Backyard Planters: Big & Small

When I was a kid, one of my jobs was mowing my aunt’s yard. My aunt loved flowers. She stuck a flower here, another there. I was perpetually in trouble for mowing over what I thought were weeds. My wife and I love flowers too, but for the most part, she has our flowers organized into beds and planters. (I still occasionally mow over some flowers, but not as bad as with my aunt.) Planters or organized beds with planter borders can not only provide mowing definition, but contain the flowers and hopefully keep out weeds that may grow into them from surrounding areas. Backyard planters can be big or small, permanent or portable.

The simplest planters consist of edging for flower or vegetable beds. In the past, many used recycled railroad ties for this, and they still add a distinctive rustic appeal to garden beds. In recent years, however, pressure-treated landscaping timbers have become increasingly popular. These are also very easy to use to create bed edges, or even to build up permanent planters. Railroad ties usually have enough weight to stay in place when used in a single layer as an edging material. Landscaping timbers are usually smaller and they can be shifted by the weight of the soil in the planter. Even railroad timbers can shift in time. One solution is to bore holes down through the timbers or ties and drive 12-inch long sections of 3/8-inch concrete reinforcing rod down through the wood and into the ground. Make sure you set the ends of the rods below the wood surface so no rough metal edges protrude.



Regardless of using recycled railroad ties or the more modern landscaping ties, one method of keeping the ties in place is to counterbore holes through their tops.


Then drive sections of reinforcing bar down through the holes and into the ground.


Joints can be further strengthened by fastening with brass deck screws.

In many instances landscaping timbers or ties are also stacked on top of each other to create deeper planters or beds. The same fastening technique can be used. You may prefer to use 4- to 6-inch-long, 3/8-inch lag screws to bolt landscape timbers together. The corners may be joined with butt joints, overlap log-cabin style, or mitered and anchored with lag screws. You can also use long sections of reinforcing bars that are cut to the correct height and driven into the ground beneath the planter.


Another common and very attractive permanent bed or edging is stone. Stone can be dry laid or mortared in place to create all sorts of planter designs. Check out EHT’s online article “Stone Age: Simple Stone Projects” to learn techniques for building with stone (

Portable planters offer the opportunity to place flowers in any location you desire. Any number of manufactured pots and planters are available for this use. You can even recycle used items into planters. I’ve seen just about everything you can imagine turned into planters, including an old cast-iron bathtub and even an old commode. The latter didn’t look especially attractive, but I’m sure the owner had something whimsical in mind. Rusty old wheelbarrows, metal watering cans, toy wagons and other antiques can be recycled into planters.

You can also make up your own wooden planters. If assembling wooden planters, use a long-lasting wood that doesn’t rot very quickly because it will be constantly exposed to moisture. Western white cedar is one good wood that can be used for these projects. It’s also readily available at most lumber dealers because it’s often used as roof decking. Pressure-treated wood is another excellent choice; 5/4-inch decking boards make excellent planter materials. They’re easy to work with, and you can use scraps from finishing a deck to build planters that complement the deck.

The planter shown in Figure 1 is very easy to make. Although the design is a basic square, you can vary the dimensions to make rectangular short boxes, large and deep patio boxes, and even tall planter boxes with a false bottom to add variety to your backyard deck or patio.


First step is to cut all of the side pieces to length. Then rip the top and bottom side cleats to width. Lay out the pieces for one side on a flat surface. Measure the width and cut a bottom and top side cleat to length. Locate the top cleat flush with the top edge of the side pieces. Fasten in place with self-starting brass wood deck screws through the cleat into the side pieces. Locate the bottom side cleat with its bottom edge flush with the bottom edges of the side pieces and fasten in place. Repeat for the opposite side.


Screw the side cleats to the side pieces.


Position the bottom and then assemble the sides.

Lay out the side pieces for a joining side. Cut the bottom side cleat to length. Note that the cleat is shorter the thickness of the other two bottom cleats as well as the side pieces. This allows the first two assembled sides to overlap the next two. Center the cleat in place and fasten it to the side pieces. Repeat for the opposite side. Fasten the four side assemblies together with brass screws. Cut a pressure-treated bottom from plywood, or use pieces of deck board cut to length and ripped to fit. Bore drain holes in the bottom then fit the bottom down in place over the bottom cleats. Cut the top cleats to fit between the existing top cleats and fasten to the side pieces.


One unusual portable planter I concocted last summer was created using landscaping timbers. This allowed the planter to be placed in conjunction with the timbers edging a bed. The planter is a hexagon built of small pieces of the timbers. The planter consists of “layers” of octagons stacked up to create the height. For more “flair” the layers are alternated to provide an unusual corner detail.


The same octagon design could be stacked with corners mating as well. Regardless of the design, the layers are fastened together from the bottom, starting by placing the top layer upside down. Place the next-to-top layer on top of it, lining up the corners as desired. Counterbore holes through the next-to-top layer into the top layer and fasten with brass screws. A 1/2-inch, pressure-treated plywood bottom was fastened into a rabbet routed around the inside bottom edges of the bottom layer.



More Planter Plans

While in Canada this past year I saw a porch railing covered with hanging flower planters. I had constructed one of the railing planters for our deck, but the example I saw had two types. One sits on the deck and one hangs from the deck top. A series of boxes with alternating designs allows for a sort of draping arrangement that was very attractive. Both planters should be made of lightweight materials such as western white cedar. The rail box is constructed so the bottom width is the same as your particular porch or deck rail. The sides extend down over the railing to secure the box in place. You can also add brass deck screws for semi-permanent installation. To remove and clean each year, simply remove the screws. The box is assembled with brass deck screws.



The hanging box is made the same size, except the sides are square with the bottom. Strap-iron hangers are bent to hook over the railing and the hangers are then fastened to the back of the planter. Drain holes should be bored in the bottoms of both planters. These planters look nice when painted a color matching your house trim.


With a little imagination and some railroad ties, landscaping timbers, stone or wood scraps, you can create a variety of planters, large and small, for your backyard.

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