If you’re a gardener of any level looking for something to make gardening easier and save time – while also keeping things looking sharp – this episode is for you. You won’t find today’s featured items at any garden center, but I use them more than any other accessory in the garden – hands down. I’m talking about livestock panels. I use them all through the garden, so If you’ve been following me on Instagram lately, you might have noticed them. They’ve been front and center in several of my posts.
Livestock panels (also known as feedlot cattle panels) are designed for use with livestock, of course. That’s why you’ll find them for sale at farm supply stores. Here in the Atlanta area, I buy these panels at Tractor Supply Company.
A typical panel is constructed of a grid of openings 8” high x 6” wide. Goat panels are another option, with grid openings 4” square. The livestock panels I buy are 16’ long and 50” wide (at a cost of around $22), and the goat panels are just as long but only 48” wide (and are more expensive – about $64).
Made of 4-gauge galvanized metal, these panels won’t rust and are really sturdy. With a little muscle, you can bend them for more great applications in the garden. They are pretty much the ideal balance of strength and flexibility.
I use these panels in so many different ways, that I am determined to write a book one day listing 101 gardening applications. Today, though, I’m sharing with you my top ten list.
A Love Affair is Born
It all began on a sunny, fall Saturday afternoon about seven years ago. I was preparing to plant my fall crops, and I had a lot of seedlings to get into the ground.
I like a tidy garden. Correction, I’m a little obsessed with having a tidy garden. After all, there isn’t much we can control out there. We give Mother Nature a run for her money, but she is always largely in control. That’s one reason I love an orderly garden – evenly spaced plants in neat rows. It’s the one thing I have absolute control over, before the chaos of the season sets in.
My planting board has been a good go-to for even spacing for years, but on this particular fall weekend, I was looking for a shortcut. Too many seedlings and too little time to plant them. Can you relate?
I scanned the landscape around the GardenFarm™, and my eyes fell on a goat panel propped against the fence. As soon as I spotted the geometrically perfect grid – I had my lightbulb moment. The grid was the perfect planting template.
The panel was too large to lay across my raised beds manageably, so I cut it to size with bolt cutters (those will set you back around $20 from a big box store). Then, I laid it across the surface of the soil. With the template as my guide, all I had to do was dig the planting holes, set the seedlings and press the soil back into place. Within minutes, an entire 4’x12’ raised bed was fully planted – and perfect.
Not only had it made planting fast and easy, but the ease – and end results – made it more fun too. I was instantly hooked on using goat panel as a planting resource. Moving the template from bed to bed, I was able to plant out all sixteen of my raised beds in just a few hours.
I had only scratched the surface.
The next morning, I entered the garden and discovered that the chickens had been busy. They had hopped into the raised beds and made a mess foraging in the soil around my freshly planted seedlings. That’s when I realized that the goat panel could serve a second purpose.
When left on the surface of the bed after planting, the panel grid prevents the chickens from scratching around in the soil. The galvanized metal doesn’t rust, and the plants just grow up through it. So, there is no reason not to leave the panel in place.
Even better – by cutting a slightly larger piece and letting it rest on the top of the 4” sidewalls of my raised beds, the panel is suspended a few inches above the soil which blocks access from the chickens completely.
Guess what else doesn’t scratch around goat panel: cats! It used to drive me crazy when my barn cats would use my garden beds as a litter box. Not anymore – thanks to the goat panels.
They do a good job at keeping the squirrels out of my bed too. So, I think of them as an insurance policy against plant damage from nearly all digging pests. Meanwhile, my unmolested plants grow up through the grid. As the plants mature, you can’t even see that the panel is there.
The Prospects Continue to Climb
Two great uses for goat panel discovered in just one weekend of gardening, but I was only getting started. On that second day, I realized a third reason to love these panels – trellising.
For several years, I had been using pre-made string trellis systems. Maybe you’ve used those? They work, but they’re a hassle to use.
