Both architectural feature and utilitarian element, gates can reveal or conceal, shut out the world or allow connection.

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GATES ARE the portals to our gardens. Push open a large, heavy gate, walk through and click it firmly closed behind you … You’ve arrived.

Both architectural feature and utilitarian element, gates can reveal or conceal, shut out the world or allow connection. Gates can be topped with arbors to produce a play of light and shadow as you come and go. A gate left slightly ajar creates mystery, a rough-hewn gate set into a hedge evokes an English garden. Gates can be flat and unadorned so they blend into the fence, discernible only by hardware. They can be painted bright red or yellow to draw the eye, or a deep, dark green garnished with ornate hinges and latch to evoke a Halloween feel at any time of the year.

What atmosphere do you want? How much privacy do you need? Gates can keep the dog in and deer out. But they’re also a metaphor that sets the tone and style of a garden.

Take the ancient design of the moon gate, which originated in China and was thought to bestow good luck on anyone who passed through it. The circular cutout in the otherwise solid gate is the Buddhist symbol of infinity, meant to inspire contemplation and meditation. Moon gates, or any gate with openwork, frame a unique view into the garden or out into the world beyond the garden gate.

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I saw the ultimate organic gate recently, designed and crafted by Sue Skelly of Woven Cedar Works for a naturalistic garden in Gig Harbor. Skelly fashioned the gate of western red cedar harvested from her forested acreage. She cuts the branches hanging low on the trees, using fresh, pliable wood for her weaving. “I just go with the curves of the branches, I follow their natural shapes,” says Skelly.

I make the mistake of asking Skelly how long it takes her to weave branches into gates. “It’s taken my whole life to be able to make these,” says Skelly. Her work looks comfortably at home in a Northwest garden, and is both highly decorative and surprisingly practical. “These gates don’t decompose, ever, because the cedar loves to get wet,” says Skelly.

For Whidbey Islander Cheryl Lawrence, building a living gate was a learning experience. Fed up with deer and rabbits eating her plants, she decided to fence in part of her garden. Local designer and builder Brad Hankins showed her a plan for a fence and planted gate made of recycled wood and metal. Lawrence got caught up in the creativity of it and ended up with a 500-pound gate that is as handsome as it is heavy.

But it turned out that the gate didn’t keep deer out. “They just stepped daintily through the circle in the middle,” says Lawrence, who filled in the gate’s open space with a wire ornament by Whidbey artist Karl Ulmschneider. She planted the gate with licorice ferns and succulents. Their roots grow into moss, soil and tree bark sandwiched between an offset, layered grid of hog wire that holds the planting medium in place.

Despite the need for adjustments along the way, Lawrence loves the industrial look of the fence and gate. “It has transparency despite the heftiness of it,” she says.

Just as Skelly did, Lawrence created a uniquely beautiful gate that does the job.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

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