Garden Architecture, by R.B.

It’s always surprising how much “stuff” gardeners need and can use in order to grow the simplest crops. My son always shakes his head at the number of T-posts, sticks, concrete blocks, strings, wires, fences, plastic sheets, bedsheets, etc. that appear in and around my gardens from time to time. Here are some of the “architectural ideas” that help me produce a widely varied harvest.

Plastic Jugs

Ya ha ha! You an’ me, Little Plastic Jug, How I Love Thee! Farmers and gardeners have always had to rely on their own ingenuity when confronted by surprise conditions that threatened their crops and their livelihoods. In more recent times, it’s sometimes easy to assume that most solutions come in the form of chemicals and the machines that apply them. But often this assumption misses easy, safe, and cheap solutions that turn out much better in the long run.

One of my favorite garden problem solvers is the plain old gallon plastic jug. You know the kind—you get them weekly containing milk, juice, or distilled water (from CPAP machine users), and maybe throw them into recycling just as frequently. Worse still, they may end up by millions in public landfills. But wait! This is a highly usable treasure that is well worth your time in propagating your crops and protecting them when they are most vulnerable.

So take your dear little milk jug, rinse it out thoroughly, and cut off the bottom just at the line where it joins the side. I use a box cutter-type knife to start an opening, and go around the jug with a heavy-duty plant scissors. Be careful because the plastic is bendable and you can cut yourself. You now have a mini-greenhouse that will perform magic! Plant a few seeds in a space that can be covered by your jug, add a little fertilizer and water, then heap up soil about half-way up the sides of the jug so it won’t blow away in the wind. Make sure you take off the cap so the inside can “breathe,” but save the cap.

If you are threatened with a sudden late freeze, you can put the cap back on and likely save your plants. In sunny weather, the seeds will germinate faster in this ideal environment, and you can peek through the hole in the top to watch their progress. Because you added water when you planted, you will rarely need to add water, since a bit of rain will get in. Frankly, this method of starting plants like tomatoes, peppers, and the like, seems to be superior in every respect to using a cold frame, or even a greenhouse, as the plants you start under jugs never need to be moved, and hardening off doesn’t seem to be a problem either. Guess what! When the day comes, cloudy and cool, when your plants are ready to face the world, and you remove your jugs, each plant will have a little ring of soil around it to catch water as needed.

But there are other dangers lurking out in the vast world of the garden. I always had problems starting lettuces in the spring because of rabbits and (especially) squirrels eating the tiny leaves when they made their first appearance. This year I lined up about fifty jugs and planted three kinds of lettuce under them. They are doing famously! I think the jugs will also deter insect pests as well.
Then there is the weather. Aside from late frosts, a looming danger is always the four or five-inch rain washing across the garden, taking everything in its path. Except for the little plastic jugs. If you secured them correctly, they will generally stay in place. Weather also plays hob the opposite way—hot and dry and windy. Ah, the little jug is ideal here, too, as it preserves moist air inside and saves water in its tiny environment.

Okay, the plants are growing too big for the jugs, and they must be set free for the summer, growing up strong and setting a bountiful harvest. But don’t throw away your jugs. They will last for several years, and you don’t really even need to wash them. Stack them up and store them in garbage bags for next year. They’re light enough to store overhead in the rafters.

Remember the bottoms you cut off the jugs? They can be used as sorting and drying trays for seeds as you harvest and save them throughout the season.

What have you gained? Certainly, no one should be buying plants from the store anymore. Way too expensive! Cold frame? Too much work. Greenhouse? Too expensive etc. etc. So love your little plastic jugs and they will serve you well—safe, easy, reliable, and free!

Be Cagey

Free to be caged! Too much freedom can be a dangerous thing if you’re a garden plant. I use wire “rabbit guard” to make cages for many plants that just need a little more support than nature provides. I make a circular cage about two or two and a half feet in diameter, which is adequate for tomatoes and several other crops. Rabbit guard has cross wires set close together on one end, and farther apart on the other. For tomatoes, the wider openings should be placed at the bottom so you can reach in and pull weeds or reach ripe fruit at the bottom of the cage. The closer wires at the top of the cage also help train the plant to grow up in the cage rather than out all over the garden.

Be sure to put a strong stake inside each cage and tie the cage to this. I use T-posts and zip ties. That may seem like overkill, but my garden gets a lot of wind, and anything less will blow down. Cages like this are really important if you’re trying to save seed from biennials like Swiss Chard or turnips. Without extra support these innocent vegetables become wayward monsters wallowing all over and losing most of their seed in the process.

Cages can also be used for vining crops like squashes and cucumbers. Use several cages in and around each hill and train the vines over the top edges of the cages, so the fruit will hang down. This is one discouraging factor for squash bugs.

Pick Up Sticks

Sticks and stakes. Get serious. You need a lot of them. Use them for markers at the ends of your planting row. Use them to stretch your line to guide your trench. Use them to hold a cover in place, Use them to shade a small plant. Use them for peas to climb on. Use them to mark individual plants so you don’t tread on them. (Yes, I’m clumsy.) So you need to actually invest in sticks and stakes so you have them available and don’t have to go to the woods. Did that one year. Lots of sticks for the peas to climb on. Afterward, how to get rid of them? Worthless. Now I buy a few 1 X 2s and cut them in 2-foot lengths or less, and have them standing in a tub in the shed where I can grab them quickly. Also have a hammer handy. They last a good long time for repeated use. Last year’s amaranth crop left me with a lot of strong stalks, which I cut into many 2 foot lengths and placed every foot in the pea row at planting time.

Not Tired of Them Yet

Tires? Yes, old tires are great as weights for plastic sheeting. My garden is so large and winter weeds so vigorous and abundant that covering part of the garden until spring planting is a necessary survival technique (my survival). I put the tires at 10 to 12-foot intervals around the edge of a plastic sheet and weight the intervening edges with T posts. In the off-season the tires are piled in the tree line east of the garden. Dirty, wet, messy, but effective.


Some garden architecture is built into the garden itself. Drains can be really necessary to make sure certain segments of your garden do not become victims of standing water. I have to maintain a drain the whole 110-foot length of my garden, and provide a way for excess water to exit to our nearby pond. If part of your site is more than a slight slope, you might need to construct a bit of a terrace to slow the runoff or even redirect it. You can make a dirt terrace, or use hay or mulch for a less permanent terrace.


My son is a great one for making me verbalize what I do, with his constant “Whadya need that for?” It took several years of explaining to him why I needed a path through the center of the garden (so l don’t have to walk all the way around), Really, paths and work areas in and around the garden are my final bit of garden architecture advice. I’m lucky to have a large work area adjacent to the garden. It’s a bit too low and wet to garden, but fine for laying out tarps or drying stuff or driving my truck to load produce from that side.


I’m in my 75th year, and I’ve been gardening since I was 7. I wish I knew all there was to know, and I often feel like I’m still just starting. My best resource is my wife, who does lots and lots of research on crops and techniques, keeps an eagle eye on everything we grow, and does not stint in encouragement.