I’M NOT THE MOST DIY type ever. But my friend Joe Lamp’l promises me that even I, armed with a $20 bolt cutter and some so-called livestock panels or cattle panels of wire fencing, can have a more orderly, better-looking, and better-functioning vegetable garden than ever this year. Joe has just such a garden, and offered to help us.
You know Joe Lamp’l as host of the “Growing A Greener World” show on PBS and of the Joe Gardener podcast, but apparently besides being a great gardener, he also had a show on the DIY Network for three years. So before all my vining crops and tomatoes need support, or the seedlings are screaming to be gridded out at proper spacing and other such impending issues, Joe shared some proactive garden organizing tips, DIY-style, based on the wire panels.
Read along as you listen to the April 2, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
joe lamp’l’s diy garden projects using livestock panels
Q. Welcome back, Joe. I’m ready for some help.
A. No pressure there, Margaret. Thanks. [Laughter.]
Q. No, no, no.
A. Thank you for that.
Q. Well I think you’re the more capable of giving the help than I am of like implementing the help. [Laughter.]
A. I don’t know, I don’t know. But if we can scratch each other’s backs, that’s fine with me.
Q. Between middle New York State and the Atlanta area of Georgia?
A. Right, yeah.
Q. That’s a long scratch-back thing.
Q. I’ve been really looking forward to this discussion because you kind of whetted our appetites when you and I last talked on the show before the New Year about sort of resolutions for the garden in the year to come. You have this raised-bed vegetable garden [above] that people who watch your program and come to your website, JoeGardener.com, probably will recognize, and know about. It’s just the most enviable looking one I’ve ever seen.
Q. Do you think that’s funny? I don’t think it’s funny.
A. Oh, I’ll take it. No, I’ll take it—I’m just-
Q. But it’s so orderly.
A. Thank you, yes. I like order; I do like order, for sure.
Q. Yes. What sign are you?
A. Well I’m a Sagittarius, but you know what it is about the order in the garden, Margaret, is that I know that so much of gardening is not in our control.
A. So I think I go overboard the other way just to try to shake my fist at mother nature.
Q. Yes. Yes, yes.
A. Say here’s what I think about that but I like to give her a run for the money and the only way I can do that is maybe through signs of orderliness.
Q. Yes. So when we spoke last time you kind of hinted at and you even shared one of the ways that you kind of do that, assert some control. A lot of the little tips that you hinted at were because of these panels of wire fencing and so forth. [Above, the tomato cages Joe shared last time we spoke; more on it below.]
Q. How did this happen? What happened to you?
A. I was thinking about the evolution of the livestock panels on my farm and I think it really just started with the fact that we needed them for some sort of animal containment at some point, maybe it was goats or chickens or baby rabbits. I don’t know, but it could have been a million reasons why they first arrived on our property. At some point we didn’t have a need for the intended purpose for which they originally purchased. So they were off to the side.
I think I had one of those moments in the garden where I think I was planting something in one of the beds, and as we’ve already identified the fact that I like order, and I was trying to get everything lined up. When you have several flats you’re trying to get into one garden spaced evenly in rows and columns or diagonally, however it is, you need some sort of help with that. You need a grid.
Q. You mean your lines aren’t naturally perfectly straight like mine? I mean I look like a drunken planter, you know what I mean? It’s like whoa, the rows. [Laughter.]
A. Oh no, no, no. No, you like the natural way, which is exactly nothing wrong with that and I do too, but in this case, I liked it because it went with my nicely defined beds. I needed a template, and I think I was just looking around and my eyes landed on those livestock panels at the right moment and the light bulb went off. So I grabbed one of those suckers.
They’re not that heavy. I realized I needed to cut it down to size, but when I did with a $20 pair of bolt cutters, as you already said, and laid it into the bed, voila! I had my 6-inch-square template in the garden. Then it was a matter of just placing those seedlings in the pattern that I wanted. Then everything was just how I wanted it and in every direction. It was just like dying and going to heaven. That was the start of it all I think.
Q. It’s interesting because you say 6 by 6—well first of all, it’s a great example of upcycling. Not that we should all keep junk around, but sometimes we have something that does have another life and we just don’t know yet what it is.
