By Sue Robishaw – It wasn’t that the old chicken wire covers we’d constructed five years ago didn’t work, they did. I had an idea for building planter boxes that would keep the Cedar Waxwings out of the strawberries or we humans would get none unless we wanted to eat green fruit. So first, we came up with and constructed fairly simple chicken wire tunnels. With a bit of adaptation on my part, they’ve kept the birds out.
They didn’t keep the raccoons, skunks, or gray squirrels out but then, I hadn’t asked for a lesson in deciding what you really want before you design. Those first covers did a pretty good job of keeping me out too, however, at least for casual grazing. Building planter boxes for our strawberries meant that we had more ripe strawberries to harvest and have eaten many delicious and luscious fruits since then. (Once I remembered to put up the small electric fence around the strawberry patch, that is.)
But what’s the use in growing strawberries in your garden if you can’t easily nip a berry now and then? I decided I wanted something easier to manage. I knew that planting vegetables in pots was a way to minimize predators, but didn’t want to put my strawberries in pots. Besides, the chicken wire was showing significant dents and dips from use and animal incursions. It was a good temporary solution but it was time for something that would last for many years. My plan for building planter boxes for our strawberries was for open wood boxes with hinged fence wire tops for easy access.
The boxes are of simple design but it’s the details that make them work well. As is often the case, I came up with an idea of what I wanted then handed it over to Steve to design and figure out how to put it together so it would work. They had to be easy to open and close, easily dismantled to store out of the garden and off the ground, made of materials we had or could easily get, be amenable to strawberry plant growth and harvest, be aesthetically pleasing, and keep the critters out while allowing me in without a lot of fuss. Happily, building planter boxes for our strawberries has done all of that.
An unanticipated benefit of building planter boxes for our strawberries was that during the unusually cold July we had that first year, the extra protection from the height of the boxes encouraged our strawberry plants to grow lusher and taller. After we installed our boxes, we had to add several inches to the height to accommodate them.
The units were designed to fit my garden and strawberry growing method. I have permanently mulched plots about four feet wide with four rows 10 inches apart, and plant spacing about 12 inches between strawberry plants. I replace one row each year in rotation, so we made the boxes four feet across. The next time we find ourselves building planter boxes for our strawberry plants, we’ll make them wider to give the plants more room inside.
This would be particularly important in a humid climate, but keep in mind that in a warmer, more humid setting you probably would not want solid wood sides on your planter boxes. A wood frame with wire netting would be better for more air circulation. Since we’re more often dealing with cold weather than hot, the solid sides are good, and it made construction easier.
Strawberries are pretty hardy creatures and I grow old varieties that do particularly well in our cold northern Midwest climate. I seldom have to do anything other than keep the plants well mulched and they come through and produce fine. However, building planter boxes for our strawberries made it easier to throw a layer of hay over the plants if and when an untimely freeze occurs.
Before we began building our planter boxes for the strawberries, we drew up plans. (That sounds much more impressive than the roughly penciled 3 x 4 actual scrap of paper and what is that phone number written in the middle of it all?)
Happily, my strawberry plot was already a convenient 4′ x 32′, and by moving just a few plants it easily accommodated construction with readily available eight-foot softwood lumber. How nice (and rare!). We decided on two 16 foot boxes with sets of 4′ x 4′ lids hinged in the middle. The two varieties of strawberries that I grow mature at different times, so the two boxes needed to be independent of each other. I wanted to be able to move the boxes out of the garden when harvesting was done to make them last longer both for working in the beds and for aesthetic reasons.
The next step in building planter boxes for our strawberries was cutting eight foot long 1 x 8s for the sides, hinging sets together for a foldable (for storage) 16-foot length. After the strawberry plants decided they needed more height, Steve ripped 1 x 6s in half to add three inches. The addition was attached by drilling through the three-inch width and screwing down to the 1 x 8s with long deck screws. Although in the photo you’ll see this piece on the top of the box, but when they go back in the garden this year, I’ll put it the other way down. This way, the part of the planter box that is most vulnerable to rot because of its contact with the moist soil/mulch will be easy to replace. Since we used finished lumber, the actual depth of the planter box is 10 inches.
Four-foot long ends were cut and attached to the sides with loose-pin fold-back door hinges which worked quite well. To take the unit apart, you just have to remove the pins. We made use of an odd assortment of salvaged hinges we had on hand or found at the Habitat ReStore for the project. They were made “loose-pin” by cutting off the bottom pin nubbin, removing the hinge-pin, and replacing it with a suitable nail. For extra stability, we added a four-foot 1 x 2 piece near the top where the eight-foot side boards are hinged.
