Chris Gleason On DIY, Gardening and Outdoor Projects You Can Build

I met Chris Gleason twenty years ago in college but we've been out of touch since then. Let's just say I'm not at all surprised where he is now. He's one of the most genuine and likeable people you'll ever meet and incredibly grounded, literally. He got his feet wet (or, more likely, muddy) growing up on a farm, but now as an adult and city dweller no less, he's returned to the land so to speak as an avid gardener and talented woodworker.

He's combined these two loves in a new book, Building Projects for Backyard Farmers and Home Gardeners: A Guide to 21 Handmade Structures for Homegrown Harvests aimed at the DIY'er, gardener and anyone looking to make the most of their outdoor space, large or small.

Building Projects for Backyard Farmers and Home Gardeners doesn't just inspire you to try new outdoor projects, it walks you through them step by step with detailed plans and photos. There are 21 projects in all with a third related to vertical gardening. Projects include building a tiered lettuce rack, a rabbit hutch, a top bar bee hive, several kinds of raised beds, a garden cart, a vermiculture bin, a rainwater harvesting system, a pea trellis and more. While Chris is a woodworker by profession, he doesn't expect that you are and breaks each project down in a way that is easy to understand and easy to execute yourself.

I chatted with Chris about his latest book, his thoughts on the modern homesteading movement, gardening and much more:

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You've written numerous books focused on do-it-yourself building; why do you feel so evangelical about DIY?

To say that I live and breathe DIY isn't much of a stretch, really, and with that in mind, spreading the DIY gospel is really just the next logical step. The bottom line is that I love to make stuff and always have: whether it's puttering around in the garden, or building banjos for local musicians, or working at my day job as a full-time woodworker, well, those are just small shifts, really.

During my working hours, I build furniture and cabinetry for clients in our area, and I've done so as my chief means of making a living for my whole post-college life, which is coming up on fifteen years now. I love my work, and it tends to spill over into other areas of my life: for example, when my wife and I bought our home about nine years ago, we went for a fixer-upper. This means that I've done a ton of projects there, and it has been pretty much been completely transformed over time. Not only is this a source of tremendous personal pride, but it is financially advantageous: we spent a lot less than others in our neighborhood for a comparable property, and for our family, that result is huge.

I am also self-taught, as are many people in my field. When I was starting out - and bear in mind, this was pre-internet - I relied upon books and magazines to supplement the trial and error that made up most of my days. So I really have books - and the written word in general, in whatever form it is transmitted - on a bit of a pedestal. It is just so satisfying to see things come full circle and spend some time on the teaching side of things. It reminds me of how far I've come and how good it feels to have stuck with it during the challenging early days.

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Your latest book, Building Projects for Backyard Farmers and Home Gardeners, is targeted at modern homesteaders. Gardening has always been a popular hobby, but have you seen a mainstreaming of other backyard enterprises, like chickens and beekeeping since you became interested in these things?

It has been just incredible, really, to see these things blossoming- pun intended- in such a brief timespan as part of the mainstream zeitgeist. You hear a few sort of standard explanations- the weak economy has people growing their own veggies, and the proliferation of Franken-foods has folks raising their own heirloom breeds of chickens- and there is probably some truth to some of these things. From my perspective, I'm just glad to see people hopping on the bandwagon to whatever degree they can. I think we all realize that planting a row of lettuces won't change the world, but I also think that there is such a joyful and hopeful attitude in the collective consciousness right now where people are wanting to at least try to part of the solution, for however they define it. And that is a very refreshing thing. I don't see this trend bottoming out anytime soon. Frankly, it seems like to me, from my limited perspective on the sidelines, to be kind of a self-reinforcing set of trends: the more people choose local food, the more people crop up to provide it, and so on.

You grew up on a farm - did that set you on this path to backyard farming?

Ha! Growing up on a farm was fantastic, in some ways- I spent entire summers building forts up in the hayloft, and that aspect was just magical- but on the other hand, I spent years getting up at 4:30 am to milk cows, which was the worst kind of hard, dirty work. It is easy to romanticize the idea of growing up on a farm, but by and large, I wouldn't wish it on someone. I actually spent a long time- fifteen years, at least- doing nothing farmlike whatsoever, and now that I'm an adult, and have been raising chickens and growing some of our family's food for the past six or seven years, well, I'd like to think that those decisions have very little to do with my earlier background.

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Tell us about your own garden - what are you planning to grow this year? What would you like to grow that you haven't tried yet?

We grow about 15 different types of vegetables, and my favorite is tomatoes. I just can't have too many. Last year, our family of three had 27 plants, and I yearned for more. During the peak of tomato season, we'll eat a quart of salsa per day. So, we're always adding new varieties. Lately, I've been obsessed with tomatillo salsa so we're planting tomatillos, as well. In terms of other produce, we have an apple tree, a cherry tree, a plum tree that we make wine from, potatoes, squash, peas, beans, grapes, and more. Plus lots of herbs. Can't have too much basil, for example. We also just planted a blueberry bush that I'm really excited about.

