A good gate makes a good garden
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.
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.