Introduction: Building a Semi-Permanent Fence

Gardens. Everybody loves a garden. Gardens provide food. Gardens provide shade. Gardens provide a nice place to dig. And once you dig a nice hole, a garden provides a cool spot to lie down in the dirt - if you are a dog.

We built a couple of raised beds so we could raise some vegetables and teach our kids something about raising their own food. Unfortunately, our dog decided it was a great place to hang out too. We spent most of our gardening time repairing the damage from her jaunts through the garden. This year, we decided to evict her from the garden once and for all.

A fence was the answer. But we didn't want to build something permanent since we don't see this as our "forever" home. So, I decided to build something semi-permanent. What does that mean? It means a fence that isn't built to stand the test of time. Something not quite Stonehenge, but more durable than cheesecloth. OK, perhaps that was a bad comparison. But you get the idea....

Step 1: Start With an Idea, the Right Tools, and a Few Cheap Materials

When building a fence to keep your nosy neighbors out, it is critical to locate the property line since you really can't build over it. Although this fence is less about keeping out the Johnson kid, the proper location is no less critical. There are three issues:
  1. It has to be aesthetically pleasing to the Spouse;
  2. It should do what it is meant to do (in this case, keep the dog out); and
  3. It must not hit any underground utilities.
Perhaps number 3 should have been first (some would argue that it is the most important). Whether it is first or not, it is important to call your state "dig" hotline BEFORE you start installing anything. Digging is required for this project and you should know what is down there before you dig. 

To meet the first requirement, I decided to build a very temporary fence so the spousal unit could see what I was proposing and give the green light before I made anything semi-permanent. This step kept me from digging more than a few holes.

So, what is needed to build a temporary, then semi-permanent fence? Here's a list:
  • Fence panels - You could build the fence from scratch, but these panels are small and light enough for one person to handle and save a lot of time on labor. I bought enough panels from the local home-improvement store to span the expected distance (measure twice!) plus one extra.
  • Metal posts - these are the big secret. Metal posts designed for putting up chicken wire or electric fence are usually sturdy enough to hold a small wooden fence. Don't get the super-cheap, super flimsy ones. Step up to the thicker once or your semi-permanent fence will really be just a temporary fence.
  • Some good wood screws - I used decking screws, but you can use whatever you like. Just be sure they are outdoor screws. Indoor screws will rust.
  • A pair of hinges meant for outdoor gates.
  • A latch of some sort.
You will also need a few tools:
  • Post-hole diggers - Don't skimp on these. A good digger is worth it.
  • A 5lb sledge - Claw hammers are too small, a sledge hammer is too big. A 5lb sledge is just right.
  • A screw driver - I used my battery-powered drill. If you are masochistic, you could use a regular screwdriver. Just make sure you have the correct bit (phillips, flat, or special bit for your special deck screws).
  • A measuring tape.
  • A level.
  • Some string wouldn't hurt if you like to create a nice layout before you get started.
  • A saw - There wasn't much sawing on my project, so I didn't drag out the circular saw. I used my trusty hand saw to get the job done.
That should do it for supplies. Now on to the temporary fence!

Step 2: Creating the Temporary Fence Part 1

Remember that string? If you are an over-achiever, you could break out the string a few stakes to create the ultimate fence layout. Me? I just grabbed two sections of fence and propped them up against the wall and the fence. Once I had approval from the Wife, I was ready to go!

I started by marking where I wanted the first post. I decided to place it in line with the second picket away from the existing fence. The t-posts I bought just need to be pounded into the ground with the 5lb sledge. Use the level to keep it plumb (pointed straight up - you aren't building the suburban version of the leaning tower here). And don't drive it in too deep. You will want it so the top hole meets the top rail high enough to be sure the pickets are off the ground. If your yard isn't level, be sure to give yourself adequate height so the gate (yes, this fence includes a gate) can swing freely. My yard slopes down from the house. It would have been easier to start at the house end, but I like making it harder than it has to be sometimes. Since this was the temporary fence, I didn't worry about it too much. After the first post is in, check the fence position and drive a second post at the other end. 

Once the posts are in place, get a buddy to lift the fence into position and drive the screws through the post and into the fence. If you don't have a buddy, a couple of pieces of scrap wood under between the pickets and the ground will prop up the fence to the right height. If you don't have wood scraps, you will need to improvise. Use a couple of good books, perhaps a couple of tools, or maybe you could use your foot (like I did). Now is the time to break out that level. Once one screw is in the first post, level the fence panel and screw one screw into the second post. Now finish up with a second screw in each post. By the way, if you don't have a drill or screwdriver, it is at this point you will want one.

Congratulations! You should now have one section of fence standing in place! 

Step 3: Creating the Temporary Fence Part 2

Now, go grab that other fence section and put it where you think you want it (double-check with your spouse if you aren't sure). Mark the location where the second section overlaps the first. If you don't have a pencil (seeing that I left if off the tools list), use one of those fancy deck screws to score the wood. Now move the fence panel out of the way and grab your saw.

