DIY a Metal Template for Plant Spacing

Weeds, weeds, weeds

The land at Sea Change Farm is incredibly weedy. When I first visited the land last summer, it was completely overgrown with Virginia Creeper, Oriental Bittersweet, Multiflora Rose, and a host of other wild, woody perennials. Last September, I spent a lot of time (with some other very game people) tilling, hacking, prying, cutting, digging, and otherwise removing these plants and their extensive root systems. However, it will take years of cultivation for this soil to be “clean” for easy farming, and I know I have much weed-wrestling ahead of me.

Since weed management will be a major task for me next season, I investigated solutions other farmers use to keep their fields in check. I took a hard pass on chemical-based weed management, because I aim to grow organically. Some organic approaches include plastic mulch, heavy mulching with straw, wood chips, or compost, plant-based “living mulches,” periodic tarping, and, of course, extensive hand-pulling.

The strategy I was most interested to try, though, was using landscape fabric, which I read about on the Floret blog.

Landscape fabric

Landscape fabric is a woven textile made from organic- and plastic-based materials, and sometimes from recycled material. It is designed to act as a barrier to weeds while providing a breathable surface dressing for the soil. Because it is woven, water and air can still permeate the fabric. This gives landscape fabric a distinct advantage over straight-up plastic mulch. The woven structure also gives landscape fabric strength, and I expect mine to last for many seasons.

When using landscape fabric, the farmer makes holes in the fabric at exact intervals, then plants her seedlings directly into those holes, ensuring that the plants have a mostly weed-free existence.

In the Floret blog post, Erin shows how to burn holes in landscape fabric using a metal template, but not how to make the template itself. She offers beautiful metal templates for sale in her shop, but they are rather expensive, and I decided to make my own instead.

How to DIY your own metal planting templates

The rest of this article will describe, step-by-step, how I fabricated my templates, DIY-style. I made four templates at these spacings: 6″, 9″, 12″, and 18″. I cut 2.5″ holes in the three larger templates, and down-sized to 2″ holes for the 6″ template. My templates are not as sleek or professional as Erin’s, but they do work!

If you’re on the fence about this project, have no fear!! This was my first time cutting and drilling metal, and YOU CAN DO IT. I promise. And you’ll be so satisfied once you have, you badass DIY farmer.

Materials

Here’s what you’ll need to make your templates:

  • 2’x4′ pieces of sheet metal (I cut mine from an 8’x4′ sheet)
  • Metal snips (if cutting your metal)
  • 2.5″ hole saw (and/or 2″ hole saw)
  • Pliers
  • Hammer
  • A nail
  • Clamps, 2 or 3
  • Scrap wood, at least 1″ thick
  • Hand-held drill, at least 12V
  • Cutting oil
  • Rag
  • Sharpie
  • Safety glasses
  • Measuring tape or yard stick
  • Gloves

What is a hole saw?

Great question! A hole saw is a tool used to drill out large circles in things. They fit into a standard power drill. You can buy them at your local hardware store in a collection of sizes. Look for “bimetal” hole drills, or ones that otherwise say they are meant for metal. Mine are made by Milwaukee.

Hole saws have an outside cuff, which is the size of the future hole and has serrated teeth, and an interior “arbor” with a central small drill bit. The arbor is often interchangeable between different size cuffs, and locks onto the cuff by either screwing on or with pins.

Why does the voltage of my drill matter?

Another great question! Drilling through metal takes a lot of umph, and the voltage of your drill describes how much umph it has to offer. It should say the voltage on the drill’s battery. Anything less than 12V just won’t cut it–literally.

Where can I source sheet metal and cutting oil?

So, your average Lowe’s and Home Depot probably does have a small sheet metal section, possibly in the Plumbing aisle. My local store, though, only had small pieces up to 1′ x 2′, which was too small and too pricey. Plus, they were out of cutting oil! Lame.

On the advice of another disgruntled Plumbing aisle shopper, I went to a local Plumbing and HVAC wholesaler (shout out to Schmidt’s Wholesale!). I bought a 4’x 8′ sheet of thin-gauge galvanized steel for $38, which they kindly rolled up to ensure safe transport home in my Honda CRV. They even offered me popcorn.

Let’s get started

Step 1: Prepare your metal

If you’ve purchased metal in 2′ x 4′ sheets, great! You can skip this step.

My flower beds are 4′ wide, so my templates are 4′ wide as well. If you use beds of a different width, say 30″, then modify these instructions and make 30″ wide templates instead.

If you need to cut your sheet metal down to size, start by measuring and using a straight-edge and a sharpie to mark lines on the metal where you plan to cut it. Having a clear line is very helpful when cutting, so don’t be shy with your sharpie.

Now it’s time to snip. Metal snips are basically giant scissors meant for metal, and they work exactly how you’d expect them to. You can use them with one or both hands. Working them however is comfortable, cut the metal along your marked lines. I used my knee to hold one side of the metal up as I cut, keeping it out of the way of my hands.

I found that if I closed the snips all the way when cutting, I would get a small snag (pictured below) in the cut edge of the metal. This is not ideal, because the snag ends up being pointy and not-fun to touch. To avoid the snag I cut almost the length of the snips, but stopped shy of closing them all the way before opening them for a new cut.

Step 2: Finishing touches on your base metal

After cutting the metal down to size, I used my snips to round the corners, making for fewer pointy things in my final template. Just beware the little scraps of metal that this yields; clean up the floor well or risk cutting your poor bare foot on one later!

