Sunday, July 9, 2017

How we built our raspberry trellis (with some thoughts on good fortune)

When Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) decided that from now on, we were going to grow our raspberries by the two-crop method, rather than the simpler single-crop method, we knew that some sort of trellis to support the now-denser thicket of canes was going to be a must. Unfortunately, neither of us had the faintest idea how to build one. Our trusty Weekend Garden Guide offered a general description of what a simple trellis for berries should look like—a line of posts along each side of the row, with lines strung between them to hold up the canes—but it was woefully short on such details as what kind of wire to use, where to buy it, or how to attach it. We tried searching for more explicit instructions online, but articles like this one, with such cheerfully vague steps as "wrap wire around the stakes" (securing it how, pray tell?) left us none the wiser. The closest thing we found to a detailed outline was this article at Dave's Garden, and its instructions for securing the lines would only work with wooden posts—not the rot-resistant metal ones we intended to use.

So basically, we just walked into a couple of home centers and started poking through the merchandise, trying to find:
  1. A pair of sturdy metal poles about 8 feet long, so we could sink them deep into the ground for stability and still leave them tall enough to reach the top of the raspberry plants;
  2. A suitably heavy, weather-resistant wire that would hold up the weight of the canes; and
  3. Some assortment of hardware that could hold it all in place.
Here's what we eventually ended up with.

The poles aren't visible in this picture, but the closest size we could come up with was 7 feet, which we thought would do if we sank them to a depth of 2 feet. We also got:
  • 50 feet of vinyl coated cable, 3/32 inch thick. Since our two posts would be set 20 feet apart, we thought this would give us enough to string two lengths of wire, one low and one high, with a little to spare.
  • Four "eye bolts," with matching nuts, to secure to the posts and loop the cable through—one for each end of each wire.
  • Eight "wire rope clips" to hold the wire loops in place. That's two for each end of each wire, since I guess Brian wasn't confident a single clip would be strong enough to hold them snug—and at only 68 cents apiece, I wasn't about to argue over it with him.
  • Two 1/4-inch by 7 1/2-inch turnbuckles, to be used for tensioning the wires (one for each cable).
The whole lot cost us just under $50, and we were away home to see if we could figure out how to put it all together.

The first step, setting up the poles, was straightforward enough, if not exactly easy. Brian set the end of the pole on the ground at one front corner of the raspberry bed, placed a wooden block on top, and pounded it repeatedly with a rubber mallet, sinking it millimeter by millimeter into the ground.

By the time he was done with the first pole, it had sunk in about the intended two feet, leaving five feet above ground—just enough to reach to the tops of the tallest raspberry canes.

Unfortunately, the ground at the other end of the bed proved harder, so Brian wasn't able to sink the second post as deeply. After a steady 15 to 20 minutes of pounding, he managed to get it in to a depth of about 17 inches before concluding that was as far as it was going to go. (Also, before he could even start working on the post, he had to trim back an unruly bush that was in the way, producing quite a large assortment of trimmings in the process.)

Next, we had to secure the eye bolts to the posts. Each post had a series of holes through it at regular intervals, so we had to choose the right hole for each bolt to string the wires at the appropriate height. We initially put one bolt in the second hole from the top—we couldn't put it in the very top, because the post had deformed just enough that we couldn't manage to fit the bolt through—and one in the second from the bottom. Later, we adjusted the height of the lower wire a little based on the heights of the canes.

Then, we opened up the big container of cable, located one end, and looped it through the lower of the two eye bolts. We fed the end through one of the rope clips and tightened the nuts to clamp it down, then repeated with a second clip a little farther along. This redundancy ensured that even if one of the clips should come loose, the wire would still be held in place.

Once we had that end secure, we started spooling out the cable all along the front of the bed to measure off the length we needed. Then we prepared to cut it so we could secure it at the far end. Ironically, this proved to be the most difficult part of the entire job. We had assumed that our tin snips would be able to cut through the cable, but after squeezing down on them with all his might, Brian was forced to admit that they just weren't up to the job.

