Why is it that my love of gardening always leads me to lumber? If I’d wanted to measure, I’d have chosen a love of fabric over plants. I’m the type who can mix up a cake by feel, coax seeds to life, whip up bouquets in an instant, and it’s not through practice alone; I’ve been blessed with a creative eye and a green thumb.
Yet when it comes to carpentry I’m ALL thumbs—impatient, exasperated by precision, and inclined to injury as a result. Woodworker, I am not.
But with the emergence of the first white snowdrop this month, I decided to freshen up the property. And so I found myself at the Dreaded Depot on a drizzly Friday night, talking vapour barrier at what should have been—for any sane person not seized by spring ‘projectitis’—cocktail hour.
And there I stood in the florescent glare of a big box store, next to a burly man who scratched his beard whilst telling me, “you’ll need vapour barrier and insulation before you can think about finishing it.”
The space in question was my garage which was built less than ten years ago and has never held a car. It has served as a potting shed, a tool storage yard and toy box. Bare studs line the interior walls and it’s hard to mount a shelf for storage let alone conjure a romantic ‘garden accessory building’ vibe. I’d been hoping to throw up some thin panelling to ‘finish’ it off.
The man scowled at me. “It’s my job to tell people how to do things right.”
This was a touch sententious, but he looked like Santa and if there’s any time I revert to a naif it’s in building supply shops, so I let him have his moment.
“So what would you do?”
“Rent a paint sprayer.”
My gardener and I once spontaneously tore off a silly set of stairs from our deck to make room for more garden. (It’s amazing what a person can do with a strong steel spade). This left a rather precipitous edge on the deck of course, but so be it I reasoned—we’d gained five more feet of garden!—as if the deck might grow a railing the way a lizard does a tail.
Miraculously the railing appeared a few months later courtesy of a handy husband, who has more than once bailed me out of the deep-end of my desire.
By why I wonder, can I not get away from wood? It’s not so much that a garden needs it, but lacking stone and history, one uses what’s at hand. And here we have timber. And so we fence with it, trellis with it, build with it, surround our gardens in wood and even build our gardens from it in arbors and raised beds.
But we literally build our gardens from wood too because wood rots. Untreated (and all raised beds should be) fir boards might last five years before getting punky and cedar not much longer.
Even the ever-popular Sea Soil is 50% forest fines (fir and hemlock scraps). It’s composted down thankfully because wood has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 400:1. Plants need nitrogen to build cells. They need carbon as well but they take it in through the air. Hence wood is more of a nutrient suck than a soil builder in the garden, at least in the short-run. Yet another reason to opt out of wood chip mulch.
But back to building. Recently I heard an interview about a parenting book called ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’ by Alison Gopnik wherein the author sets up a binary between different types of parents. As one reviewer said: ‘To seek to parent a child is to behave like a carpenter, chiselling away at something to achieve a particular end-goal – in this case, a certain kind of person…When we garden, on the other hand, we do not believe we are the ones who single-handedly create the cabbages. Rather, we toil to create the conditions in which plants have the best chance of flourishing.”
Gopnik’s conclusion—be a gardener. I’ll take my vindication where I can.