It’s true: Necessity is the mother of invention. I was reminded of that fact last spring, when I moved some apple trees outside for the season. Up until then, I had always grown newly grafted trees in 2-gallon nursery pots. These, however, were potted up in “deep root” pots – tall and skinny, designed to create an impressive root ball in minimal space. The pots did an excellent job of this. What they did not do well was stand up on their own. A 16-inch-tall pot with a base only 4 inches by 4 inches will tip in the slightest breeze.
A new graft is a delicate thing. For the first year, a songbird’s weight or the force of a stiff breeze can snap off a graft union. Add to this a pot prone to tipping in the best of conditions, and you have a recipe for disaster. I needed to find a solution. As it happens, there is a pot stand specifically made for deep pots, but I didn’t know that at the time. I did the next best thing: I designed a pot rack of my own, from a repurposed shipping pallet.
Shipping pallets are readily available and economical, sometimes free. You can usually get them from a hardware or appliance store, supermarket, or any place that receives regular shipments of bulky items. Take the time to find a pallet in good condition – clean and unbroken. Most pallets are manufactured of low-grade wood, secured with cement-coated nails. Resist the temptation to try to pull the nails; you will only succeed in splintering the wood and frustrating yourself. Another thing to look for is the letters “HT” on a code stamped on the side of the skid. These letters stand for “heat treated,” a process designed to kill potential hitchhiker pests without using toxic pesticides.
The following instructions are just guidelines, but you can tailor-make your rack to suit your purposes. Your rack could be tall enough to store long-handled tools in your shed, or maybe hold several tiers of alpine strawberries in a vertical garden. It’s all up to you.
These instructions make use of several power tools. Always practice safe work habits. Keep your hands away from saw blades, cut away from your body, and always unplug a power tool before changing blades or bits. Finally, wear a pair of safety glasses while you work.
• Clean wooden pallet in good condition, heat-treated if possible
• Decking screws
• Safety glasses
• Tape measure
• C clamp
• Speed square, rafter square, or combination square
• Power saw (jigsaw, circular saw, saber saw or reciprocating saw)
• Electric drill
• Pot for sizing purposes
1. Select a suitable pallet for your project. Look for one with solid skids; some will have cutouts for side loading, making them difficult to work with. Also, pay attention to the spacing between the top and bottom boards. Be certain the spacing is right for your application.
2. Determine the finished height of your rack. It needs to be at least half the height of your pots. To do this, stand the pallet on one end and insert a pot into the space between the boards, seating it securely in place. Note: This step is easier if you prop the pallet against a sawhorse or shed wall as you fit the pot.
3. Mark the side of the pallet at the bottom of the pot. Measure from the pallet end to the mark, and increase the measurement to the next whole inch (for example, 9-3⁄8 inches becomes 10 inches). This is your cut length. Use a carpenter’s square or speed square to transfer this cut length to the other side skid and center skid.
4. Cut along the squared marks on all three skids to remove the pallet end. This will be the body of your rack. As you cut, support both sections of the pallet securely to avoid twisting, which could cause the boards to splinter. You may find that you cannot make complete cuts with a jigsaw or circular saw, especially on the center skid. Use a hand saw to finish the cuts. Set the rack body aside.
5. Select a good, complete board on the pallet remnant, one that is free of splits and cracks. Measure the longest possible whole-inch span of clear board, and mark squared cut lines. Cut this board from the pallet. Repeat this step to produce two boards of equal length. A good length is 16 inches, but your pallet will determine the final board length. These two boards will be the feet of your rack.
6. Locate and mark the center of each board along its longest measurement (8 inches on a 16-inch board), and mark a squared centerline across its width. Decide which end of the rack will be the base, and mark the centers on the side skids on the base. Mark a squared line running the length of the skids, an inch longer than the width of the board feet. Use these centerlines to position the feet on the ends of the rack.
7. Position one foot on the end of the rack, lining up the centerlines, and secure it temporarily with a C-clamp. Be sure the bottom of the foot is flush to the bottom of the rack, and squared off to it. Drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the diameter of the deck screws, countersinking the hole to match the diameter of the screw heads. Note: Drilling pilot holes helps to prevent wood splitting.
8. Select deck screws long enough to secure the foot to the frame without jutting out the other side. Using screws that are too long creates a snag hazard and risk of injury. Securely run a screw into the pilot hole to secure the board. Pilot drill and secure two more spots on the foot before removing the clamp. Repeat steps 7 and 8 on the opposite side of the rack.
9. If desired, apply two coats of outdoor acrylic paint to the pot rack. Because pallet lumber tends to be dry, you may find that the wood requires a third coat. While painting is not absolutely necessary, it will make the pot rack more attractive, and it will also extend its lifespan noticeably.
10. Place the pot rack in your nursery area after the paint has dried completely. Set the pots in the spaces between the sides, settling each one in securely. I set my rack beside our deck, within easy reach of a hose and sheltered from storms, high winds and perching songbirds. My unpainted pot rack, weathered to a silver-gray, proved to be functional and attractive.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he is always up to the challenge of finding a hack or work-around to life’s difficulties. Always open to suggestions, he says his best ideas usually come from other people.