There’s no shortage of trellis options to buy or DIY, but none of them are very efficient to set up. None but the livestock panel, that is.
I stand a panel on its side and lean it in toward the center of my bed (although you could just as easily prop one against a wall or fence). I lean a second panel from the other side to meet in at the top and form a sort of teepee.
I secure the top with zip ties, so this design takes just a few minutes to set up. The sidewall of my raised beds can hold the bottom in place, but if that’s not an option for you, another beautiful benefit of livestock panels is that you can cut them to create soil spikes.
By cutting the crossbar of each grid square, you end up with a metal spike that can be driven into the soil easily. The evenly spaced spikes are sturdy, and you can make them as long as you need – depending on how many crossbars deep you cut.
If you prefer to spike the bottom of your trellis into the soil, cut the crossbars all along the side which will meet the soil surface. Drive the spike into the ground and lean the trellis into the bed center or against another vertical surface. That’s what I’ve been doing in recent years, and I love how sturdy it is.
Unlike a lot of traditional trellis options, the livestock panels are really easy to dismantle at the end of the season, and they stack and store through the winter without taking up much space. They can even be stored outdoors in harsh conditions – thanks to the galvanized metal construction.
The panels have worked so well for me, that I don’t trellis my peas, beans, cucumbers – anything – with anything other than livestock panels.
My Ultimate Tomato Cage
The following spring brought the discovery of my favorite use for livestock panels – my Ultimate Tomato Cage.
I love growing tomatoes. I’ve been growing them for years and have tried just about every option for plant support out there.
The flimsy store-bought options flop over in no time, and they are way to short for the indeterminate heirloom varieties I enjoy most. I’ve also used bamboo teepees, which didn’t provide much support for fruit-laden branches.
Cages made from concrete wire can work, but they are a hassle to store over winter. Another issue is that they aren’t very attractive.
My garden is the set of my television show, Growing a Greener World®. So, it has to look good all the time. That spring, I realized that the livestock panels made such an attractive and sturdy trellis that they were a natural material for a great tomato cage too.
I calculated the most efficient size I could cut from a full panel and settled on cages which were 18” wide and 5’ high (once inserted into the bed). The basic directions would work to create a cage of any size, but for me, 5’x18” is the sweet spot. It’s enough room to contain and support my bushy tomatoes and support all their fruit, while still allowing good air circulation and light.
Although indeterminate tomatoes will grow far beyond 5’ tall, I enjoy working with that height most and sometimes top the plants if they get much higher anyway.
Out of one livestock panel, I cut two 75”hx36”w pieces. I bend each piece at a 90 degree angle along the length, using a two-by-six board for leverage. When I put the two bent pieces around the tomato plant, they form a square cage. The cages are so sturdy on their own that I no longer bother to secure them with zip ties. That’s largely because I spike the bottom of each piece 16” to secure it into the ground. The whole process takes twenty minutes or less.
That size leaves me with two leftover pieces from the original panel – which I form in the same way to make shorter, perfectly-sized cages for peppers or eggplants too.
The cages look so good and work so well, that I love them as much today as I did when I first made them seven years ago.
Does $22 (the cost of the livestock panel) sound expensive for one tomato cage? Well, consider that each cage will last for years. They never rust, support your tomatoes like a dream, and they don’t take up much space to store in the offseason. You won’t find any other tomato cage which can compete – for any price.
I store mine outdoors and, after all these years of use, they still don’t show any sign of wear. I expect to get at least 20 years or so of use out of each cage.
Even More Bang for Your Buck
Here’s application number five: In early spring, I use each half of the tomato cages as a shade house for seedlings.
I lay the section over the seedlings to create a teepee or tent, and place shade cloth or reemay floating row cover over the section. Unlike hoops which have to be placed one-at-a-time over the area, my tomato cage panels cover a span of nearly 7’ span instantly, and the grid provides sturdy support to protect the plants underneath.