It is time to cut the first panel to length. If your fence is on an angle like mine, you will need to cut at an angle. You should also pay attention to where the fence panels cross. I find it is much easier to cut between pickets, so adjust the overlap accordingly. Once it is marked, move the second panel out of the way and start cutting.

Now that your cuts are made, it is time to place the next panel. Follow the steps for putting up the first panel - put it into position and mark the locations for the posts; drive the posts into the ground (keep them plumb, don't drive them too deep); then lift the fence into final position and screw it into place. If you were thinking ahead, you placed your second post far enough away from the end to allow for a gate. If you were REALLY thinking ahead, you placed your tools on the same side of the fence as you are since you now trapped yourself behind the fence.

We thought we would like the gate to swing from the corner where the two sections met, so instead of screwing the fence panels together, I installed the hinges there. A simple cut between two pickets near the second post and I had a gate! But after swinging it open and closed a few times, I decided to switch the hinges to the other end and make the gate swing toward the house. I used a hook with a screw eye to secure the loose end of the gate. Be careful using a gate supported on these temporary posts. When the gate is open, the fence feels pretty flimsy. As long as your dog isn't a big dog or a climber, this temporary fence should be enough to keep it out.

Step 4: Adding Some "real" Posts to Make the Fence More Semi-permanent Part 1

After using the temporary fence for a week, we (meaning the Spouse) were pretty happy with the location. So, it was time to beef up the fence with a couple of semi-permanent posts. What makes a post semi-permanent? A lack of concrete! A "permanent" fence has posts secured to the ground with concrete. But this isn't necessary if the fence doesn't need to be robust enough to survive many years of abuse. 

I started by removing the gate. If you learned your lesson from installing the temporary fence, you bought a powered screwdriver and this step should be really easy. Then I set out the new posts and used the post-hole diggers to mark the location of the two holes I needed. The posts need to be 6 feet tall - four feet to match the fence height and two feet to go into the ground. Once the holes were marked, I removed the fence panels and pulled up the two temporary fence posts on either side of the gate.

Before digging the holes, it is a good idea to break out the tape measure and mark the post-hole diggers at the correct depth with a pencil or marker. This saves time since it isn't necessary to pull out the tape measure to check the depth of the hole. If the soil is clay, it is handy to have a second tool or a piece of wood to scrape the clay off the diggers. As the hole is being dug, check to make sure the hole is plumb. Use a piece of string with something small and heavy tied to the end. When finished, the hole should be at the correct depth and slightly larger than the post.

Now that there is a hole in the ground, drop the post in and rotate it so a flat face is in the correct orientation. I oriented ours so the "front" face was parallel to the angled portion of the fence. This was to make sure the gate would have square surfaces to work with. Double-check the height. There should be four feet above the ground. If there isn't, add or remove dirt as necessary to get it right. Now it is time to return some of the dirt back to the hole.

Use a shovel to add dirt to each side of the hole. Use a level to make sure the post stays plumb as the dirt is added. As it nears the top, tamp it down with a piece of wood or your foot. The idea is to remove all air pockets and pack the dirt tight. 

Step 5: Adding Some "real" Posts to Make the Fence More Semi-permanent Part 2

After the first post is in, the first panel can be replaced. However, I chose to make sure it would fit, then let it dangle there while I set up the second post. Of course, the culprit came back to survey the scene of her crimes against the garden one last time. It's impossible to keep a dog away from a freshly-dug hole.

But I digress! Now it's time to dig the hole for a second semi-permanent post. After the hole is dug, use a long level or a string level to ensure the posts are at the same height. The front face of the second post must be parallel to the first post and should be in line with the next section of fence. Use a string or a spare post lying flat on the ground to align the posts. It's easy to dig the hole in the wrong spot, or not have enough wiggle room to align the second post properly. If needed, spend the extra time to expand the hole so the posts will align. 

After everything is aligned, carefully pack the hole with dirt. 

Step 6: Attaching the Panels and the Gate (And That's All, Folks!)

The ends of the first panel were already cut at an angle, so it was simple to level the panel and screw it to the new post on one end and the old temporary post at the other. I adjusted the height of the fence panel so the top of the pickets aligned with the top of the post. A screw through each rail (the horizontal boards the pickets attach to) secures the panel to the new post. The old temporary post at the other end was too low, so it had to be pulled out and driven in again. I moved it one picket over so it wouldn't be loose in the old hole.

The second panel was attached the same way - a screw through each rail into the post and another screw through the temporary post into each rail.

The new posts took up a bit more room, so I cut down the old gate to fit the new smaller opening. Although it wasn't mentioned earlier, I made sure the new opening was wide enough for the wheelbarrow to get through. That's important for a garden! The gate swings on a pair of strap hinges and is held closed with a simple screw-eye latch. The screws supplied with the strap hinges were only a quarter of an inch, so I replaced them with 1.5 inch deck screws in the post. The gate will rot before the screws fall out!

All of the wood is treated, so the posts and panels should last for many years. The post installation really isn't much different than the regular fence. The only differences are that the posts aren't as deep and don't have two feet of concrete at the bottom. I expect them both to need replacing about the same time. And guess which one will be easier to replace!

So, that's it! I hope this will help you with your next fence project!