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Install a Critter-Proof Garden Fence

Use pressure-treated lumber to build a sturdy post-and-rail enclosure that prevents animals from swiping your veggies

If you're Elmer Fudd, you thwart carrot thieves by sending an Acme Pest Control robot after Bugs Bunny. If you're a seasoned gardener, you know that fencing in your tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and other edibles is the way to go. Our version fends off two varieties of varmints, with wide, welded-wire mesh panels to keep out rabbits and dogs, and tighter, PVC-coated galvanized wire buried below to stymie subterranean-bound woodchucks and moles. A gate at each end allows you to wheelbarrow in garden amendments like mulch and compost. This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows you how to use common building materials—and not mechanical mercenaries—to preserve and protect your hard-grown produce.

Pressure-treated 44 posts, $14 each, and 24 rails, $4.37 each; pressure-treated post caps, from $4; gate hardware, $20; welded wire, $62 for 50 feet; all, The Home Depot. PVC-coated wire, $110 for 100 feet; Critterfence.

Step 1

Critter-Proof Fence Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec


  • Day 1: Install posts and rails (Steps 2–11).
  • Day 2: Attach mesh and build gates (Steps 12–18).

Critter-Proof Fence Cut List

  • 4x4 corner posts: ten @ 10 feet (or 12 feet if the grade is severely sloped)
  • 2x4 rails: sixteen cut to fit
  • 2x6 gate top rail: two @ 34 inches
  • 2x4 gate stiles: two @ 57½ inches
  • 2x4 gate bottom rail: two @ 34 inches
  • 2x4 diagonal brace: two cut to fit
Step 2

Square the Corners

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Determine, roughly, the four corners of the fence. Use 2-foot-tall stakes and mason line to mark all four sides, extending the lines several feet at each end so they cross at the corners. Then square the corners using the Pythagorean theorem: Hammer in a stake 3 feet from one pair of intersecting lines, touching the string; then, using a felt-tip marker, mark 4 feet from the same corner on the other line. Measure between the stake and the mark, as shown, and adjust the marked line until the distance between the two is 5 feet. Repeat the process to square the remaining corners.

Step 3

Find the Height

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Hang a string level on each line and level it about 12 inches off the ground, to represent the top of the lower rail. Then, if the grade is level, notch the location of the strings on each stake. If the garden slopes, measure between level lines and the ground at each corner; if the difference between the four is more than a foot, use 12-foot posts in the low corners (as we did).

Step 4

Mark the Post Locations

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use spray paint at the location of each corner post, as shown. Then measure off the string lines to determine the locations of the field posts 8 feet away and mark the locations just inside the strings. Finally, in the middle of two sides, mark locations for the gateposts 36 inches apart, allowing for a gate wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow.

Step 5

Prep the Postholes

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Untie the lines and dig 8-inch-diameter holes deep enough to get below the frost line and to bury at least one-third of the post. Pour 6 inches of drainage stone into the bottom of each hole and tamp it using the end of a post.

Step 6

Dig the Trenches

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

The PVC-coated galvanized wire sits below grade in a trench that runs outside the posts. Rent a trencher for large projects, or use a spade and a trenching shovel for smaller ones. With a trencher, guide it so it digs just outside the postholes, cutting down about 18 inches. Then use a spade to excavate the strip between the footings and the trench down 12 inches, creating a stepped ditch.

Step 7

Mark the Corners

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

With a post on a work surface, use 2x4 scrap to mark the notch location for the upper rail 15 inches down from one end. Then make a mark for the lower rail 56½ inches away. Repeat the process on the other corner posts, using a rafter square to carry the marks around corners. On the field posts and gateposts, mark only one face.

Step 8

Cut the Notches

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use 2x4 scrap as a gauge to set the depth of the circular saw. Make several passes between the rail marks on two adjoining faces of the corner posts. Knock the slivers free with a hammer, then clean out the notches with a chisel, as shown. Cut the field posts and gateposts the same way.

