In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the need to start a garden sooner rather than later, the pitfalls of starting a garden where grass has been cultivated, the creation of your gardening beds (whether rows or raised beds), and the use of composting for amending the soil. In Part 2, I will continue with discussing the structures of the garden with emphasis on fences, gates, and varmint control.
Maybe you are one of those fortunate few where there are very few varmints– an undesired animal in an undesired place. (Some would ascribe the term to certain two-legged creatures as well, but I digress.) These animals may be small and unobtrusive, and maybe they don’t jump fences. In such a case, only a short, upright fence barrier of lightweight materials is necessary, just to discourage the little critters from entering your garden and going elsewhere, but for most areas of the country, varmints are a reality and can wreak havoc on a garden to the point of destroying your entire crop overnight. In a survival situation, this could mean life or death for you and your loved ones. In this case, proper fence design, installation, access, and maintenance is a necessary part of the process in designing your garden.
How tall a fence should you build? It is an indisputable fact that there are more whitetail deer in the U.S. today than there were in revolutionary times. I will spare you the ecological reasons, but the bottom line is that they exist almost everywhere, and due to restrictive hunting laws, they are used to being around human habitats without fear for the majority of the year. These deer can and will get into your garden if they are starving, just hungry, or even only curious. An adult whitetail deer can jump a six foot fence flatfooted, and in the southern U.S. the joke goes “a six foot fence is only a suggestion to a whitetail.” So at a minimum, as I believe deer to be the incarnation of rats with hooves, as far as my garden is concerned, you need an eight foot tall fence. While some deer may be able to jump such a fence while at a run, there are ways to deter this, and the eight feet height greatly deters almost all of the other varmints. Eight foot fences are the standard for most ranches trying to keep deer out (or in) and work well for most situations. It will also give pause to most two-legged varmints as well.
So what about those varmints that are small, so small they can squeeze through the holes in the fence wire? Many of these creatures, like rabbits and voles, will show up at your nicely installed fence with the expensive welded wire spans and get through the wire holes and start chomping away. What’s the solution? A second layer of woven wire with ½ – 1 inch spacing, set at the bottom of the fence, extending up to 24 inches above the ground level. Now, the varmints can’t jump over, and they can’t squeeze through (at least most can’t or won’t climb UP a wire fence to get above the small wire barrier).
Well, what if they can dig? Your fence does you no good if they can simply burrow under it, right? Not if you bury the fence wire in a trench 12 inches deep, along with the smaller woven wire panels. A rented gas trencher, such as the Ditch Witch (which is just one brand), will make quick work of this in an afternoon, or you can use an old fashioned spade, but then it takes a while. Most typical burrowing varmints will not burrow deeper than a foot to get from point A to B.
That leaves only the varmints that can fly or climb. Birds can only be controlled by preventing them from reaching the ripe veggies and fruits with bird netting. Sorry, but that’s the facts. Scarecrows and “heads-that-move-in-the-wind” owl figures are cute, but they generally get ignored after a day or two. Just get cheap bird netting in bulk and drape it over the plants or trellises. If you need to prevent a climbing varmint, like a raccoon, then your only solution is an electrified wire at about a foot off the ground, with maybe a second one two feet high, or the really big ones. A solar charger takes care of the energy needs, all at a reasonable cost.
I’m sure there are myriad posts on how to deter the varmints in other ways, such as human hair and soap for deer hanging from fence posts or trees trick, pepper and garlic sprays, teaser plots of corn just for the deer, et cetera, but a well-designed, well-constructed fence will do more to keep the varmints at bay in my opinion, and if you ever wanted to multi-purpose the garden, it would keep other animals in (like chickens.)
The actual building of the fence is a book chapter in itself. Particularly if you are fencing a ranch or homestead, there are principles that apply to construction that should be adhered to, especially when corners and gates are involved and when you use barbed or high-tension (electric) wire. However, if you are not designing a fence to keep large animals IN, like cattle and horses, then you can get away with less rigid construction techniques.