A. Yes. I’m an optimist like that.
Q. So rather than send it to the dump, not to send, right? I mean this was a good thing, and you made it work again—you up cycled it. But you say 6 by 6 and so I always think about … I mean your hand’s probably bigger than mine, but I think about the distance if I stretch between my thumb stretched out and my pinky stretched out is 6 or 8 inches or something like that.
That’s how I, in all directions, plant a grid of say, lettuce, or a lot of things actually. It depends on what the crop is but garlic even, that’s the grid that I use for my garlic. That’s the grid I use for my onions. I use my hand and I put my thumb down and I go in all the directions around my thumb. I know it’s stupid, but whatever.
A. No it’s great. Yes.
Q. But talk about low-tech. [Laughter.] But what you are accomplishing is you’re gridding out the bed without drawing strings, getting 10 different pieces of string on stakes and drawing strings. It’s like a pre-fab grid, so it’s great, yes.
A. Well it is, and it’s super-fast because once you put the template down on the bed [photo, top of page], rather than taking your hand every time you go from hole to hole to hole, everything’s right there. Then you just take the seedlings and you lay them down. So literally in the matter of two minutes, and I’ve pretty much timed it as you’re probably not surprised by that…
A. … I can lay out three rows in a bed that’s 12 feet long quickly, sometimes four rows because you’re just plopping them down in the grids. You get the hang of it really quick. Then it just kind of clicks for you.
Q. So these panels, they’re probably fairly study wire like I don’t know what gauge but-
Q. Four-gauge, right. The livestock panels are 4-gauge. Not all the livestock panels come with a 6-by-6 grid. Some are graduated like where there’s a smaller grid down at the bottom because it’s to keep small animals in or out or whatever. So you kind of have to look for the right one that matches. We want a heavy gauge like the 4-gauge, is that the idea?
A. We do. We don’t want it so heavy that it’s tough to bend because I use them for multiple things. That application evolved to many other things in the garden. You like them to be flexible, because if you want to get them home yourself and maybe you have a pickup truck or have access to one, those grids or those panels in their full length, which is 16 feet at time of purchase, will bend easily in to the bed of a pickup truck in a U-shape.
A. So it’s nice that they’re flexible like that.
Q. You know at Martha Stewart where I used to work for many years, we used to call things like what you just described—turning this piece of leftover animal fencing into a template for bedding out your transplant seedlings or whatever—we called these good things. So you’ve achieved a good thing as Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.” [Laughter.]
A. Well good. I think it’s a good thing and I use them for so many things now.
Q. Yes so tell us. I mean we can go chronologically. What will you be calling them into action for next in the garden? When do you start, by the way, so have you sown things indoors now in the Atlanta area?
A. Oh just about 5,000 seedlings, yes.
Q. Oh, not a lot. O.K.
A. Funny you should ask. Yes, I’m using Craig LeHoullier’s intensive planting method in the seed trays.
A. And I’m trying a lot of different varieties now. So yes, and I want my daughter to start a little nursery business with these hard-to-find, organic heirloom tomato seeds and others. So that’s the project going on at the moment.
Q. Oh, fantastic.
A. It is. It is. So we’ll talk about that another day because that’s very exciting for the both of us.
Q. Oh good.
A. On those panels, the panel is, as I mentioned, 16 feet. So when you cut that down for a grid you have some leftover parts and those parts can become something else. For me, the evolving steps went from the grid to the tomato-planting season.
I just got sick and tired of trying and failing every time to find the support mechanism that I felt worked best for my tomatoes in my garden with the aesthetics that I wanted, and the sturdiness that I wanted, and the stackability offseason that I wanted. Just had never found it before.
Once again, the livestock panels were in sight and I just thought you know what, I’m going to give it a go and try to turn these panels into a tomato cage. I’ve got to tell you Margaret, it’s the best thing I ever did with those things. Each panel makes one complete cage. It’s basically an L-shape and it’s two parts you put together in the form of a square with a tomato plant up in the middle of it.
The leftover piece is the perfect size for a pepper cage because they need support too and my bamboo sticks never seem to do the job for that. Now I have the ultimate tomato and ultimate pepper support from livestock panels. One livestock panel makes one tomato cage and one pepper cage.
Q. So this is like about a 4-foot-tall by 16-foot-long, 4-gauge with 6-by-6 grid wire.
Q. Did I get that right? Can you believe I just said that? [Laughter.]
A. You did very well. Those panels also come in smaller grids, and I’ve bought them. I’ve bought 4 by 4, and those are called, I think they’re goat.
