think inside the box

It didn't actually come to me in a dream. It was more like an idea slowly coming into focus one early morning as I lay in bed and watched the autumn light bring into relief the varied forms of sitka, fir, hemlock, and alder rising on all sides. It's a canyon, I thought to myself.  

This was not a brilliant epiphany, I admit. I've lived here for a year so you'd expect me to be clear by now that I wake each morning in a coastal rainforest glen in the Pacific Northwest. It takes a good long time after dawn for the sunlight to actually strike the earth on my patch—and by this I mean that bright liquid sunlight that warms your skin, that fires the chlorophyll engines in the leaves of plants, that is finally the source of everything that sustains us. 


I've spent this year tracking the sun around the perimeter of our place until I've come to the conclusion that to grow vegetables here, especially in shoulder seasons, I'm going to need a way for those plants to chase that sun around. This is a quandary; plants are rooted. Again, not a notable epiphany. But what if they weren't? What if they were mobile and could be relocated to diverse places around the property to make best use of changing patterns of light? 

Lying there as morning coalesced, it came to me that what I needed to do was build a mobile garden—certainly not for my main plantings, which will be decidedly seasonal since they will occupy the large, existing beds I inherited from the previous homeowner. Those are located in the spots that clearly get maximum sun exposure during the growing season of April—October. What I needed was to build planter boxes that would hold enough soil to grow cool season crops and yet are moveable. 

There are plenty of places where one can buy such things, prefabricated. Websites and catalogs display various options, the cheap ones flimsy and the sturdy ones spendy. I was imagining a series of boxes, maybe 6-8, which would give me enough square footage for a ready supply of greens and other vegetables for most of the year—kale, chard, lettuce, scallions, spinach, and other delicious food. The boxes would also be high enough off the ground that our flock of free-ranging hens wouldn't decimate the plants. Buying that kind of material pre-made would run up quite a bill. Why not design and build the boxes myself?

Why not? Because I am a lousy carpenter. Maybe it's simply a failure of skill with tools, not to mention a lack of the tools themselves. I've certainly made things from wood before. I will show you none of those things. They list to one side. Their joints have gaps. I tend to use the wrong wood, wrong screws, wrong angles. I make cuts that veer off line. I have only a passing familiarity with the concept of "squared." Give me a spade and wheelbarrow and I'll transform your landscape. Give me a table saw and a bin of lumber and I'll give you back something tilted and squeaky, very possibly delivered in a clumsy manner because by then I'll be missing a couple fingers.  

Enter my friend, Jeff.


Jeff knows what he's doing with wood. Jeff has a whole workshop in his home dedicated to making things with wood. See those hands? They belong to a man who plays viola in a orchestra and can make sweet music on just about any other stringed instrument you could throw at him. They are important hands, which is why Jeff begins and ends with safety around the shop, as he is doing in this photo—from the apron to the ear and eye protection to the lesson he's giving me here on how to properly make a cut.

Over a couple beers the night before, Jeff had patiently listened to my ideas about the size of planter box I wanted and he made recommendations on design and materials before making a sketch and a purchase list. We hit the lumber store the next morning and for about $60 we came home with all we needed to make it happen. He noted that since we were designing this thing from scratch (referencing one solid source for guidance), we could expect to make adjustments as we went along. It dawned on me that this is the very point where I come up short—I lack the woodworking experience and confidence to effectively adapt a build as I go along, something I've seen is necessary on virtually every woodworking project. But I'm learning, and I may get there some day.

We set to work on a Wednesday afternoon, cutting most of the wood to the necessary dimensions and making the first moves that would bring the planter box frame into being. Everything was made square. Jeff repeatedly offered the dictum "Measure twice, cut once," and put it into practice. My own offering, "Looks close enough to me," was met with a  blank stare from my friend and was not repeated.  


Time flew by in the workshop, a sure sign that one is paying deep attention to the task at hand. For a carpentry klutz like me, the process of building something correctly feels alchemical, though of course it is not magic at all, just a careful process. I suspect those with woodworking skills are getting a chuckle out of this but really, I came to learn and so found myself adopting the mindset of sho shin sha no kokoro, or beginner's mind, a Zen Buddhist concept that describes an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. This approach is tremendously rewarding since it helps the practitioner to absorb as much as possible in a way that can be put to use later.


The finished box was so beautiful to me. Call me easily pleased if you will but I loved this humble thing. Best of all, it was light enough to lift and slide it into the back of my truck for the drive home. 

Let's pause and deal with something obvious. This planter is made of pine. It's a relatively cheap and soft wood, easy to work with, lightweight. All of these things were perfect for my project but pine, as Jeff warned me, simply isn't durable in the climate of the Oregon coast. Well, of course not. So once I got this home, the next job was to apply a good coat of exterior primer, followed by a coat of exterior paint. It won't last forever but it I hope to get more than a few seasons out of it.


Things were accelerating quickly here. I was through the experience of building and was ready to prepare for planting. Here's how it went: a layer of landscape fabric in the bottom, 2" of coconut coir as a permeable layer, 2" of leaves and grass for nutrient value, and then a 3-part mix of soil from the forest floor, compost from my bin, and a commercial potting soil. Et voila! In situ and ready for planting.


It's hard to express how satisfying this project has been. Ideation was not the first step; rather, it was observation. I had to figure out the dynamic patterns of sunlight that fuel the microclimates around my place. It took exactly a year of observation for the planter box idea to pop up in my dawn-bleary brain. From there is was a matter of acting directly—the whole thing came together in a week's time, thanks to Jeff.

That's the good news. The bad news: the planter box is too heavy, when fully loaded, for me to move easily on my own. But there's more good news. As Jeff pointed out to me during the build, this is a prototype and can be scaled down if I want to make another box. It won't be hard now to redesign for a truly mobile planter box. That is the ultimate goal, so I plan to literally go back to the drawing board. Now I have the basic know-how to take the project from idea to design to build, all on my own. That can be married to my area of expertise—sunlight, water, and growing things. Developing knowledge and skills is productive; connecting them is synergetic and exciting. 

Before I move on to the next design and build, I plan to create a cloche covering so this planter box can yield greens even during the winter. We're likely to get temps that dip into the high 20s in coming months but I plan to experiment with a handful of things that may grow, if tended correctly. It is possible to produce delicious things for our table all year round and that always was the original motivation. I just had to think inside the box.