Another optional touch is to take one long end of the template and bend it up about an inch, creating a lip, almost like the lip on the end of a baking tray. This lip makes it much easier to handle the finished templates and move them around.

To make a lip on your template, first draw another sharpie line one inch in from the end of a long side of the metal. Then, working with pliers, bend the metal so it forms a 90° angle on that line. This method gives an imprecise but functional lip. I’m sure you could do something cleaner with a giant vice grip or something like that.

Step 3: Mark the metal for drilling

Working with a measuring tape and a sharpie, mark off the centers of your future planting holes. Mark them off in a grid, with the distances between marks at your desired spacing (either 6″, 9″, 12″, or 18″ for me). For the larger spacings, you’ll probably only fit two rows on your template. I recommend leaving at least a few inches on either side of the template, so that you aren’t planting things at the very edges of your beds.

If you’re into trigonometry (remember trigonometry?!) you can take the intensive spacing thing a step further and go for triangular spacing instead of grid spacing. With triangular spacing, you can actually use the same spacing between plants and fit more plants into the same area. Let’s break this down. With a grid, plants on opposite corners of a 6″ square actually have more than 6″ in between them. Between them is the hypotenuse of a 45-45-90 triangle, which works out to about 8.4″. Wasted space!

With a triangular spacing, you’re going to plant in equilateral triangles, where each side of the triangle is 6″. To mark this out on the metal, the easiest way is to use trigonometry to calculate the proper distance between rows, or the height of the equilateral triangle. Here’s the formula, where D is the distance we want to find, and S is the spacing:

D = S * sin(60°)
—————-
D = 6″ * sin(60°)
D = 5.2″

Take that formula, plug it into WolframAlpha, and have fun.

Step 4: Set up your drilling workspace

The ideal drilling workspace is a level, sturdy surface that is outside, or is otherwise well-ventilated. Drilling metal is a messy, smelly process, and not great to do in your kitchen, etc. We have a sturdy table in the backyard that we use for projects like this.

Take your scrap wood and place it on your working surface. If your scrap wood is smaller than your template, then position your template over the wood so that one or two hole markings are completely over the wood, including the 2″ or 2.5″ circle around them. Clamp both metal and wood down securely to the table.

Step 5: Make a “pilot hole” for your hole saw

You are going to use a hammer and nail to make a little indentation in the metal where you intend to drill. This stops the hole saw from wandering around as you drill. It makes a huge difference.

To make the “pilot hole,” position the nail over the marking on the metal, and tap it with the hammer until it starts to bite. No need to hammer all the way through.

Step 6: Drill!

Safety glasses on! I insist that you wear safety glasses here. No metal-shard-in-the-eye-ER-trip stories on my watch. And no, “safety squints” are not good enough.

Take your cutting oil and squeeze a healthy glob on and around the nail mark. Position the hole saw’s center drill bit on the nail mark. Then, starting slowly and pulsing the drill as it cuts, drill into the metal. After a short time the center drill bit should bite through the metal and into the scrap wood below. Pause here.

Now that the center drill bit is through and you can see exactly where the hole saw will cut its circle, make sure there is cutting oil there. If there isn’t, add more! Don’t be shy with the cutting oil; the oil will make the cutting process easier for you and prolong the life of your hole saw.

As you cut with the hole saw, try to hold it as level as possible, so that all sides of the circle are cutting down evenly.  With the hole saw level, begin cutting.  You should not need to push down hard on the drill, and doing so will cause unnecessary strain on your drill.  Allow the drill to cut slowly and steadily.

The cutting oil will burn and smoke and smell bad as you drill.  This is normal!  The cutting oil dissipates heat by transferring it away from the metal through evaporation.

As you drill, you will likely cut through part, but not all, of the circle.  It is very hard to hold the cutting saw exactly even, and I had this problem almost every time.

If you’ve cut through the metal unevenly, the drill might catch and torque your arm a bit.  This is because the thin metal of the circle you’re cutting out is bending, and as it bends upward it gets stuck inside the hole saw. This can be scary, but don’t worry. Lift your hole saw up to untangle it from the metal, reposition, and start cutting again, keeping the pressure light.  Reposition the drill as needed until you are all the way through.

Yay!  You drilled all the way through!  Using pliers, remove the circle of metal from the hole saw if it got stuck up in there.  You can make yourself a nice little trophy pile of circle cutouts if you’d like.

Step 7: Rinse, Repeat

Back to step 4: re-clamp your metal so the next hole is over your scrap wood, then mark a hole with the nail, then drill.

I only get about eight holes’ worth of charge out of a fully-charged battery for my drill. That’s it! Eight! I’ve got two batteries, so if they are both charged, I can get about a half hour of drilling in before I’m out of power.

Step 8: Clean up

Once you’ve cut out all your holes, it’s time for that rag to shine. Your metal template will be covered in metal shavings, wood shavings, and oil all mushed together in a nice wood-metal-oil pulp. It’s probably a mess! I wiped all of that out into the ground. More… minerals for the soil? If you’d rather wipe the metal bits into a bag and then throw that bag away, awesome.

If you are in possession of a metal file, you may want to clean up the cut edges of the holes. My hole saw is not very precise, and I was left with some sharp edges on my final holes. I didn’t want to go out and buy a file to clean them up, but I may do so in the future.

All Done!

Congratulations, you badass, you! You’ve done it. You’ve got your very own plant spacing template, and you made it all yourself! Give yourself a pat on the back and a brag post on instagram.

Now you can use your new template to burn holes in your landscape fabric, or you can simply admire it as a beautiful, shining yard sculpture.

Samantha is the farmer and owner at Sea Change.

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