Q. Yes, I think smaller is goat, yes.
A. They’re more expensive, but they are really nice for the right application. I have a few of everything. [Laughter.]
Q. So yes, Joe Lamp’l and his wire collection. Yes.
Q. So with the tomato cages then, you’re not staking the plant inside it or anything. You’re just using the cage, yes?
A. To start it I do start it with a piece of bamboo and then I put the cage around it, it’s just to kind of train it. But once you get those leaders growing up they kind of lean against the wire cage. Then you can either leave the bamboo in or take it out. You don’t need it at that point.
Q. O.K. And the pieces, the two L’s I take it that form a square around the plant. Is that right, two L’s?
A. That’s right.
Q. So you bend it how?
A. So I take a piece of board, whether it’s a 2 by 4 or a 2 by 6. The panel before it’s bent, I put it on a flat surface—whether it’s just the ground or a driveway or something like that. I put a board up against the center rib of the piece of the panel that I’m about to bend. So that provides the leverage. So I put my foot on the board. The rib of the panel is under the board. Then I just pull up. I get the edge of the panel and I pull it towards me. Yes. It’s not difficult. It really is not.
Q. So you use the board, the 2 by 4 is like a form that you’re bending around. O.K., so that’s how you get your good angle.
Q. O.K. so this is very low-tech. Then you just cut what isn’t needed.
Q. Alright, even I can do this part. So far, so good. I can make a template for gridding out my seedlings, and I think I can also do what you just said. I didn’t know about the pepper cages because of course when peppers are heavy with fruit and then we have like late-summer thunderstorms they really can get trashed if they don’t have some support, can’t they?
A. And mine always do, which is why I said I’ve got to come up with a way. After the tomato cages and that extra piece, that was the perfect size it was a no-brainer. Suddenly I had all these, and I had for every tomato cage I had the leftover part for a pepper cage. So for as many tomato cages as I had I had that many pepper cages.
Q. About how much do you think it costs for one of these 16-by-4-foot panels?
A. Nineteen, just under $20. Round it to $20.
Q. So when you get them locally at the local hardware or whatever.
A. Yes. Some people would argue that’s expensive for a tomato cage but I would argue that it’s not if that is the cage that you’re going to have the rest of your life. It’s attractive. It doesn’t rust. It stores. A lot of people use the concrete wire.
Q. Reinforcing wire, sure.
A. Yes. In tubes. It works great but to me, for my purposes—and keep in mind I have a TV garden, too, so it has to kind of look nice during that time. I don’t want the rust, and I like the ability to stack these things on top of each other in a very compact footprint when it’s the off season unlike those round cages that can kind of get dangerous too because they’re very springy. Anyway, it’s a personal preference, but I just think the $20 is well worth it for two cages that will last forever.
Q. Oh absolutely and, as you said, the stackable, I mean how big a garage does any of us have where say we even had 12 cages or 8 cages. I mean it could take up half as much space as a car. Do you know what I mean? If you can’t flatten them or stack them in any proper way it becomes ludicrous to have the circular tubular ones that are a couple feet across each. It’s impossible.
A. And I store mine behind some trees or bushes all through the year and just put a tarp over them and something underneath them like a 2 by 4 just to get them off the ground a little bit and that’s it. They’re out of sight, out of mind until I need them.
Q. That’s good. So one of my big problems is, among my many big problems [laughter], is the vining crops, I do a lot of beans, pole beans and so forth. I do them on giant tripods, teepees that I make out of ten foot heavyweight bamboo. Nine years ago I ordered … I don’t even know where it was from. From someplace maybe like A.M. Leonard or somewhere I don’t even know you know some-
Q. It came on a truck, this big bundle of thick bamboos. I have to say I love those, and I lash them together at the top with wire and stuff. So it’s a fun, old-fashioned, nice—you said you want it to be nice looking, I think that’s a nice looking way for like pole beans, for instance.
Q. But that’s not really ideal for every vining crop. I kind of want something more with the grid thing going on. Tell us about like vining crops. Have you used them for this as well?
