To build, or not to build?

Karen-pic-for-Independence-GardensIt is with great pleasure that I welcome back Karen from Independence Gardens PDX. This is Karen’s third article with us.  Karen’s past articles were, “Getting the feel of a garden” and “Prepping your garden and gardening prepared.”  Please visit Independence Gardens PDX if you have questions or need guidance on gardening.  Enjoy!

 

That IS the question—especially at this time of the year, when dedicated gardeners are planning for spring  and getting their spaces ready for upcoming planting! And the answer? Well, it depends.

Growing your own food doesn’t require any specific infrastructure. In order to grow, plants need the right amount of sun and water, fertile soil, and to be sown at the right time. If they’re given the right environmental conditions and left to their own devices, they might even bear something that we’d like to eat. But for our gardens to reach maximum productivity, they need to be accessible to us and also provide ideal conditions for plants to grow the right parts—roots, shoots, stems, leaves, buds, flowers, and/or fruits—for us to enjoy. And that’s where infrastructure comes in.

In general, when we talk about garden infrastructure, this conversation encompasses built elements in the garden. Examples include (but are not limited to):

  • Animal enclosures (e.g. chicken coops, runs, & tractors)
  • Benches & shelters
  • Cloches, cold frames, & greenhouses
  • Compost bins
  • Decks/patios
  • Fences
  • Paths
  • Raised beds , potato boxes, & other planters
  • Sheds & storage areas
  • Terracing
  • Trellises & arbors

If the main functions of infrastructure are to facilitate accessibility for garden users (including those with limited mobility) and provide plant support and ideal growing conditions, other benefits abound. Infrastructure also helps to organize garden spaces and make them more welcoming; provides space to securely store tools; creates clean lines among chaotic plantings; helps extend the growing season; maximizes the use of available space; and keeps animals where they need to be (that means keeping pests out, and making sure that friendly garden animals don’t harm plants).

When considering whether/what you want to build, begin with the end in mind: establish goals and expectations for yield, and plan structures to meet those needs that also fit your budget and will stand up to the elements at work in your space. Once you know your design will serve the function you need it to serve, be creative: remember, as long as your infrastructure meets your needs (and conforms to any relevant safety standards), there’s no absolute right or wrong way to build. The design process can be a lot of fun, and gives you a better understanding of what your garden is and what you want it to be; on the building side, if you have the tools and the time, your garden can become a construction fun zone! If you don’t have those resources, hiring professional help to install your infrastructure can be a real boon to your garden.

Once the decision is made to build structures in your garden, and you know what you need to install, the question soon arises: with what shall I build? We recommend crossing off your list railroad ties and pressure-treated wood (as well as any other products designed to prevent the growth of living things) right off the bat. If those exist already in your garden, try to learn something about the characteristics of the chemicals they contain, and plant edibles a sufficient distance from those elements. If you can, avoid using PVC and polycarbonate plastic; they probably won’t cause problems in your garden, but the ways in which they’re manufactured and disposed of are matters of environmental concern in other places.

Consider using repurposed materials if possible. We are lucky to live in a place where recycling is a no-brainer and reusing and repurposing are not only especially cool, but also supported by the local government. In addition, in the event of disruptions to current supply chains, having some experience DIYing with reused and repurposed elements will be an asset. (That having been said, if you’re able to invest in solid and long-lasting infrastructure now, so you won’t have to improvise down the line, that will contribute to the long-term usability of your garden space. Either way could be a fit for your circumstances, depending on what they are!)

In our business, we build mostly with wood. Juniper is our #1 choice for raised beds, and FSC-certified cedar or Doug fir (depending on project budget) treated with non-toxic Internal Wood Stabilizer is our choice for most other structures. You may need or want to incorporate stone (brick, river rock, retaining blocks, flagstone, and/or concrete); metal (from rebar to wire mesh: chain link, chicken wire, hardware cloth, etc.); and/or other materials (recycled plastic “lumber”, tile, glass, or natural building materials (e.g. cob, straw bales, etc.). And one final note: ill-suited fasteners can be a major headache, so make sure to use outdoor appropriate (i.e. coated or galvanized) hardware.

If you have questions about a building project you’re planning this spring, feel free to get in touch. Happy building!

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