Surviving a Storm
A few years ago, I had just planted my fall garden when the remnants of a hurricane shifted paths and headed straight for the GardenFarm. Atlanta-area residents had just one day to prepare for the impact of the storm.
My raised bed garden is surrounded by tall trees, so I knew that falling debris – and lots of it – was inevitable. Fortunately, I realized my tomato cage sections would work as a guard, and I placed them over the young plants as a metal teepee or tent.
The next morning, the garden was a mess. Twigs, branches and other flying debris littered the garden area, but the strength and closely-spaced grid of the livestock panel sections kept all of my plants safe and free of damage.
Putting a Bow On It
This year, I’ll use livestock panels in a brand new way. I’m taking a cue from my friend and fellow gardener, Susan Mulvihill, and using them to create pole bean arches.
I’ll stand the length of a full-size panel along the edge of one of my raised beds and bow it over into an upside down U-shape, with the other side along the edge of a separate raised bed. My pole beans will grow up along this arch over my garden walkway to add a beautiful new dimension to my garden this season.
Here’s the best bonus about the archway trellis: The pole beans will hang down from the panel to make harvesting a pure pleasure. Not to mention, I’ll be able to stand in the shade of the pole bean foliage while I’m picking the crop. Harvesting in shade during the heat of an Atlanta mid-summer afternoon will be quite a treat.
Loving the Leftovers
Depending on how you opt to cut and use livestock panel in your garden, odds are good that you will have some smaller, leftover pieces. I always do, and I find plenty of uses for those odds and ends too.
I have several 4’x4’ pieces remaining from tomato cage projects, which I now use as what I like to refer to as “quick corrals.” Those corrals are designed to save plants from the browsing of my neighborhood deer population.
At various times during the year, I have plants still in containers as they wait until I have time to get them into the ground. As a preventative measure against deer damage, I gather the plants into a group and surround them within a circle of the 4’x4’ sections of livestock panels. I use zip ties to secure the panels together, and I keep the corral perimeter far enough away from the plants, that passing deer can’t reach the foliage.
The livestock material is sturdy enough that the corral stands up on its own, so I don’t need to spike the sections into the ground. When I’m ready to plant, I cut the zip ties and dismantle and store the sections to await their next job.
The Little Pleasures
Those extra pieces of livestock panel also work well for protecting in-ground beds.
This season, I added mounded beds to my garden area. I sowed the mounds with flower seeds to bring more color and support pollinators, but I needed a way to keep the scratching and digging pests out while the flowers germinated and established.
The odds-and-ends of livestock panel I’ve kept are perfect protection.
After I sowed seeds, I laid the small, flat pieces over the mounded beds. The cats and chickens weren’t able to scratch around the metal grid, so my flowers have sprouted and matured to the point that they can hold their own.
Within the next few days, I’ll be removing the panel protection and storing them away for whatever might come next.
And Finally – Number 10
This one isn’t actually an application in the garden, but I had to include it here because it’s given me so much more enjoyment from the garden. It’s inspired by my trips to the Pacific Northwest during filming for Growing a Greener World.
After a long day in the garden, I love to sit on my deck and just enjoy looking at the beauty of the plants and fruit. Unfortunately, my deck railing – like many – was constructed of 2” slats as a guard between the railings. Those slats always obstructed the view of the garden.
While in the Seattle area, I noticed several decks constructed with goat panel in place of wood slats between deck railings, so I converted my railing to goat panels too.
The goat panel is a safe and strong guard, but it provides great visual clearance. So now, I can sit on my deck and enjoy the (nearly) clear view of my garden – along with a cold beer or glass of wine.
So are you feeling inspired? Hopefully, some of these applications solve a garden problem or two for you. I’m finding new uses for livestock and goat panels all the time, and someday, I might just have time to write that book on the subject. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Is there a common material that you have put to multiple uses in your garden? I’d love to hear about your creative ideas in the Comment section below, and no doubt, you’ll be inspiring other gardeners too.
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