A. I’m about to. I haven’t used them for that-
Q. O.K. Well good.
A. But I have friends that have. Yes. That same 16-foot-long panel. If you have two beds that are close enough together, maybe you have a walkway between the two beds like I do. I’ve got friends that take those panels, Susan Mulvihill comes to mind, we filmed an episode in her garden. She uses the panel between two beds so they’re anchored—one side is anchored in one bed and then the other side is anchored in the other bed so you create this hoop or this arch that you can walk under. You’re planting her, the pole beans in her case, in the beds and they go up the trellis and the beans hang down so that you can stand underneath them in the shade and pick your beans.
Q. Oh yes.
Q. That’s great.
A. I like that.
Q. And this is space that is above your walkway. It’s space that is not being used at the moment, right?
A. It’s found space. It’s found space.
Q. Right so it’s going to shade the walkway but it’s also going to shade the thing to the north of it … Or to the east of it depending on which way your beds run.
Q. So you have to think about that but it’s, so would my teepees but my teepees wouldn’t take advantage of that pathway space so that’s kind of brilliant.
A. It’s one more use. I’m making a list that’s getting bigger by the season to get. I want 101 things ultimately and I’m at about 15 now.
Q. [Laughter.] 101 is the goal? Were you always the type of, as a child, as a young man were you the type of guy who made very big goals? Set very daring goals?
A. Yes, I’ve been kind of ambitious. I’ve been kind of quirky and ambitious for a long time.
Q. So we could do that and that would take a 16-footer and we’d anchor it carefully into the beds so that it was stable. So we’d be burying part of it in both beds.
Q. O.K. So that’s one thing. Could we put cucumbers up that? I think we could.
A. Yes, you could.
Q. I don’t think I’d put big pumpkins up something like that. I think well, I mean you could but-
A. And you should.
Q. You could get a heavy crop. I mean those can be heavy.
A. Well and you can support it with something on the side to cradle it. I’ve seen it done, yes.
Q. O.K. So that’s one way. Any other ideas for using them for vertical things or for vining crops or is that the one that we’re going to try first?
A. Well I use them for my peas, too.
Q. Oh, O.K.
A. I set them up as a teepee so my beds are three and 4 feet wide and 12 feet long so I cut the panels to size. Then I’ll get two panels of the same size and just lean them towards each other at the top and they’re staked at the bottom. Really, just leaning them against each other is almost study enough. Then I’ll plant peas on both sides. I do that twice a year-
Q. Oh, I love this.
A. In several beds. Yes. It’s the easiest thing ever. It looks nice too.
Q. And peas don’t weigh much. Mentally, I was thinking of like the large winter squash kind of things. I was thinking of that as like, “Eh, I don’t know if I want that on that hoop, that arch over my walkway. Like it might not be stable.” But you’re right, maybe I could try in one spot. But the peas, that’s a great idea. So you’re just making a teepee with two pieces.
A. Yes. You’ve got to come up with something to support those peas. This, rather than run your string trellis all the time, you just grab a piece of panel and plunk it in the garden. In less than a minute you’ve got both sides leaning against each other and now you’re planting your peas. It is super quick, taking up and down.
Q. So what else is on the list of 15 so far? That you’re keeping to yourself? [Laughter.]
A. Well if you’re a gardener, Margaret, and you probably can relate to this, too, but we’ve got some barn cats here on the property but they tend to think that they’ve got my raised beds as their personal litter box. I try to tell them that that’s not the case, but they don’t listen to me very well.
So you know what I’ll do is I’ll take some of those panel pieces and I’ll set them into the bed. I’ll either lay them flat on the ground or I’ll support them a little bit off the ground. Usually I’ll use those 4-inch grid patterns for this. It just prevents the cats from using my beds as their litter box because they don’t have the freedom to scratch and do their business. It blocks them from that and it’s the simplest thing but it’s worked tremendously now and I never have that problem anymore.
It also prevents foraging animals like the squirrels and the other things that like to dig around where I’ve just planted something—or spinach coming up. Anything young and tender, if you’re just trying to protect it. Not only have you just gotten through planting it with your grid, but now you can leave the grid in place or support it a little bit off the ground and all those young thing—and I’m thinking specifically with my spinach because I really like it for that, it comes up right through. Carrots is another one, they come up right through the grid no problem and nothing bothers it either because it just encumbers what they might want to do there because of all that wire in their way.
Q. So talk about a non-toxic pest-control tactic, and really passive because you, like you say, lay it down in 2 minutes and that’s the end of that, no more problems.
