June 30, 2012

The Principal Undergardener's Time to Shine

There are two competing explanations for where the idea of ‘the gates’ came from.  Mine is that we saw one at a Yellow Book garden in Kent seven or eight years ago.  Betty believes, just as firmly, that we saw one on a garden tour in a neighboring town.  Either way, I came home determined to build some gates of my own.

Each gate begins with two to three
times the material needed
‘The gates’ – they have no other, more formal name – are at once exceedingly simple and complex structures.  They are ornamental and decorative; functional only in the loosest sense of the word.  I build them from limbs of trees that have been cut down.  More than anything, I suppose, they are artistic.

I have built roughly ten in the intervening years.  Because the wood (typically oak and maple) is not seasoned and the trees or branches are cut when relatively small, a gate’s life span is two to three years.

I have just completed a new one for the pathway between the Manhattan and Long Island beds at the front of the property and the ‘wildflower walk’ garden room.  Readers of this blog know that there is a long stone wall behind the Manhattan and Long Island beds, a byproduct of the rototilling that produced those two planting areas a dozen years ago.  A break was left between the two segments of the wall to allow cart traffic from the east side of the property.  The newest gate is the third generation to grace that site.

The gate is laid out before assembly
Building a gate starts with scouting for material.  There are always tree branches that have encroached into places they are not welcome and saplings growing where they have become annoying.  These are the raw materials.  I’ve learned from experience that softwoods (and especially pine) disintegrate within a year and are to be avoided.

Two straight pieces are required for the fence posts.  They’re usually at least three inches in diameter and are secured in concrete.  Properly chosen, posts can last a long time; the ones to which the new gate is attached have been in place for six years.

The finished gate; the Manhattan bed
is on the left, Long Island on the right
For the gate, four straight and sturdy pieces are needed.  These form the perimeter or frame of the gate and are secured with three-inch wood screws. The interior pieces are selected for their interesting forms: a nifty ‘Y’ or even a ‘W’; a graceful arch or a good knot.  As the photo above shows, these are laid out once the perimeter is built.  I cut the pieces to size and secure them to the frame using narrower-gauge three-inch wood screws.  For the smallest interior pieces, I still use at least two-inch screws.

If you compare the preliminary layout to the finished gate below, you’ll see that compromises need to be made along the way.  A piece of wood may bend the wrong way or just look wrong as the gate nears completion. The goal is to have a finished piece that looks like it was meant to be there; not to meet a deadline.

Detail of the completed gate
I do not use hinges or latches.  Apart from the fact that they’d likely pull out in a matter of months, the goal is to look rustic.  Accordingly, I use hemp rope to secure the gate to its posts.

My tools are simple: a sharp saw and an antiquated power drill.  I suppose that, with a multi-speed reversible drill I could build a gate in a day.  As it is, the one shown here took about 15 hours of work to get right. 

The gates are the one creative element of our garden to which I can lay unquestioned ownership.  Betty is the superb designer with an excellent eye for color and texture.  In those matters – which comprise 99% of the garden, my role is to lift, carry and dig.  But on the subject of gates, I am the guy.  It’s the Principal Undergardener’s time to shine.

1 comment:

  1. You did a great job Neal! Your description of having to make compromises reminds me of when we were doing some stonework last year -- must find the right piece for the job.