Last summer, YC and I built a lovely little pergola in my backyard, an extension of a free standing swing that was already in place. The pergola definitely has character. We used some new lumber and an old 12′ 6×6 post that we found behind my shed. We (thought) we were very careful about measuring heights and holes and leveling all of the lumber meticulously, but it turns out we should have leveled the ground too. So now the back left corner sits about an inch or two lower than any of the other corners, but it’s a lovely little pergola, we made it ourselves, and anyways once the evergreen wisteria takes over the back wall of it, you won’t be able to tell.
When we built it, the new lumber we used was cheap and warped, so we had to lay the rafters down flat just to sink the screws into them, securing them to the cross beams. This was great though because it left us with more shade and an easier build. And, although we didn’t know it then, the perfect place to build a gutter garden, with it’s long, flat sturdy beams, plenty of support, and exposure to the sun.
“What exactly is a gutter garden?” you may ask. Quite simply, they’re gutters, hung between two posts, and often the gutters are stacked one on top of the other, with a foot or two of space in between. You can then fill them with gravel and soil and plant things in them. Our gutter garden is a little different. I’m building it more simply by just laying the gutters on the pergola rafters and securing them. I have four 5′ sections of 5″-wide aluminum gutter (I didn’t want to get plastic because I wasn’t sure if they were BPA-free). When I went to Lowes to buy them, I asked if they could cut the 10′-long gutters in half for me. The guy working there said he couldn’t but that I could cut them with wire cutters, using the wire cutters like scissors. Not true, at least not with the type of wire cutters I have, which have short and stubby blades. But I did use them to make a little starter cut, and then carefully rip the aluminum with my hands. It didn’t look great, but hey, it worked.
After I had cut two five-foot sections, I put the endcaps on, adding a little Gorilla Glue on the outside seam for good measure, particularly at the endcap of the ripped side. I drilled a couple of holes in the bottom for drainage, then I got ready to mount it on to the top of my pergola. I decided to put it on the side closest to the fence and farthest from the house for a couple of reasons. First, that side isn’t shaded as much by the water oak growing adjacent to the pergola. Second, the Lady Banks Rose has taken over the side of the pergola closest to the house, and I wanted to keep the gutter gardens farther away from it. And lastly, we hung rungs between the back posts of the pergola. The hens love to roost on them, and they act as a ladder for being able to climb up on the pergola to grab a head of lettuce.
I attached each five-foot section of gutter using three 1″ screws after first drilling pilot holes through the metal and wood.
That was the easy part. Next, I filled up a pail with pebbles and gravel, hoisted it up on the pergola beam and climbed on top. I put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the gutter for drainage.
Then, I mixed up some yard dirt with some rich compost. I made sure I got a lot of worms from the garden in my soil since it’ll be nearly impossible to get a worm population started up there without bringing them up there myself. It was maybe not the best idea I had, climbing up a 10′ pergola alone, camera in one hand, giant bucket of pebbles and then of dirt in the other, hand trowel stuck under my arm, chickens at my feet. But after much panting and pushing and shoving of the bucket, everything made it to the top of the pergola. Except the chickens. I spread a good thick layer of dirt and compost on top of the pebbles. I also put one of those brackets in the middle to keep the sides from buckling out with the weight and volume of the gravel and soil. (If you decide to go with plastic gutters, be aware that the kind you’re using may have brackets that fit on the outside, so don’t forget to bracket your gutter up before attaching it to the wood.
Tomorrow, I’ll finish up the other gutters and then seed them all with lettuce and spinach and other leafy things. I’ve had very little luck growing leafy vegetables, and I’m hoping the distance from ground bugs and critters as well as the relative amount of shade of the pergola compared to the garden boxes will help me out on this one.