“Don’t throw that away!”
My family is used to my exhortations by now. Mom, the recycling nut. It’s true—I have a bin for metals and one for plastics, 1 through 7. Glass has its own container, next to the compost bucket. Worms eat my garbage. Paper and cardboard pile up in old laundry baskets (I’m recycling the baskets too). Still-usable discards go to the thrift stores, worn out clothes get used as rags. Not much ends up in the small trash can we lug to the curb every week.
As a gardener, I want to extend my recycling efforts to my yard. How can I avoid making new purchases for my garden?
The best-known garden recycling project is making compost. (See my article from September 7.) But not all plant refuse needs to be composted to be useful—consider spreading some as mulch. Grass clippings are best left on the lawn. However, if you have plenty of clippings, a thin layer of them will help shade the soil in planting beds. Be sure your grass isn’t treated with any herbicides to avoid damaging valuable plants. Autumn leaves can be shredded (to prevent the wind from redistributing them) and applied as mulch. Newspapers form an effective weed barrier. Cover them with something more attractive and heavier to keep them in place.
Veggie garden ideas
There are lots of ways to recycle in the vegetable garden. Old nylons (if anyone still wears these) are ideal for tying up vines and supporting heavy melons on a trellis. Old window screens provide both shade and protection from hail for mid-summer lettuce. Plastic milk or juice jugs with their bottoms removed form hotcaps to pamper early season transplants. Last year’s needle-less Christmas tree can be this spring’s pea support.
If you don’t have an automatic watering system, plastic soda bottles can help. Cut the bottoms off, then bury them upside down next to large plants like tomatoes and squash hills. You can quickly fill the bottle with the hose, and the water will slowly seep into the soil, next to the roots.
If your knees are protesting the hard ground, double up some plastic shopping bags and fill with a folded newspaper to form a comfy kneeling pad.
Paper towel and toilet paper rolls come in handy too. Use them to blanch leeks. They keep dirt out of the leaves, making life easier in the kitchen. Or, cut them into rings to place around seedlings at transplant time. You’ll keep cutworms from mowing down your defenseless babies. While we’re talking about cutworms, toothpicks or popsicle sticks can help here too. Place a stick next to the plant stem, leaving a gap slightly smaller than the “worm.” When he can’t reach all the way around both, he’ll go elsewhere to munch.
Seed starting set-ups cost lots of dollars, but you can save your money and keep trash out of landfills at the same time. Those cardboard rolls come in handy here too. Fill them with seed-starting mix, tamp it down, and place them in a tray for use as individual seedling containers. It’s ok that there’s no bottom. When planting time comes, gently tear them off and set out your new plants. Our dry climate means the cardboard is unlikely to decompose during the growing season.
Another option is to make newspaper cups. You can use a thick wooden dowel or purchase the special newspaper pot maker. Wrap the paper around the mold, tuck it in, and fill with finely screened potting mix.
In spite of advice to the contrary, don’t use egg cartons for starting seeds. The cells don’t provide enough root space to grow healthy seedlings, and their small size means they’ll dry out much too fast.
If you want more substantial pots, try the small yogurt containers or paper or plastic cups. Be sure to punch some holes in the bottom for drainage. Large dairy containers are just the right size when it comes time to move growing transplants to larger quarters.
Or, cut those plastic containers into strips to use as labels. The cottage cheese size ones are great for starting seeds, while the bigger containers are suitable for garden-sized labels. Use an indelible marker or grease pencil to note your variety and perhaps the sowing date.
Creative minds will have a field day when it comes to finding plant containers. Clay flowerpots are boring compared to the possibilities. Shoes are almost a cliché—don’t stop there. Among other things, I’ve seen antique washing machines, water troughs and bathtubs used as containers. How about an old pair of overalls? One blog even featured a bright pink bra filled with matching pink petunias!
Use your imagination—just be sure it includes drainage holes. Does the container hold enough soil to keep it moist until you water again? Will it survive the season without falling apart? If you intend to eventually repot the plant, will you be able to extract it from the container without damaging the roots?
Quite a number of people recommend using old tires as raised beds. Personally, I think they’re pretty tacky. However, I’ve seen them turned inside out and painted. At that point, it’s hard to recognize their humble origins.
If your containers are particularly large, save on potting soil by placing a layer of styrofoam packing peanuts on the bottom. Most plants only need about 18 inches of root space. Or fill some plastic shopping bags with more bags, wadded up, and use those to take up space.This will also make the container lighter. To keep the soil from falling down into your plastic “filler,” put a layer of landscape fabric between the plastic bags and your soil.
Toads and bats can profit from your recycling efforts. Old clay pots make comfy toad houses. Chip out a half-circle opening on the rim of the pot, then place it upside down under some bushes. Bats like to roost in a narrow space between two flat boards—you can make them a house out of scrap lumber. Inexpensive kits transform plastic soda bottles into birdfeeders, or use an old birdhouse… or mailbox.
Don’t buy a new trellis, make one out of some old bed springs. Or, use up an extra piece of chain link fencing. Or use bicycle wheels, or discarded step ladders… once you start contemplating possibilities, the list is pretty much endless.
Construct your compost bin out of discarded wooden pallets. (In mild climates, you can also use old pallets to build a chicken coop.)
Old windows are easily made into a coldframe. My greenhouse glass is recycled from sliding glass door panels a contractor friend saved from a remodel. If you aren’t doing any remodeling, most towns have a recycled building supply store.
Is your cement patio cracked and needing replacement? Instead of hauling the old cement to a landfill, build a new patio or walkway out of it. Break the paving into flagstone-shaped pieces, and lay them on a bed of sand to create new paving. Fill the gaps with more sand and plant creeping thyme to soften the look.
If you have an eye for art, you can really take advantage of thrift shop treasures. Old china dishes can be broken into mosaic “tiles” and used to decorate table tops or stepping stones. Anything can become a garden sculpture. Just don’t overdo it. There’s a difference between fine art and clutter.
Now that I’ve gotten you started, I’m sure you can think of plenty of other ways to go green in the garden. I’d love to hear your ideas!