You have an almost 4-year-old, how do you get her involved in the garden or your outdoor projects?

It is really easy. Four-year olds loved projects, so I like to give her the chance to help just about every time I do something interesting in the garden. Even simple tasks count, since we're just going for participation: if I'm setting up a trellis, she is always curious and willing to assist, even if that just means holding onto a piece of 2x4 until I'm ready to put it up. And, I have yet to see the four-year old that doesn't like to dig and plant stuff.

When and how did you learn about woodworking and building things? What advice would you give to a beginner or what resources would you point him or her toward?

As I mentioned, I recommend reading everything you can. In this day and age, that means using the internet as well as print media. There are a ton of blogs worth checking out!

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A lot of urban dwellers don't own chainsaws and other large tools that they might need for outdoor woodworking projects - any advice for getting around this?

Sure, most outdoor woodworking projects can be tackled with the same kinds of tools that you'd use for indoor projects. So, if you have (or have access to) basic tools like a circular saw and a cordless drill, you can probably do 90% or more of what you'd like to tackle in your yard.

You wrote a whole book about building chicken coops, (Art of the Chicken Coop) and your family keeps chickens. What should someone know before they get into keeping chickens at home - what are the pros and cons?

Backyard chickens are super fun, but they are also a bit of a commitment. So, if the commitment feels like too much, I would heed that intuition and take a pass on raising chickens. If you have done some research, however, and you feel like you can deal with the potential hurdles, I say "go for it". The reality is that, once you're up and running, chickens aren't much more work than having a couple of cats. On a daily basis, it is really quite a minimal amount of work: you'll need to give them food and water, collect their eggs, and have a look to confirm that they're doing fine. Its takes maybe five minutes a day. Once a year, we clean out our coop, which takes about fifteen minutes. It is worth noting that, because we live in a very dry area, our chickens' poop dries out almost instantly and has almost no odor. We simply add it to our compost pile and move on. In wetter climes, however, I imagine that odor may be more of an issue. You'll also need to make sure that you build a predator-proof enclosure so that they'll be safe and sound.

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You use a lot of recycled (and often, free) wood in your backyard projects - any tips for where to score free wood or what free wood to avoid?

Pallet wood is one of my favorite sources for free wood, if you are willing to do the work to salvage the lumber. It isn't hard, but you'll have to put in some 'sweat equity' first. I have a book in the works on making furniture and more with pallet wood, so stay tuned on that one. My real favorite source for interesting materials on the cheap is at the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. They operate over 6,000 stores all over the world, and they are a clearinghouse for used building materials of all kinds. You never know what kinds of lumber might show up there, and it is always sold for pretty much pennies on the dollar. It is worth finding the location nearest you.

In your book you devote a chapter to vertical gardening which is particularly valuable if you have a small yard. What are your favorite vegetables to grow vertically?

So many things happen to grow on trellises! Peas and beans are commonly grown this way, and they're fun, but tomatoes are really the coolest, I think. This year, I plan to trellis my tomatoes up two vertical "walls" that will be around 6-7' high, and then I plan to train them horizontally so that the whole thing forms a sort of "tunnel" that my daughter can hang out in. Seems like fun to me!

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Imagine an Apartment Therapy reader who has just moved into a new home - their first with a yard. This reader, who has never gardened before, wants to start. What advice or encouragement would you give?

What a great scenario - blank canvases are exciting! I would start by asking questions: what do they most like to eat? How much time do they want to put in to it? What would be their best-case scenario? My wish for beginners is that they can have enough fun and experience enough success that they'll come back and do it again. This means tackling projects that aren't too daunting and that have a high likelihood of success. Good strategy, in other words, will make sure that these people don't get overwhelmed, only bite off what they can chew, and get to reap some real rewards without getting exhausted along the way. Identifying the crop or crops that these homeowners will love the most, and that are also as easy as possible to grow, will help to stack the deck in their favor. Most projects have an easy way and a hard way - and there are no points given for doing things the hard way. I would also emphasize that most gardens evolve over time- expert gardeners think long term, and they realize that every year presents an opportunity to try something new. You can't comfortably do it all at once.

Thanks Chris!

Building Projects for Backyard Farmers and Home Gardeners: A Guide to 21 Handmade Structure for Homemade Gardens (2012) is published by Fox Chapel Publishing. Ask for it at your local bookstore, library or purchase it online.
• Chris's Amazon Author page
• Chris's blog, Seeds and Sawdust
• Chris's woodworking business, Gleason Woodworking Studio

(Images 1-4 & 6, 7: Fox Chapel Publishing. Image 5: Chris Gleason)

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