Classic Garden Structures: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews

When I’m thinking of building a garden project, the first book I turn to for ideas and inspiration is Classic Garden Structures by Jan and Michael Gertley. I’ve read and leafed through many books on making and building objects for the garden but this one remains my favorite. Beyond their inherent usefulness, all of the projects are good looking, well-designed, and a pleasure to own and use. They are simple enough to be doable with only a few that are really challenging. I’m still thinking I might be able to build my dream greenhouse someday.

The Gertleys have a way of taking many common garden objects and making them extraordinary. Ornamental molding on tomato cages may sound peculiar but when you’ve seen how the Gertleys use it you will wonder why it isn’t commonly done. Many of the structures have finials, end caps, and posts with ornamental flourishes but instead of looking fey or twee you will be saying yes! to yourself as you’re reading.

Starting off with Tools and Materials, the book is divided into four additional sections:

  • Trellises and Plant Supports
  • Tables, Benches, and Plant Stands
  • Structures for Growing Plants
  • Garden Tools and Accessories

Each project begins with a gorgeous photograph showing the item in use. It is then followed by a complete materials list (including fasteners), easy to follow stages of construction, and diagrams explaining construction nuances. If you opt for a protective finish, the authors often use solid and semi-transparent stains, they will let you know when to apply it during construction.

I freely admit I am not the handiest person in the world and I feel the Gertleys are writing for me. Never condescending, their writing is lucid and easy to understand. This book is appropriate for every level of ability and remains an essential element in my library.

My current project is a cold frame, the less glamorous cousin of a greenhouse (remember my dream?). The cold frame will give me a protective growing area to get a jump on our short growing season. This one has very generous proportions, 7 feet long by 5 feet wide, that will give me plenty of room to space out the plants as they grow bigger. I will also be able to fit large propagation mats on the bottom underneath the plants, giving added protection with their heat during chilly nights and making a more versatile growing environment.

The most unusual feature of this particular cold frame are the four windows, two in front and two in back, rather than the more commonly found one window. This will allow easy access to every section within and also gives me a lot of options for ventilating, a key element for any growing structure. Another feature is more subtle – the middle support board for the windows has a 10 degree channel cut into its upper surface. If it is raining and the windows are closed, the water will drain off the front and back of the cold frame instead of sliding under the windows and dripping on the plants below. That kind of thoughtful detail permeates the Gertley’s designs and is one more reason I recommend their book.

My cold frame will look different than the picture for several reasons. My board widths are different as I am recycling lumber from a portico that fell down from snow several winters ago. I am also substituting heavy 6ml greenhouse film for the glass in the windows, as it is also a supply I have on hand, along with the fasteners and leftover stain from the house. In fact the only supply I had to buy were the hinges for opening the windows. I am still building my cold frame and looking forward to its completion and using it. That’s if the snow would ever let up and go away.

About the Author

I started in 1977 growing plants at wholesale nurseries and a wholesale seed company in California. In 1992 I started volunteering (in the nursery, of course!) at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco where I met my wife. My wife is originally from upstate and we moved here in 2002. It took at least two years of living here for me to fully understand our property and to take advantage and work with our microclimate. Although growing zone maps show us to be in 5, we are realistically a 4b. I am inordinately proud, in a smarmy kind of way, of how many of the plants we brought with us have thrived. Coming from a zone 9 has been quite an adjustment for all of us. But we are thriving and enjoy the beauty and what the land gives us everyday. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b/5a Location: rural; Central Leatherstocking near Cooperstown, New York Geographic type: riverine valley Soil type: Chenango alluvial – shallow clay and highly stony Experience level: 28 years professionally wholesale and retail, no longer in the business Particular interests: native plants and ecosystems, flowering and berry producing shrubs, home-grown foods, maples, birches, willows, ornamental grasses, filipendulas, iris, ligularias, persicarias, asclepias, artemisia, asters, arisaemas, hardy geraniums, euphorbias, eupatoriums, origanums, lysimachias, eryngiums, lilies, and visiting nurseries

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

katrina June 22, 2012, 12:44 am

I always loved their garden designs. I worked for Jan and Michael as a teen weeding in their gardens,and riding horses with her it was a inspiration to me to learn to garden as a adult, although never did attain half the creativity that they had lol 🙁

handy Garden tools October 3, 2008, 8:50 pm

nice post

heirloomgardener December 16, 2007, 4:52 pm

This is a great recommendation, as I am always looking for new garden projects for my husband.

On my blog, I just posted about the children’s playhouse we built last summer:

William_ds August 14, 2007, 5:29 pm

Check this out!

Oldroses April 15, 2007, 9:46 pm

I’m putting this book on my Wish List! I’d rather spend my money on seeds and plants than garden structures but making them is not an option because I’m not at all handy. This sounds like just the book I need. Thanks!