A good gate makes a good gar­den

The Progress-Index - At Home - - GARDEN GATE - By Lee Re­ich

Visi­tors al­ways ad­mired the en­trance gate to my veg­etable gar­den, more than I ever did.

Built from cedar branches, it did have rus­tic charm. But it re­ally was too flimsy for its size and, as it sagged with age, it had to be mus­cled open and shut.

That gate, which I have since re­placed, il­lus­trated an im­por­tant point for any­one build­ing a rus­tic gar­den struc­ture: Make sure it is strong enough for its in­tended use.

I built my new gate, like my old one, wholly from nat­u­ral limbs. Lo­cally gath­ered wood makes any rus­tic struc­ture har­mo­nize well with its sur­round­ings. Leav­ing most of the wood in its nat­u­ral state — branches of­ten in­tact, their twists and bends high­lighted in the fin­ished struc­ture — cre­ates a gate just a short step re­moved from Mother Na­ture.

Wood that en­dures

The type of wood you use will help de­ter­mine a rus­tic struc­ture's strength, longevity and beauty. Rot re­sis­tance is manda­tory. My orig­i­nal gate was made from ju­niper (Ju­nipe­rus vir­gini­ana), also known as Eastern red cedar, an abun­dant and na­tive tree whose heart­wood is rot-re­sis­tant. But its gate-size wood, 3 inches to 6 inches in di­am­e­ter, has lit­tle heart­wood, which is one rea­son that old gate be­came so flimsy.

My new gate is made from black lo­cust (Robinia pseu­doa­ca­cia), another na­tive that is fast-grow­ing and much more rot-re­sis­tant. For­tu­nately, black lo­cust grows wild along one edge of my prop­erty. And for­tu­nately again, cut it down and new sprouts ap­pear; within about a decade, those sprouts grow fat enough to be har­vested again for more gates, fence posts or ar­bors.

Other nat­u­rally rot-re­sis­tant woods in­clude osage or­ange (Ma­clura pomifera) and white oak (Quer­cus alba).

Spring is a good time to look for and gather wood be­cause that's when the bark strips most easily. Bark left in­tact pro­vides a home for in­sects and, more im­por­tantly, makes for poor joints when bark in­cluded in the join­ery rots away. (The bark is not rot-re­sis­tant.)

I gath­ered more wood than I needed last spring to al­low for mis­takes and to af­ford many pos­si­bil­i­ties for join­ing pieces to­gether in a man­ner both func­tional and beau­ti­ful.

De­sign and join

For the new gate, I laid out on flat ground var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions of limbs as they might look on the fin­ished pro­ject. I wanted rel­a­tively straight mem­bers up each side and along the bot­tom of the gate.

For max­i­mum strength, I wanted a sturdy top branch to sweep down from a higher point at the hinge end of the gate to a lower point at the op­po­site end. The heav­i­ness of lo­cust wood puts a lot of stress on a 5-foot-wide gate, so I also se­lected a smaller limb to add di­ag­o­nal strength in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Once I found the right com­bi­na­tion of pieces, I cut them to length.

The strong­est and best-look­ing way that two nat­u­ral limbs can join to­gether is when they are nat­u­rally branch­ing, as they were on the tree. Even if you find such branches, though, plenty of "ar­ti­fi­cial" join­ery is also needed in a rus­tic struc­ture. The butt, lap, and mor­tise and tenon joints used for rus­tic struc­tures are the same as those used with fin­ished lum­ber. As with fin­ished lum­ber, the greater the sur­face con­tact be­tween the two pieces of wood, the stronger the joint. I fas­tened joints to­gether us­ing ei­ther bolts and nuts, or screws.

Full func­tion­al­ity

My gate and fence are meant to keep an­i­mals — from large deer to my ban­tam chick­ens — out of my veg­etable gar­den. So I sta­pled the same ma­te­rial I used for fenc­ing — wire with 2-by-4-inch open­ings — right onto the gate. In ad­di­tion to fend­ing off feathered and furry in­ter­lop­ers, the wire fenc­ing also adds lat­eral strength to the gate.

Ev­ery rus­tic struc­ture has its fin­ish­ing touches. I never found the steel hinges on my orig­i­nal gate very at­trac­tive; this time, a car­pen­ter friend sug­gested that I hang my new gate us­ing two spikes, one pro­trud­ing up from a lo­cust post sunk in the ground and the other pro­ject­ing down from the top cross­piece in the arch around the gate. The spikes en­ter holes in the top and bot­tom of the ver­ti­cal limb that makes the gate's hinged end.

This gate now opens and closes with just a nudge from my pinky.

A good gate in­vites easy ac­cess, es­pe­cially im­por­tant for a veg­etable gar­den, where there's plant­ing, re­plant­ing, har­vest­ing and weed­ing to be done through­out the grow­ing sea­son.

LEE RE­ICH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS This un­dated photo shows a rus­tic gate made from lo­cust wood, a rot-re­sis­tant wood that will pro­tect and dec­o­rate the en­trance to this gar­den for many years to come in New Paltz, N.Y.

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