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A Place To Pot

September 29, 1996|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

For honest-to-goodness gardeners, the potting bench is where it's at. It's where great gardeners are created and where they practice their craft. It's where plants are born, nurtured and moved along until they're ready to go out into the garden or onto the patio.

If you're tired of squatting on the driveway or patio to pot things up, you really need a potting bench, one tall enough so that you don't have to stoop and sturdy enough to hold a hefty pot full of wet soil.

You could lay a few boards across stacks of concrete blocks, buy a ready-made bench or build this one, but every gardener needs a potting bench, just as a carpenter needs a workbench.

On my bench, I pile the potting soil in one corner of a three-sided bin on top and keep bat guano, bone meal and other fertilizers nearby. There's room for flats, dibbles, labels, trowels and other tools on either side of the bin.

Stockpile soil mixes, amendments and miscellaneous pots underneath. Pin calendars, planting charts and notes about when to sow those sweet pea seeds to the back.

Hang a light overhead so you can pot and play after work. Better yet, put the bench in a potting shed. There, everything's out of the weather, including bags of fertilizer, boxes filled with dormant bulbs and packets of seed. A shed measuring about 7 by 8 feet would be just right, holding everything from the bench to the lawn mower.

Imagine your bench under a window in the shed, rain tapping on the roof while you pot up some daffodils for the patio, the rich soil darkly glowing in the soft gray light coming through the panes, the air damp and cool, scented with soil. Someday.

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For now, you can build the bench, probably in a weekend. If you're not handy, give this article to someone who is and remind him or her of that anniversary or birthday just around the corner.

The design you see here is based on a woodworking bench that I built 20 years ago from old plans. It's still as sturdy as it was the day I tightened the last bolt.

Screws and bolts are one of reasons these benches are so strong and wobble-free. As the wood shrinks with time, you can tighten them. There are no nails to loosen. This is especially important outdoors because wood dries and shrinks quickly.

Those wide 1-by-12s on the sides and ends are equally important; their width stiffens the structure so it doesn't jiggle. Don't skimp here. If you want to save money, replace the rather expensive ($4 a foot) 2-by-12s on top with exterior plywood or some other surface. The top can always be replaced if it wears out, but you want a very beefy frame supporting it.

The heart of the bench is the three-sided bin that keeps potting soil in place. No more sweeping up spilled mix. Keep some soil pushed into one corner so you're always ready to pot.

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There is a lip on the bench so you can brush unused soil back into the bags. Keep most of the soil in bags under the bench so it doesn't dry out. You could put boards across the leg supports to make shelves, but it's probably better to keep the heavy bags on the ground underneath, along with extra pots.

My bench is 3 feet tall; others might find this too lofty, although kitchen counters are typically 3 feet. If you want a lower bench, shorten the legs.

I used good redwood from a lumberyard to build the bench because it's easy to work with (it cuts like warm butter) and, more important, because any splinters are small and not as potentially dangerous as they are on the stronger but less expensive Douglas fir. (That's why redwood is used for decking.)

It's really a simple project, especially for someone with a radial arm saw. I used a power circular saw and drill, but it could even be built with a handsaw and old-fashioned brace and bit. Just remember the adage: "Measure twice and cut once."

Our bench cost about $100 to build out of clear construction redwood.

If you can't build the bench and can't talk anyone else into taking on the project, there are potting benches you can buy, some through the mail, though none is as big and sturdy as ours.

The most functional is a galvanized steel stand with sides to hold the potting mix. It's English, costs about $60 and is available from Langenbach (Department L64100, P.O. Box 1420, Lawndale, CA 90260-6320, [800] 362-1991).

More romantic but not as practical because there are no sides to contain the soil (though there are lots of shelves) are two wooden benches, an especially sturdy cedar one for about $245 from the Natural Gardening Co. (217 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo, CA 94960, [707] 766-9303) and one for about $175 from Gardener's Eden (P.O. Box 7307, San Francisco, CA 94120-7307, [800] 822-9600).

Some Armstrong nurseries sell a potting bench much like the catalog versions, and it does have sides, although they are not as high as the sides on our bench. It's about $80.

Gardener's Supply Co. (128 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT 05401) has a nice 3-foot-long cedar bench with sides to hold soil, plus shelves and drawers, for $165.

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