A. Yes. Can I tell you another one?
Q. Yes. You haven’t reached 15 yet. [Laughter.]
A. Well so when I’m not using the panels for tomatoes or peppers, we have that L-shaped piece and it’s off in retirement for the season. Now I’ve figured out a way to bring it out of retirement before I need it for those purposes. So when I’m planting new seedlings in my garden beds, when you’re hardening them off or you want to ease them into the sun slowly but surely, you can take those panels that you use for your tomato cages and lay them horizontally on top of the garden bed with your new seedling underneath it. And then just drape a piece of shade cloth over the panel as a support.
Q. Oh, right. So use it as a form.
A. A little shade house.
Q. Oh. Huh.
Q. That’s a great idea.
A. Yes, and when you’re ready, and then you can just ease the shade cloth off whenever you’re ready, a little longer each day until you’re done. Then you just pick the cloth off and you pick up the panel and you put it back on the stack, or maybe by now it’s time to plant you tomatoes and you’re right there next to it. So that’s a good one. I really like that one.
Q. Now with that one, I’m in a windy site and so with that one I’d want to use my lifetime supply of wooden clothespins-
Q. … to clamp them on, you know to keep my shade cloth onto the form. I love clothespins.
A. Well maybe you write the 101 ways to use clothespins and we’ll tag-team. [Laughter.]
Q. I will. I’m obsessed with clothespins. I think they’re great things. Can I tell you a crazy one I use them for? When I go to the gym and use the treadmill and I read a book, but the book won’t stay open if it’s a paperback. So I clip them, I use a clothespin on either side to keep my book open. O.K. now, you heard it here first, folks. I’m patenting that. It’s really a great idea. [Laughter.]
A. I love your low-tech way, Margaret.
Q. Indeed. So you want to tell us another one?
A. Well one that I happened to use this past year out of necessity: I was out in the garden we were getting one of those remnants of a hurricane passing through up from Florida into the Southeast. I needed some protection, because I’d just gotten through planting my fall crops of all kinds of tender seedlings. I literally had gotten them in the ground the day before, on a Saturday. Here it was Sunday and the forecast had changed. The storm was getting closer to where we were. I needed some protection because it was getting really windy.
I know that some of that heavy debris isn’t going to save my plants but if I could just keep things from falling on it or buffering the wind. So I took those same tomato panels that I was telling you about I use for shade cloth, laid them down over all my seedlings, and then also covered them up with some additional pieces, some flat pieces that I haven’t even talked about yet ,and created a physical barrier basically. It really wasn’t so much a wind block as it was a barrier from falling debris or blowing debris.
Q. That’s a good idea. Yes. Yes, yes.
A. I’ve got to tell you, after that storm passed through I went out there. The first thing I did that morning was inspect my garden. Although there were a lot of things around it that had been hit by falling debris because I’m surrounded by trees, I didn’t have one single thing was damaged that was covered or protected by those panels.
A. It was just such an easy, it was a few minutes of investment and I protected all 16 beds with the pieces that I had with 100 percent success. So next time you have that hurricane blowing through, Margaret-
Q. Oh, boy.
A. Use your panels.
Q. Is there one quickie that you just want to tell us about that we haven’t covered or did we get through the list?
A. Well no, we didn’t get through the list but just a really quickie is when you take that panel, chances are you probably don’t use the whole panel all at once. So you’ll have that leftover piece which oftentimes comes out to a pretty nice square piece, roughly a 4-by-4 square piece of panel that is very handy if you want to make a quick corral, for example. A lot of times I’ll bring home a pickup truck load of plants in 3-gallon containers or whatever. I’ve got deer like you—well you don’t have them because of your fence—but I do and I need to protect my plants before I get them in the ground but I don’t really have a good place to store them.
So I’ll just grab a however many of those panels I need, enough to surround my plants with a corral. I may zip tie them or bungee cord them together and now I have a protected pen with my plants inside of it and it took me no time to set up or take down.
Q. What do you think folks, is he going to get to 101?
Q. I think he is. I think he’s on his way. Joe Lamp’l of JoeGardener.com and “Growing A Green World,” the PBS show. I love this. I think this is great. And for a $20 bolt cutter and a $20 per panel investment, yes. These are lifetime tools that we can DIY, huh?
more from joe lamp’l
- JoeGardener.com website and podcast
- “Growing a Greener World” public television program
- How to build a tomato cage (and other ideas with cattle panels)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 2, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos courtesy of Joe Lamp’l.)