Garden 2017: The Biggest Yet

July 05, 2017   //  Posted in: Backyard, DIY, Gardening   //  By: Emily   //  3 responses

I’ve written a little bit every year to track the evolution of our backyard garden. If you want to go through those stories, feel free to do so here: 2013 (crushed by a tree), 2014, 2015, 2016

Those archives will prove that starting a garden isn’t something done in a single year. In fact, I’m totally sure there’s no end in sight if you’re set on optimizing and finessing the space for new crops or challenges. Trying to find our way and build upon our vision is fun though, and this has been the best season yet in that respect. Every year brings new ideas, and this year’s #gardengoals were bigger than ever before – it’s the year we set out to install a permanent fence.

Our big, backyard fenced-in garden. 500 sq. ft.

Our deer-trafficked yard requires a strictly fenced-in space, but while every neighbor and expert I’ve encountered suggests no shorter than 8′ fencing if you’re going to keep those creatures out of your crops, our trial years 2013-2016 only used a 4′ fence, and we had no issues with deer jumping in. Maybe they did bound around in there and I didn’t know, but we still haven’t witnessed trampled plants or tipped trellises. I think their avoidance has to do with the fact that we’re outdoors a lot more in the spring and summer, leaving human scents and traces of our presence and a whole lot more dog pee around the back hill that scare deer into keeping their distance. Plus, there’s a ton of foliage for them to eat, so no shortage of food for that four-legged crew.

That’s all to say, when we set out to take our garden from a simple 4′-temporary-metal-fence style to a more permanent design, we did decide to make a little taller using 6′ fencing (more accessible at local stores than 8′ fence, too), and applied wisdom from our own learnings by burying some of that height to beef up the bottom of the fence to discourage diggers and smaller wildlife from entering down low. So the fence is actually about 12″ buried, and 5′ high above ground.

This is what we were starting with (that broken leaning tree in the background came down all by itself a few days after I snapped this, FYI):

Garden Fence, before it was replaced with a permanent structure.

And here’s where we are today:

Garden 2017, with a brand new wooden fence.

The new garden is just a little bigger than the old one; it’s sized 16′ x 32′ (512 sq. ft.), rectangular, not oval. We sunk 4x4x8′ posts down 2.5′ into the ground in cement, leaving 5.5′ atop so that we could attach fencing. There’s an actual gate too (as opposed to an opening that we snagged and squeezed through in the old fence).

Pete digging holes for our new garden fence posts.

One thing we really have working for us is the fact that our soil has a lot of sand in it; we hit the occasional root, but no rocks and no dense clay. I mean, look at this. Post holes are never easy, but we couldn’t have it easier.

If you’re curious, we did price this project in cedar. I did it while standing in the lumber section at Lowe’s, its prices right in front of me, thinking maybe I would pay a little more for cedar lumber, only to be told over the phone by the guy at the local lumberyard that it was, like, $90 per 4×4 in cedar, and in a moment of complete shock exclaimed – mouth-agape, high-pitched voice – “That’s great, lemme think about how many I’ll need and I’ll stop by later.” Not. Cedar would have made this project 8x more expensive, and all-in, as it was I think we spent about $500 on lumber and cement and fencing.

The posts are regular, untreated pine. We should have gotten pressure-treated, at the very least, but without having done a lot of research on how much the treatment would leach into the soil, I instinctively went the safe route. (Would come to learn that PT isn’t terribly bad for soil these days; it allegedly would kill the plants before harming the edible fruit, and we’ll just have to deal with rotting posts sooner as a result of not using them). We did use PT for the horizontal pieces along the front and top of the fence, as neither come in contact with the ground.

Prior to installing the posts, I stained them using what is still my *absolute favorite* stain, a natural solution of dissolved steel wool in apple cider vinegar. The stain I used for these posts had been sitting in the basement for a few years untouched, and man-oh-man was it concentrated. Normally it takes a few months to achieve a dark stain using this finish, but within a day of application the posts looked fantastic.

Natural stain for exterior use made of steel wool and vinegar – best DIY stain ever.

Our ground isn’t level, so there was some level of complexity with respect to getting a fence that looks level. After we got all 13 posts secured in cement, what worked really well for us to ensure that the metal fencing would all be an even height and not angled to be equidistant from the ground was to decide on the height of the fence and mark it at one post, and then run a horizontal board along to all of the other posts, one at a time, using a level to be certain that the same height marking was transferred all of the way around. For all intents and purposes, the height of the finished fence is between 50″-60″, varying slightly because of the unevenness of the underlying ground but looking visually straight along the top.

Originally, I thought we would just wrap the entire length of steel fencing around the new posts in one long sheet; we eventually surrendered to that idea when we realized we were inviting the process to turn into a damn wrestling match, and instead trimmed 8′ lengths of fencing so that they could be attached individually, post-to-post-to-post. I singlehandedly cut and installed 12 steel fence panels in about a half-day, using metal snips to cut and a pneumatic stapler to attach the fencing at the height we previously marked. Most aspects of this project were easily done solo, but would go a lot faster with a partner or crew, which is probably nice for you to keep in mind.

