February 16

Maine Gardener: Think beyond the plants

Visual interest increases with additional features in the garden

By Tom Atwell

Even though you can’t grow anything in your garden at this time of year, you can improve it by building some things for your garden. The only limit is your imagination.

Most gardens need features other than plants, something to attract the eye. These features serve as a contrast to the softness of leaves and blossoms, often a focal point for your view or the destination of a path.

When people say a garden needs color at a certain place, and they want the color there all the time in the same spot, Nancy often will say what they need is a blue chair. It is more something to look at than sit on. She calls it the blue-chair principle: no plant, even an annual, is going to stay in full bloom in the same spot for months on end. If you want color in a certain spot in your garden, think blue chair.

In addition, I think a lot of garden construction projects are required for the mental health of Maine gardeners in the winter. They give you something to do when you can’t do much outside. Building things is an alternative to heading off to Florida or Arizona for spring training.

Last winter I had two construction projects. On one, I built a trellis for growing beans using copper tubing pulled out of our house as part of a renovation. I didn’t really need such a trellis, but I couldn’t figure out anything else to do with the tubing, and the beans did look good on it.

I also built 40 feet of simple wood fencing to replace some fence that was rotting. Nancy did not like the look of any the the fencing available at local lumber stores (she doesn’t like “pickets”), and it was easy to build 8-foot panels using 1-by-3 inch lumber as slats nailed onto 2-by-4s.

Both of these projects were so simple that I did not need plans. If you want some guidance, many books provide ideas and plans for outdoor furniture. You can find them online, at bookstores or home-improvement stores.

You could easily build a lawn or garden chair using regular construction lumber. I didn’t learn this until I did an online search, but there is a whole series of books on 2-by-4 furniture construction.

While I used copper for my trellis, many are built with wood. And they don’t take a lot of construction talent – just the ability to use a hand saw and a hammer. Many of the trellises you see for sale are in a fan shape, and we have found they don’t work well for clematis or climbing roses. They don’t stand up straight and are too small to contain many roses.

A simple grid of squares, again made with 1-by-3-inch lumber, works better. You can make it as high or wide as you want, put it against a building wall or – once the ground has thawed – put posts in the ground and attach the grid to the posts (which is the same idea I used with the garden fencing).

Many people like to have a bench or shelf outdoors where they work on planting containers, arranging flowers to bring inside, cleaning vegetables they have just harvested or doing other chores. Working at waist level is so much easier than kneeling down and doing the work on the ground.

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