My preferred garden fence is built with wooden posts for corners and gates and T-Posts on the spans. Most people should have access to 10 foot materials, although your local store may need to order them from a more rural branch in the Midwest somewhere that caters to farms and ranches. Even the more traditional home centers can get 10 foot length T-Posts, or may even carry them in stock. Check around and remember Google is your friend. For the panels, I like six foot tall woven wire with two inch holes, and ½ to 1 inch hardware cloth for the bottom section. As to the actual installation, it is not that hard; just physically demanding. You dig a two foot hole with a post hole digger or a powered augur, place the pole, brace for plumb with 2×4’s, and DO NOT fill the hole with cement for now. Drive your T-posts with spans no more than 10 feet, and install your 6 foot and 2 foot wire with the bottom edges in the 12 inch trench. Once tightened using a stretcher and a come-along, secure to the wood posts with staples and to the T-Posts with clips. NOW, fill the wooden post holes with the cement with rims above grade so the water runs off, and back fill your trench with the dirt you took out earlier and tamp it in. Like I said, it’s not hard, but it’s physically demanding labor that’s all toward an end.
By the way, there are more than several dozen YouTube videos on how to perform each one of the steps I’ve outlined. Some are professionally made. I’d definitely watch these if you are new at this.
For the top three feet of fence (remember you buried the bottom foot of your 6 foot wire in the trench), you can stretch either barbed wire or fence wire and use one wire about every foot of length. It’s pretty easy to stretch and tie off. You will also need the wire to construct stretchers in your corners. Again, look to YouTube and Google for technique.
There is, of course, a financial cost to all of this, and I will not tell you that you can or should improvise with reused pallets and the like. If it truly were TEOTWAWKI, you would do anything you could, even if suboptimal. That is why you need to get this done NOW. The cost is incurred only once, and if you coordinate with neighbors on a community garden, for instance, the cost will be spread amongst many. Try to think how you would feel to wake up one morning and your entire year’s work has been ravaged overnight because you chose to use poor quality materials on your fence.
You need a way to get into and out of your garden, so you will need at least one gate. Keep in mind everything that may need to go through that gate, including wheelbarrows, lawn tractors, ATV’s, or even a truck pulling a trailer (full of compost??!) My own preference for a large garden is a single gate at each end, and a double-wide gate mid-way along the length going all the way across the garden width to a second double gate, so you could drive a vehicle through to offload supplies and equipment if necessary, or to haul away stuff, like produce (yay!) or rocks. It’s possible that a single gate may work for you, if you are looking to save cost.
The best, easiest gate to install and maintain, in my opinion, is a prefabricated galvanized chain link fence gate. These may be found in stock in heights of 72” and widths of the same. Some may be ordered as kits that adjust to your specific widths, which is handy if your gate posts are a little off their perfect design dimensions after installation. All standard home centers and others that cater to the farm and ranch communities should either have such a gate in stock or be able to easily order one for you.
Installation is as simple as getting the gate post attachments for a few dollars and screwing them into the gate posts, securing the post hooks to the gate and a latch to the other gate post, and you are done. An added bonus is the latch usually allows for a lock, so that a casual passerby cannot just walk on in, but of course a determined trespasser will not be deterred. Optionally, you can use a piece of twisted heavy wire to keep the gate from accidentally opening.
The good news about fence maintenance, once it has been properly installed, is that it is very minimal. Posts would probably benefit from a coating of protectant every few years, either commercial if available or just some sort of oil to prevent rotting, especially on top where water may collect. The wire may become slack and tightening may be done by stretching and using stringers to keep it tight. Again check out YouTube to see it being done live. To prevent weed encroachment I have a border of gravel around the outside edge that keeps grass and weeds at bay, which also allows me to toss the small rocks I encounter each and every time I dig. (Such is life with a garden.)
So now you have learned how to start a garden, prepare the soil, build a fence, keep out varmints, and install the fence gate. What’s left is how large a garden to build, what you should plant and why, and how to maintain it, which will be detailed in Part 3 of this series.