Installing steel fencing panel by panel for our new garden.

Trimming the fence into 8-foot lengths made it a lot easier to sink the fencing about 6″-12″ into the ground to ward off animals that–in our experience–try to burrow beneath the fence, or dig their way through. 6″-12″ certainly might not be enough deterrent for the strong-willed, I mean, what’s to say that anything isn’t going to dig deeper to get where he wants to go? We’re testing it out to see how it rolls, and we can adapt if necessary.

To make things even more complicated for the burrowing guys, I curled the end of the fencing underground when there was any excess. Shove it all in the hole!

Pushing wire fencing underground to prevent animals from burying under.

I also purchased a secondary length of plastic fence/netting that would defend the lower 18″ of the garden fence from intruders, and sunk the lower edge of that underground too; after all, the metal fence with 4″x6″ openings is still wide enough for a lot of animals to squeeze through, but a fence with 1″x1″ square openings is a bit tougher for common yard folk.

I backfilled in around the buried fencing with soil, tamped it to be level with the grass in the yard, and we turned our attention to planting, and finishing a custom garden gate.

Quickly, the list of what we’re growing this year includes:

  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Sugar snap peas
  • String beans
  • Spinach
  • Garlic (planted last fall, worked our construction around them)
  • Tomatoes (6 varieties, grown from seed by my parents)
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplants
  • Sunflowers (the only florals)
  • Leeks
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries (though at last check, the birds ate the few berries on the plant)
  • and Potatoes in two containers located on our back patio (The deer have *not* eaten them!):

Growing potatoes in 60-gallon containers on our patio

Pete’s the brains behind the garden gate, and kept the construction simple and strong. A little bit of research told us how to brace the rectangular frame so that it resisted sagging (note: it’s the opposite of what we thought), and we pimped it out with self-closing hinges and a latch that’s easy even for the kids to access from inside and out. We avoided hinging the door on the corner post, thinking it might be more susceptible to weakening over time, and we’re really happy how it turned out. We built up a ramp using some spare pavers so that the door closes to sit almost right atop them, leaving a mere space not even tall enough for a bunny to squeeze beneath. It’s a good fit, man.

DIY garden fence constructed with self-closing hinges and designed for kids to access.

At this point, I had made a second batch of vinegar/steel wool stain and allowed the vinegar to dissolve the steel wool for about 3 weeks. We used it both for the door, cross-pieces, and the trim that was added to the front of the posts to sandwich the metal fence and make it look more finished. The newer batch of steel wool wasn’t as concentrated as the stuff I had in the basement from two years ago, but I can attest that the concentration continues to age and darken wood for months after application, and I’m pretty confident that by next year, all of the boards will be more similar in color.

We added two horizontal fence pieces between each post – 1×4 at the top, and 1×6 across the middle – and then pieced in 1×4 trim pieces vertically along the fronts of the 4×4 posts. It looks pretty nicely finished, and was a simplified approach that still lets in a lot of sunlight. Used screws for everything, so that any component of this fence can be easily adjusted if/as necessary. Natural lighting in our garden has been steadily improving, and when we cut down one of the big trees in the middle of the yard this spring, we opened the garden up to good afternoon sunlight whereas before it was a partial-sun kind of space.

Close up on the detail of our wooden garden fence.

The fencing was pinned with staples to the backside of the horizontal pieces for added reinforcement, and we added plastic caps to the top of the posts to help prevent rain from soaking in. These are the plastic post caps we got from Amazon (aff link) and we totally thought they’d squeeze onto the post snug like a swimming cap, but they measure a little too big and overhang the 3.5″x3.5″ post in every direction… so buy a different kind. It’s a super frustrating finishing touch to this project. We had to add pin nails around the edge to keep them in place, and in all fairness to them that’s how the manufacturer intended, but it wasn’t how we thought it would work. Our alt plan? Custom copper caps that would patina like champs. Maybe in the future!

Post caps that don't fit.

Here’s one more before + after for comparison; so nice to finally have this special garden in our own yard!

Before: Simple 4′ metal fence.

Before: A garden with a simple 4' fence.

After: Customized wooden fence with gate. Note that the tree in the upper right was taken down! It looks far away but actually used to cast a big afternoon shadow on the garden in previous years.

After: Custom wooden garden fence.

  • Cait
    11 months ago - Reply

    Your garden looks great!

    Also, I think you’ve convinced me to try the steel wool in apple cider vinegar stain on some shelves we may be making for a local retail store. PS – Totally forgot you brewed your stain in a vase. That seems something I would do. :)

    • Emily
      11 months ago -

      Without a doubt, try it. Just keep in mind that it will continue to darken over time – in most applications, the end result after several months is a rich mocha brown (so approp.)

      Definitely make it in giant container. The biggest one you have. It keeps well :)

  • Diana Lopes
    11 months ago - Reply

    I love the final look! It looks very neat and well-done. Thank you for sharing the details, now I’m dying to make one myself lol

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