, mesquite and trifoliate orange trees have been used as living fences. Both of these have nasty thorns bad enough to keep livestock from penetrating through them and both can be quite invasive. Pyracantha may show up on some invasive plant list as well, but it certainly makes a great living fence for home landscapes.

Winter is often when I think of this plant because it has fruit that are very showy until the cedar wax wings and other birds clean them off. Pyracantha is a member of the rose family and, like its cousin, has an abundance of thorns. The thorns are needle-like and much larger and more painful to encounter than rose thorns. My dad always said nothing will keep determined intruders out, but pain will do a good job deterring "honest" folks.

Although pyracantha can be maintained as a 4- or 5-foot shrub, it would be better if you did not have to prune it very often due to the aforementioned pain. The ultimate size of most varieties will be about 10-by-10; so it does not take many plants to make a living fence. The plants can be planted somewhat closer for quicker fill, but remember to allow plenty of depth for them to spread. They are fast growers that are adapted to many soil types, except poorly drained soil.

Fall and winter is a great time to plant them. Dig the plant hole as wide as practical, but at least twice as wide as the root ball. To avoid the plant settling to a position deeper than desired, do not dig any deeper than the root ball. I always like to pull the plant from the container and wash off most of the bark from around the roots. This will allow you to spread the roots out laterally in the wide planting hole and will prevent air pockets which would develop when the bark slowly decays after planting.

The first year after planting pyracantha, you will need supplemental watering to get them well established, but once established they are pretty tough plants. Keep the area around the plants weed free and do not use weed eaters around the base. Three inches of mulch over the root system can go a long way in helping control weeds and retain moisture. Do not pile mulch thickly around the base of the plants.

Although pyracantha is not a native plant, it is widely adapted and the native birds and wildlife do love the fruit they produce. Pyracantha can also be used in floral arrangements to add a splash of color and a distinct texture. Most varieties have bright red berries, but there are some yellow- and orange-fruited varieties available.

If the standard-sized plant is too big for the area you have in mind, there is a compact selection called Red Elf. This might be a good choice for underneath a window to deter an intruder or peeping Tom.

Two serious problems on pyracantha are fire blight, a bacterial disease that can kill the plant, and scab, a fungal disease which causes defoliation and turns fruit a dark, sooty color. To minimize problems, choose disease-resistant selections such as Apache, Fiery Cascade, Mohave, Navaho, Pueblo, Rutgers, Shawnee and Teton. For further information on growing this useful and beautiful plant, visit

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.