Planters with Purpose

Multi-function gardens for division, privacy and nourishment.

Golden retriever puppy Luna checks out the new fence. Photo by Sarah Holman

With the summer upon us, it’s time to make the most of outdoor living spaces. Residing in the city, on a small lot, or sharing a yard with others can mean limited options for classic summer escapes like patios and decks. At my home in Portland, we designated the upper end of our driveway as fire pit central, eventually tearing up the pavement and replacing it with cobblestone. The remainder of our yard is fenced for security and privacy, which worked just fine until a puppy joined our family. Suddenly we needed a way to close off the end of the driveway to keep the dog contained, but we also needed to be able to open the barrier to access the backyard from the active driveway. When a fence-gate combo estimate came back in excess of $5,000, we decided to get creative.

Cedar planks were used in the creation of these moveable planters. Photo by Sarah Holman

We knew whatever we built had to be tall enough to keep a grown Golden Retriever from leaping over it and heavy enough to keep her from pushing it aside, but also light enough for an adult to move. After several iterations of designs, we settled on building three cedar planters connected with long hook and eye latches, with the center planter on wheels. The addition of lattice for climbing plants would provide height and privacy from the street.

Cedar planks are sold in 8-foot lengths at Lowe’s, and we wanted to waste as little as possible. Each box would be 48 inches tall by 24 inches wide, which made the math easy. For the legs, interior floor bracing and lattice stabilizers, we used 2-inch x 2-inch cedar balusters. Instead of installing the floor at the very bottom of the planter, we attached it in the middle to save on soil and weight. Decorative lattice or “screening” is available at Lowe’s and online in 2-foot x 4-foot sections. It comes in several designs and colors. We chose an organic-style, white polymer option that can stand up to the Maine winter.

Decorative lattice or “screening” is available at Lowe’s and online in 2-foot x 4-foot sections. It comes in several designs and colors. Photo by Sarah Holman

After filling the planters with soil and compost, we planted annuals that will grow full and fast. At O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham, I asked about the best climbing plants for containers, and they recommended two annuals, morning glories and black-eyed Susan vines, and two perennials, clematis and honeysuckle. “Hydrangea vines are also wonderful for an arbor,” a sales associate told me. Her suggestion made me think about creating shade in yards that don’t have big trees, and I learned that grape vines are particularly strong and can be trained to climb up and over a trellis, as can the honeysuckle vining shrub. A small bistro table under a shady cascade of honeysuckle seems like the perfect place to enjoy a morning cup of coffee or an evening glass of Rosé during the warm months.

If you prefer to forgo fencing and create a natural division with plants, you could try rambling rose, although the O’Donal’s associate told me the Maine winter is hard on them and recommended the quick-spreading beach rose instead. Another great pick for screening is the evergreen Arborvitae, which is fast-growing and easy to care for. Plant several in a line and, within a year or two, the dense greenery fills in to create a living fence.

These simple, moveable cedar boxes provide visual interest and a place to grow flowers while creating a puppy barrier. Photo by Sarah Holman

Our driveway planters are shaded by a large deciduous tree, but it would be easy to use this design for a raised vegetable bed if more sun were available. Peas, beans and cucumbers could all be trained to grow up the panel, and the soil is deep enough to support most vegetables. Ali Mediate, founder and director of Maine Foodscapes, which designs and installs gardens for both paying clients and through grants for families who want to garden but don’t have the means, says strawberries are an excellent planter choice, as well as kale, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. She also loves to plant brightly colored nasturtium flowers in her beds. “You can eat them in a salad, garnish a plate or throw them in pesto,” Mediate says. “And they have a pollinator benefit.”

With so many ways to make the most of outdoor spaces of any size, there is every reason to get outside. Our planter project took a full day of construction, not including the planning phase, and cost under $500. That’s a heck of a lot less than a $5,000 fence and so much more interesting to look at. The puppy, by the way, agrees.

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at

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