DIY Cattle Panel Garden Arbor
We love clean geometric lines in all aspects of design. So when I decided last Winter I wanted to add garden arbors down our main path, we knew we would want to do it economically yet without compromising form and function. Inspired by the many garden arbors I had come across online, but especially informed from seeing what Niki Jabbour did with her raised garden beds, we took inspiration and pivoted, creating something that literally fitted in our space.
Because, it turns out that adding arbors across our main, angular path was not that easy. It was, instead, nearly impossible. In fact, the only reason we could add this one, singular arbor is because of that extra large triangular bed on the west side which gave us ample leeway, allowing us to center the arbor on the small bed. I had plans for three of these down the main path, but, alas, we limited ourselves with how we laid this garden out and this one is all I get. That’s a topic for a separate post, how we chose to develop this garden, which I’ll save for another rainy day.
This garden arbor concept works much better where the beds are straight, not angular; ideal garden space for installing this would be having square and parallel beds across a wide path. The wider the path, the more gently sloping your arch. We have about a 5 foot wide path down the middle of our garden, which lends itself perfectly to a large arbor, but the angled nature of the path makes this challenging. So, trust me when I say don’t do as we did. If you are still pondering your garden layout, keep it simple and create your garden with right angles instead of acute and obtuse angles. The math is much easier this way, and your options for things like structures are much simpler to design and build when you are dealing with right angles.
We wanted something tall, around 7.5’ in height which we measured in place with a tape measure if memory serves correctly, eyeballing the final height and working from there for all our math. There was a lot of math, and not a lick of it did I do, even though I really love math. My husband did a lot of calculating to figure out the radius of the half moon we needed to get the height we wanted. More on that below.
We knew given the width of our path that a single, 16’ long panel was going to be a little short. That — and we did not fathom smooth sailing carting home a 16’ length panel, bouncing and jiggling down the rural highway for 10 miles from the farm supply store to our home. So we did what any sane gardener would do and we made this a little harder.
To be fair, we also did not conceive of a simple way to bend a 16’ cattle panel, so for our own peace of mind and to meet our needs — which is to just figure it out ourselves instead of following a pattern — piecing it together from 3 sections felt like the best solution. It allowed us to achieve our desired height, made transport of materials feasible, and created a not-too-long length that was left to bend into shape.
The other funky thing about ours that is disguised across the beds is that in order to make it square not only did it need to sit in different positions in each bed, we had to go farther into one of the beds when we installed it. This becomes completely invisible as plants grow up and around; it is also 100% avoidable if you have square beds unlike our adorable angular layout. By now I hope you’re understanding the downstream impacts of our organic layout that while it looks fun, it makes working in it more than a bit challenging.
I don’t believe our arbor is a rubber stamp template replicable in someone else’s garden because of our angular (challenging!) layout. However, crafty-minded individuals will be able to glean knowledge from what we did and adapt it to their circumstances. So I’ll walk you through how we built a template for the arch, the final lengths we cut the panels to for our site, and how entertaining it was to watch husband and wife teeter and totter down the main path on Mother’s Day weekend fumbling with this wonky piece of metal fastened with clamps to a large wooden archway.
4, 6’ U-posts, sunk 1’ deep
1, 10’ long of cattle panel for the archway
2, 72” long cattle panels for the sides, sunk to 64”
2x4s for making a template
Sheet of scrap plywood for arch frame
1 1/2” screws to fasten template together
The archway is 62” wide and 7 1/2 feet high. My husband used his geometry skills to determine the radius needed to achieve a 3’ high arch. In line with how he approaches all his projects, he took the time to make a custom jig to perfectly create the arch template. It was basically a giant compass, but for a router instead of a pencil. He figured out the radius and screwed the router into the jig and then screwed the other side of the jig to the sheet of plywood. Like I said earlier, we like to do things the hard way sometimes. I’m sure there is an easier way, like perhaps bending with brut force, but this is what how we approach our projects.
Once the two semi circle pieces of plywood were cut, he cut the 2x4s to length to make a template for the arch that was 50” wide, the full width of the cattle panel. The final phase was to take the arch, support it on sawhorses, and start the clamping process. We found the center and worked one side down, and then the other. We worked opposite each other, each fastening down one side the arbor at the same time. We had this notion that we were providing it some memory, so we did this first, and then did the hardest part while this arch became comfortable with its new shape.
In the garden, the most important phase of this construction was deciding where to install the U-posts. We needed a parallel (square) structure in an angular space, as I’ve said before. So, we had to decide how to achieve that in the path without drawing too much attention to its placement. We ended up placing each U posts in a different position relative to the path so if you were to stare at them you may conclude this is cattywampus even though it’s not. Luckily the garden grows and your eye does not notice the difference, not even in the early season, as the lack of symmetry at the ground level is inconsequential as there is symmetry above — and that’s where your eye tends to settle.
This was the most difficult part of the project for us. But the time we spent to get the U posts parallel to each other across the path and 64” apart made the final installation that much easier. For the final install, we tucked the 72” side panels into the U posts and stepped on the bottom rung to bury the bottom square into the bed leaving 64” above ground. We then used black zip ties which we thread through the holes in the U post, cinching them as tightly as possible to secure the piece in place.
The final comedic act was the transporting and installing of the arch itself by two potentially stubborn gardeners on Mother’s Day weekend. We swore, we laughed, we yelled and probably cried a little, too. It is projects like this that draw us closer, that leave a lasting mark on our garden and stand proud with a story all its own. The tears were definitely worth it. Some clamps popped off in transit which caused us stress, but the savior was that 6 foot ladder we were able to rest it on. We then did a few lifts to assess our next move, and finally were able to get it positioned just right, one side at a time. We zip tied it in place as we went and the arch overlapped a full square down into the U post.
Making a garden your own is often filled with triumphs and tragedies, these weekends of sweat and hard work that become something lasting. It is probably the most rewarding thing, to walk our paths every day and take in all we’ve made together. We have many small projects planned for this coming season, focusing on adding more raised beds to our perennial fruits. You can be sure there will be sweat and tears, laughter and swearing. And, that it will be a beautiful addition we will sit back and relish upon completion.