David’s prototype strawberry cage to keep birds out. (Mary Lowther photo)

David’s prototype strawberry cage to keep birds out. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Who knew gardening required construction skills?

I was unprepared for the reality of beans and peas that maliciously entangled themselves

By Mary Lowther

When I first started gardening I understood planting, watering, weeding and fertilization were required to ensure a bountiful harvest. I had learned that from my mother. What she never fully explained, however, was how much building was involved. I am not sure if she deliberately concealed this from me or just never thought about it because construction was my father’s responsibility. It therefore came as a shock when I went out into the world and started to garden on my own.

Obviously it was my parents’ fault I was unprepared for the reality of beans and peas that maliciously entangled themselves and forced me into a long career of stealing ideas from other gardeners. Once my legumes had reproduced the Gordian knot I looked at how other gardeners dealt with the problem, and was amazed at the variety. Some built trellises their shop teachers would have been proud of (and probably surprised at) while others were content to stick poles in the ground and tie rows of string across; one couple hammered rebar into the ground and strung chicken wire from it. One thing all these solutions had in common was that somebody had to build something to get those peas off the ground and easy to pick, and although I was still young I had already learned that when somebody decides something needs to be done they are usually the someone who ends up doing it.

I had never built anything before. When I was in school young girls studied “home economics” and left woodworking to the boys, but invariably when I asked a gardener how their trellis was built a man was involved, someone who had had the benefit of shop class. Perhaps when I left home I should have taken my dad with me, but having to fend for myself resulted in a crash course in hand tools with an emphasis on quick and easy.

Peas aren’t the only crop that benefit from a shop-trained hand; tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, brassicas and raspberries produce more abundantly when held off the ground on a well built frame. I’ve tried as many different methods as my lack of training allows, and it seems like every year I find myself reinventing the wheel. My efforts are often time consuming and inefficient, which annoys David because it means I am less available to look after him. This often leads to the replacement of a rickety teepee bean trellis with a structure that could have been designed by Gustave Eiffel or Shah Jahan.

Due to a few careless words about the diminutive size of my garden, David has spent the last six years felling trees, busting brush, pulling stumps, leveling dirt, erecting fences, plowing and digging, not to mention all the other little things I have found to keep him busy, many of which involve manure. For some unfathomable reason, the idea that vermin like deer, rabbits and especially crows might steal the fruit of his labours before they pass his lips, causes him great distress.

It has taken years of work, but this spring we have a massive strawberry patch that the local birds find irresistible. In previous years I have tried plastic tunnels on a PVC frame and then remay when the plastic failed, but I ended up with a canopy crushed by the cat in its attempt to catch the birds inside. The idea that this will be repeated has inspired David to an architectural frenzy.

He went to Irly Bird and bought a roll of half inch wire screen that he intends to cover the entire 60 by three foot bed with after attaching it to a wooden frame he assures me will be portable and absolutely crow proof, a veritable Taj Mahal. I begin to understand why my mother never mentioned the construction; it probably made her tired just thinking about it, and my dad was nowhere near as obsessive as David.

David has finished what he calls his “prototype,” a wire and wood creation that seems reasonably light and sturdy enough to defeat a frenzy of strawberry addicted crows. It would only take six more to cover the entire bed, but at least it keeps him busy.

David’s actually pretty good with power tools and spatial estimates considering that he never took shop as a kid. David marches to his own drummer and managed to persuade the principal to allow him into cooking classes instead because his grandmother warned him, “If you don’t know how to cook and look after yourself you’ll have to marry the first girl that asks you.” He claims he learned about tools by trial and error, but still has all his fingers, which he is using to produce industrial strength cages that will save me trouble in the future and provide more time for making his tea.

I can hardly wait for him to decide we need a chicken coop. He’s probably thinking about one already but can’t decide on Doric columns or flying buttresses.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.