Tip: To clean out a notch, rest the chisel's wider face on the wood. Move the cutting edge in an elliptical pattern as you push the chisel forward.

Step 9

Sink the First Corner Post

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Restring the stakes using the notches made earlier. Drop a corner post into its hole and add or remove stone until the bottom of the lower rail notch meets the string. The faces of the notched sides should touch the string. Use a level to plumb the post in both directions and backfill the footing with a mixture of excavated earth and stone, tamping it with a scrap of 2x4.

Step 10

Set the Next Post

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Drop a field post in the next hole. Screw a 2x4 rail into the upper notch of the first post temporarily and fit its loose end into the matching notch of the second post. Check the rail with a level, as shown, and add or remove stone from the hole for the second post until the rail comes to level. Plumb the post, with its face touching the string, then backfill it. Remove and reuse the temporary rail to set the remaining posts. For the two hinge posts, use fast-setting concrete as backfill.

Step 11

Attach the Rails

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Once all the posts are set, position an upper rail with one end in the corner post notch, leaving space for the perpendicular rail, and the other end in the notch of the next post. At the overhanging end, make a cutline on the rail at the halfway point of the notch. Remove the rail and cut it to length with a circular saw. Align the rail in the notch using a 2x4 scrap, as shown, then attach it to the corner post with a pair of 3-inch deck screws. Attach the loose end with two more screws. Repeat the process for the remaining rails, skipping over the space between the gateposts.

Step 12

Staple on the Upper Fencing

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Begin by attaching the fencing to a corner post, hammering in ¾-inch galvanized staples every 18 inches along its cut end, so the top lands in the middle of the upper rail. Staple the fencing along the upper rail, unspooling the roll as you go. Use linesman pliers to trim it and staple it along the opposite corner post. Then fasten it to the middle posts and lower rail. Repeat the process for the remaining sides, skipping the space between the gateposts.

Step 13

Add Lower Fence

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Use linesman pliers to trim the PVC-coated galvanized wire as long as a fence side. Staple the top edge of the wire to the lower rail and posts. Push the fence down 12 inches into the trench, and use your hand to crease the wire away from the posts, forming a shelf that will prevent any burrowers from getting under, then bend the wire down into the channel. Repeat for each side of the fence, then backfill the trench with soil.

Step 14

Assemble the Frame

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Back on the work surface, overlap the gate rails with the stiles, keeping the width about 1 inch narrower than the distance between the gateposts and as tall as the space between the rails. Square the corners with a rafter square and mark where the parts overlap. Set the circular saw depth to cut half the thickness of the material and notch half-lap joints with a series of cuts, as shown. Clear the notches as before, then screw the parts together with a pair of 1¼-inch deck screws at each joint.

Step 15

Arch the Top

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Drive a nail into the center of the 2x6 top rail, set in slightly from the top edge. Add one nail on each stile, centered on the rail's width. Bend a length of scrap over the center nail and under the end nails; trace the curve, as shown. Cut the arch with a jigsaw, then round the edges with sandpaper.

Step 16

Add the Brace

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Rest a 2x4 diagonally across the gate with either end roughly centered on a corner. Mark where the brace overlaps the gate, as shown, and transfer the mark up the edges of the brace. Cut the brace's angled ends with a circular saw, then screw through it and into the gate with 3-inch deck screws. Cover the gate with welded wire mesh using staples. Repeat this process to build the second gate.

Tip: To prevent the gate from sagging, screw the brace in so the lower end points toward the lower hinge.

Step 17

Shim the Gate

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Place the gate in the opening. Add spacers underneath until the gate's lower rail is level with the ones on the fence. Center the gate in the opening by tapping shims in between the posts and the gate, as shown.

Step 18

Add the Hardware

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Position the strap hinges on one side of the gate and mark the location of the screws on the rails and hinge post. Remove the hinges, drill pilot holes, and attach the hardware. Repeat the process for the latch, as shown, then install the second gate the same way. Finish the posts off with caps and finials attached with stainless-steel nails or construction adhesive.

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