Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Blueberry Planter Gets Complicated: Part 1

What began as a simple request from Deb to incorporate 3 basic berries to our new garden became much more complicated from one of the tastiest of these berries - the Blueberry.

We knew going into the project that blueberries required acidic soil.  Since our primary design is raised bed planters, where the soil is controlled, this appeared at first to be no big deal.  We will just amend the soil with acidic things like peat moss, and it won't be a big deal.

I had already begun design of the garden, and had purchased the lumber when Deb discovered that CSU had done a study to determine how best to grow blueberries in the Rocky Mountains, where the soil is famously alkaline.  In the area around our house, we have tested the soil in several places, and it has pH values from 8.0 to 8.5.  What they determined was that blueberries could be grown in containers, and with proper care for the roots, they could winter over and be perennial.

Small Stones indicate the corners of the Blueberry Planters
At the time of the news, Tim and I had just laid out a box that was a triangularish trapezoid.  It was going to be the "complex" box because the side pieces were going to need to have angled cuts.  If only that were true.

With the news that we were going to need planters, we quickly came up with a solution - to create 3 planters within the trapezoid.  Each of those planters would hold the more acidic soil, and because they would have soil on the exterior, they would protect the roots from freezing during the winter.

Fancy bevel, no?
We had just completed the top section of the Strawberry planter, and Tim and I both agreed
that the 24" x 24" size made for a nice looking stand-alone planter.  We measured, and found we could fit 3 of these within the area of the trapezoid we had laid out.  So, with that, 3 became the number of Blueberry bushes we would have.

Construction of the inner planters was very easy.  All three would have the same dimensions, so it was almost a production line.  Tim cut all the wood and beveled all the posts as he did for the entire Berry Garden.  One of the things that isn't obvious from the more distant photos is how much more striking the corners with bevels are than my original posts from the Octogarden.  While we are using quite basic building materials, the bevel just has the effect of making the construction look fancy.

That bevel, however, is being cut using a pre-safety-era Sears table saw, that predates even the Craftsman name.  It was my Uncle Bob's saw, and was well used from the 60s through the 90s to make all sorts of things without him losing much of any of his fingers (just kidding, of course).   While the bevels on short posts like the center of the Blueberry Planters would be relatively easy for one person, the taller posts in the garden would require Tim and I to work in conjunction to safely keep the wood level and straight going through the blade.

Let's just say that it would only take an average shop student about 3 minutes to chide us for multiple safety violations.  It's not quite as bad as my layman's job back in 2009 when the original Octogarden was built, as the image below clearly documents.  In my defense, I do have safety goggles on, and it's not just because they make me look pretty.

Do NOT try this at home kids!
So, our Blueberry Planter operation actually was a slick operation.  Tim cut the wood, and I split my time between putting the angles on the posts, and laying out other parts of the garden.  Our mini-planter assembly line can be summed up in 4 pictures.

Tim using a speed square to get a straight cut
Stacks of cut boards
Angle Attachment Assembly Line
Finished Posts

Once the parts were all cut and the angles attached, we quickly assembled the 3 planters, and found our next dilemma - how precisely to arrange them.  When we originally laid them out with rocks, of course, because we did not yet own a snap line, I had the forethought to think about alignment with the other elements in the garden.  While standing at the front (west) side of the garden, I had noticed early on that the second post in the Asparagus Planter actually aligned with the center post from the Strawberry Planter approximately up the center of the Trapezoid.  It followed (in my head) that the three planters should probably align with that post-to-post line.

That being said, I was continuing with a design theme from early on.  The central focus of the garden is the tall post in the center of the Strawberry Planter.  It should be the highest point in the garden, and the eye's focus should always lead toward this post.

There are two dominant straight lines in canvas we have to work with - the breeze path, and the existing cedar fence.  The breeze path's line is an extension of the house, and is perfectly (relatively) parallel with the house.  The fence line, at least the part starting at the entrance, is at an angle which we do not control.

So, the early decision was to incorporate triangles into the design, making the Berry Garden a masculine garden, in that it would have strong angles and straight lines.  This is different than the Octogarden, which was an attempt to utilize the simplicity of 90-degree angles for construction of boxes, which were then arranged into an circle, around an Octagon, which is nearly a circle itself.  While the Octogarden is a mix of masculine and feminine, the Berry Garden at least at first glance is masculine.
The Raspberry Planters are parallel with the fence, and the Strawberry Planter has one edge parallel with the fence.  But, the Strawberry Planter, with it's multiple levels gave us the opportunity to move that central focus away from the center of the planter itself, to create a high-point which is more approximate to the center of the widest part of the garden when viewing from a distance.   By combining this decision with noticing the alignment with the 2nd Asparagus post location, we essentially create a 3rd angle from the house and fence, which in turn makes the garden more like sun rays spreading from the west end into an ever-widening garden looking east.

Having seized upon this concept, but both Tim and I became emphatic that this was a terrific idea, and we pretty much galloped forward with it once we had the realization.  Having built the boxes, we simply arranged them on our sketched layout, written in Sharpie pen, trying to figure out what exactly was going to line up with the new post-to-post fan line that so impressed us.

If we put the boxes corner to corner, they would align, but when viewing from the side, they looked a bit forced into that position.  The alignment with the post-to-post line was evident, but the sides of the boxes, their front and side posts, and pretty much everything else looked relatively random.  For a garden design that seemed to have so much emphasis on straight-sided shapes, having these boxes cockeyed to achieve this singular alignment just had bad energy.

After 30 minutes of "let's try this", we stumbled upon a grand idea - we would align the PLANTS to the post-to-post line, but the boxes would be turned 45 degrees from the line parallel to the house.  This would create a "diamond" shaped box, considering the view from the path.  But, this diamond would be identical in angle to the 2nd level of the Strawberry Planter - creating the impression that the larger one had 3 smaller buddies.  It wasn't to mimic the Giza pyramids, but the thought did cross my mind after the fact.

What we noticed is that we could stagger the boxes so that the leading edge of one box could be aligned with the lagging edge of the prior box.  This created a weird effect.  While the boxes remained unfilled the alternating posts would straddle the post-to-post line.  If you view enough of my pictures of the construction, you'll notice that I intentionally will photograph from this center-point going forward.  The result is this first draft alignment shown below.
The view that showed alignment with Strawberry Level 2

The first time we noticed there might be an alignment

The "alignment" showing the post-to-post line

 This complex portion of the project wasn't even close to being finished yet.  As we read further into the study, we noticed that drainage was frequently mentioned.  Colorado clay soil is notoriously poor for drainage.  In some cases, it feels more like concrete when dried up.

In the original Octogarden design, I noticed that when we had severe storms, the water would fill up the planters like a bathtub, and sometimes take more than an hour to drain.  I had originally imagined that the open-bottom design would be plenty for those flash-rain situations.  However, in the case of blueberries, it seemed crucially important to add a rock layer at the bottom of the planter, covered with weed fabric, to ensure that there would be a drainage sink.

But, putting rocks into the bottom of the planter would raise the overall bottom of the place where roots could eventually go, and given the second requirement to have the root ball buried by as much soil laterally as possible, Deb was emphatic about planting this one deep, and having room for it's roots to go deeper.  That left only one way to accomplish this - dig down about a foot below each planter, but only beneath each planter so that the wood would still have support.

I embraced the extra work, and used the post hole digger to quickly create a 1-foot deep sink at the bottom of each planter.

Drainage Sink made with Post Hole Digger
At this point, it would appear that most of the complexities had been overcome, but like the proverbial Rabbit Hole, it's only a matter of how far we want to go.

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