Gabion Planters at the Extension Office

By Deborah Pilkington, EMGV

If you’ve come to the Extension Office at 721 Foster St recently, you will have noticed the gabion planters on either side of the front door entry.  These new planters were installed in April of this year, and planted with grasses, vines, and annual and perennial flowers shortly thereafter.

Gabion (mid-16th century) comes from the Italian gabbione, from gabbia ‘cage’, which came from the Latin cavea. Basically, it is a cage filled with rock, concrete, or earth, historically used in fortifications, retaining walls, and in the prevention of erosion in river banks.  Gabions of this type can be seen at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, where they are used to form supports for overhead train tracks, and as edging around seating areas.

They have also been seen as beautiful erosion control walls in Durham.

I first saw gabions used as planters upon a visit to the Reford Gardens/Jardins de Métis, in Métis sur Mer, Quebec, in October, 2019. One was a ‘walk-in’ gabion with a hanging tray of succulent plants inside; part of an art installation in the Festival International des Jardins. 

The second was in a part of the garden where horticulture students are encouraged to build on the previous year’s students’ installations, and consisted of a gabion filled with old books, including the occasional textbook (to my amusement several Chemistry textbooks, and perhaps presciently, an upside-down Virology textbook) along with other books and magazines.

When it came time to think about planters for the Demonstration Garden, our first thoughts had been the silver troughs, which had become ubiquitous throughout Durham.  Remembering the gabion planters, I suggested we pursue this as an alternative.  This led to a field trip with Peter Gilmer to the aforementioned museum where Manager of Horticulture Bobbi Jo Holmes showed us their gabions.  She was also able to point us to a material supplier for the metalworks, and Peter was able to donate the rocks for the project.

Peter carefully researched our options and chose Stone Decorative as our vendor after much discussion on size, shape, and size of the mesh.  We chose industrial (vs landscape) gabion panels because of higher gauge, thus stronger, wire, which was Galfan-coated galvanized steel and came in 36” x 36” x 18” panels.  Also included were spiral binders and tie wires which stabilized the walls to each other.  The panels (6 in all—top, bottom, and 4 sides) were shipped in a flat box, and assembly proved very easy with the spiral binders.


We had decided the gabions would provide more visual interest if they were placed at an angle to the sidewalk and building, rather than running parallel to the sidewalk.  Peter cleared and leveled the soil, then put down several inches of pea gravel as a base.  The gabion panels were assembled using the spiral binders, put in place, and rocks installed.  By utilizing the leftover top panels, and purchasing two more panels, Peter constructed an inner box for each gabion.

Once the inner box was installed, rocks were carefully placed between the two boxes, and the inner box lined with heavy landscape fabric to prevent soil washout. In early June, soil was put in and the gabions planted by Joan Barber and Deborah Pilkington.

By using annuals, grasses and vines, the plantings can be changed out to reflect the changes in the seasons, demonstrating how home gardeners can also keep their containers in use year-round. Even though the summer annuals are still going strong, we can’t wait to trade them out for some winter interest!

Photo credits:  Deborah Pilkington, Joan Barber, Peter Gilmer, Lisa Nadler.