We constructed the tops of the planting boxes with 1 x 2s. The end pieces going across the box are four feet long. Each of the side pieces (going along the sides of the box) are four feet minus the width of the two end pieces, butted-up to make a four-foot square that is flat on the top. On the underside of the side pieces is a 1 x 2 edge into which each end of the cross pieces is attached with screws. This lip connects the top pieces and keeps the lid in place when closed. We also added a 1 x 1 piece down the center for added stability. Two 4 x 4 lids are hinged together so they can be flipped open on top of each other.
We decided to use chicken wire from our previous attempts at keeping out predators when we were building our planter boxes, cutting it to size and stapling it on top of the frames. Hardware cloth or similar fencing would make a sturdier top if you have that. The chicken wire has held up well after being walked on by cats and raccoons, and I’m happy with the light weight and ease of use.
When we were finished building our planter boxes and adding the netting, they looked substantial and secure enough to keep the strawberries safe from every predator (except me). I happily harvested a bumper crop of strawberries, with more coming. Then someone let the word out.
It was peak strawberry harvest time with both varieties of strawberries putting out lots of ripe fruit. I thought that maybe I would make a batch of sauce from the abundance of berries for winter eating, or try some new canning recipes. Out I went one morning with baskets in hand but was greeted with not a single ripe strawberry. There were several entrance holes dug underneath the nice secure boxes. Raccoons. Of course.
That was it. Since we had just finished building planter boxes that were working beautifully, it was time to come up with a way to get and keep those unwelcome visitors entirely out of the garden. Meantime, there were more strawberries to ripen, so I moved the path mulch, took pieces of leftover chicken wire and stapled it to the sides of the boxes, laying the fencing down the side of the plot and across the path. Strips of lathe screwed over the stapled chicken wire ensured it wouldn’t be pulled off. Then I replaced the mulch over the wire for my comfort and grumbled my way back to the house. It was a temporary fix but it worked well, and I got to harvest the final crops myself. The raccoons went elsewhere. And the birds turned their attention to my blueberries.
When the last strawberries were harvested, the boxes were dismantled and stored away. It was now easy to work in the bed removing the oldest row of plants, adding compost and mulch, setting new runners, readying the patch for winter and another season.
Raccoons. You have to respect these animals — their tenacity, intelligence, skills and sheer exuberance is awe inspiring. For years, I’d been putting up a temporary short electric fence around the corn, usually after the first invasion in spite of my repeated garden notes to put the fence up early. And when the raccoons started helping themselves generously to my strawberries, another little electric fence went up around that plot. It worked but was quite a bother. After we finished building our planter boxes for the strawberries and the raccoons managed to get into those, I decided it was time to get things under control.
Though not an easy project, we planned an electric addition to the regular fence around the entire garden. I don’t know why but we tend to gravitate to odd shapes, (I don’t think our house has one truly 90-degree angle in it) and our once nicely rectangular garden and orchard fence had morphed over the years to an 11-sided shape. Although tempted to just start over, we figured we could adapt to what we had, especially since we had recently replaced this fence.
Steve made a big pile of long staples using rebar and a torch to which we attached electric fencer offsets. These were pounded into drilled holes in the cedar fence posts. We carefully mowed and hand pulled the vegetation underneath and strung three electric fence wires. The installation around and over the gates was quite a study in human tenacity but I was sure no raccoon would get in. We weren’t crazy about the look of all those yellow insulators marching around our garden fence, but I was looking forward to wonderful harvests of everything, particularly sweet corn.
The corn was really nice that summer, in spite of an extra dry June and an extra wet, cold July. The new electric fence was ticking along nicely. We checked it often and circled the fence to pull errant grass and weeds that might short it out. We relished the first ears of corn, and I harvested and dried a big batch. The next harvest would be ready soon but there was time to take the weekend off and head to a music festival downstate. We came home from a wet, cold weekend to wet, cold piles of corn cobs scattered across the corn beds. Somebody had had a very good time. I had a rare moment where I seriously considering giving up gardening. It didn’t last, of course. We checked and adjusted and fussed with that electric fence the rest of the short harvest season, but we never figured out how the raccoons got in, or how to keep them out. I did feel like giving up, but in spite of myself, ideas kept popping into my mind. This summer there will be a different reincarnation of raccoon- (and rabbit and deer and gray squirrel and moose and elephant) proof fencing around our active and interesting garden. Maybe we’ll be building planter boxes for our corn next?
And I’m looking forward to the best strawberry harvest ever.
Originally published in Countryside May / June 2010 and regularly vetted for accuracy.