He eventually ended up going back into the house and getting a hacksaw so he could saw through the cable. I didn't take a photo of this part of the process because Brian begged me not to, apparently fearing that his dad (a consummate handyman) would mock him mercilessly for not having the right tool. But it probably wouldn't have been worth shelling out $30 for a pair of wire shears just for this one job. (Though, looking into it just now, I came across one article by a guy who says "I inevitably wind up using my Dremel when I need to make a clean cut" through steel cable—a trick that might have saved us some hassle if we'd thought of it.)

Once he managed to hack his way through the cable, he was able to attach it to the post—but instead of feeding it directly through the eye bolt, he first hooked one of the turnbuckles onto the eye and looped the cable over that. Putting the turnbuckles at the far end of the bed was my suggestion, since the brambles aren't at thick at that end of the bed, so there would be less risk of scratching ourselves whenever we had to reach in and tinker with the turnbuckles. Once the wire was looped around the turnbuckle, two more wire rope clips secured it in place.

As we raised this lower cable into place and where we had and pulled it taut, it started lifting up the very bottoms of the raspberry canes and pulling them upright, just as intended. Well, most of them, at least. We noticed as we went that several of the canes weren't actually inside the bed; they were apparently rogue suckers that had sprung up outside it, which we hadn't been able to make out before within the massive thicket that the raspberry patch had become. So we knew that, even once the trellis was complete, we'd have a bit of work to do tidying up the patch before everything was properly contained.

By this time, the light was starting to fade, but we soldiered on, repeating the process of hooking up the cable to the upper set of eye bolts. Once we had both cables in place, however, we could see that a lot of the raspberry canes were spilling out through the gap between the two, so we decided to raise the lower cable to narrow the gap. Fortunately this was just a matter of unscrewing and moving the eye bolts, so it didn't take too long, and by the time night fell, we had the trellis fully raised with all the canes contained (except the few stray suckers outside the bed, which we pulled out as we cleaned up afterwards).

We've now had our trellis in place for about two weeks, and I can confirm that it definitely makes harvesting the berries easier. It doesn't eliminate all the difficulties; the canes are still pretty close together, so you sometimes have to reach in through the thicket or push some of them out of the way to reach the tempting ruby fruits hanging just out of reach. And even with the canes held nearly upright, the foliage is dense enough that you sometimes have to bend down to spot the berries lower on the canes. But overall, having the canes raised up and contained in a smaller area makes it much easier both to see the berries and to reach them for picking.

All of which brings me to the revelation I had a couple of weeks ago. Every so often in our ecofrugal life, I have this sudden flash of appreciation for just how rich and abundant that life is. Back in 2010, for instance, I mused on what an amazing luxury it is to be able to take a hot shower every morning, when you consider how few people could even manage a hot bath just a hundred years ago. And in 2013, I was struck by how fortunate we are to have fresh-baked bread every week, and fresh flowers on our table—even if we have to bake the bread and cut the flowers ourselves.

This time around, I was heading into the house with a bowlful of fresh raspberries I'd just picked for my lunch, and I was struck once again by the thought, "How incredibly lucky am I to have fresh berries there for the picking, right outside my door? What did we ever do to deserve this kind of bounty?"

Only this time, I realized immediately that I knew the answer to that question perfectly well: what we had done was to plant and tend the raspberry canes. With our own hands, we dug the bed; with our own hands, we planted them all in one chilly spring day; with our own hands, we mulched them and watered them and trimmed them and gave them a fresh dressing of compost every spring; and with our own hands, we built this new trellis to support them. And whenever we want to eat some, we go out and pick them with our own hands as well, braving the scratches for the sake of the berries. We earned this blessing.

And that, I think, sums up the ecofrugal life in a nutshell. It's a life full of blessings that have been earned. Home-baked bread, home-cooked meals, home-grown produce, hand-picked flowers; an abundance of clothing and furniture and books acquired by carefully picking through the offerings at yard sales and thrift stores. And I don't feel I appreciate these blessings any the less for knowing that I've worked for them, instead of having them gifted to me by some gracious and unseen Providence; on the contrary, I think being able to recognize in them the loving labor of my own hands makes me appreciate them all the more.
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