Many gardeners are very creative people. I think this stems from working with nature itself where rotting compost can be transformed into beds of beautiful plants and colourful harvests. However, the opportunities for creativity are not limited to growing things. Many gardeners find new uses for discarded materials and some of the most productive vegetable gardens I have known are filled with items which have been salvaged from the rubbish heap. Plastic piping, old bath tubs, CDs, cardboard and many other thrown away items can all be put to good use in the garden...
It is very easy to see environmental gardening as a practice that should only involve sustainable natural materials: wood, bark chippings, straw etc. We can create beautiful environments made out of these materials and they make good choices for many situations. However, limiting ourselves to these sources ignores the huge problem of mixed non-recyclable waste going to landfill. Why, for example, does every plant sold in garden centres have to come in a non-recyclable plastic pot rather than a biodegradable one? Recycling and reusing makes a lot of sense - there are so many creative ways to give items a second use and prevent them being buried in waste sites.
Here are some of my favourite ways to recycle throw-away items:
- Pallets: Build a compost bin from pallets. It is so simple – you just use four pallets on their edges for the sides, held together with some strong garden wire twisted with pliers. Don’t worry about the gaps – compost needs air and it will usually be held in place by the pallet slats which should face inwards. I have successfully built a compost heap inside a raised bed using this method which has the advantage that any nutrients washed through by rain still end up in the soil. Then in Spring the pallets are removed and the resulting compost is spread over the bed for the next season.
- Bathtubs, sinks and buckets: These make excellent ponds when sunk into the ground. With a little care you can cultivate a rich ecosystem in your pond and attract frogs and toads which will then prove very effective at reducing the numbers of slugs on your plot. Add some pond weed to keep the water clean together with old logs or pieces of wood which the frogs can use to climb out, as recycled tubs tend to have very slippery sides. Finally, don’t forget to make the pond safe if children are going to be around: either fence it off or cover it with a metal grid.
- Wood: This can always be used - particularly reasonably long pieces which haven’t been pressure treated (see my article on treating wood for details of what to avoid) and don’t have flaky paint on them. Compost bins, cold frames and structures to hold up netting or horticultural fleece can all be constructed from wood that is surplus to someone’s requirements. A very useful source is old scaffolding planks – for health and safety reasons firms have to get rid of them as soon as they show any wear but they can still make very serviceable sides for raised beds.
- Windows: Preferably without sharp edges (!) these make great tops for home-made cold frames, to protect your tender plants from late autumn through to spring. Double-glazed windows offer more protection from frost and are usually sealed with good metal edges but they can be much heavier to move when opening the cold frame.
- Chicken wire and fencing: Drive a few posts into the ground and surround them with old wire fencing and you have the perfect bin for creating leafmould. It will take a year or more to break down but you are left with an excellent soil conditioner.
- Plastic Pipe: Because of the way this naturally keeps its shape, it makes an excellent material for creating tunnel structures. Cut the pipe into equal lengths of one and a half metres (4 - 5’) and then push them into the ground to make hoops every 60cm (2’) along a row. Netting or fleece can then be draped over this and weighed down with bricks or wood at the sides.
- Plastic Bottles: Cutting off the bottom of large clear plastic bottles makes an excellent mini-cloche which will protect seedlings from harsh winds, slugs and snails. Leave the top off the bottle so that it can breathe without excess moisture and heat building up (a recipe for mould). Once the plants are touching the sides, the bottle should be removed.
- Yoghurt Pots: Can be sunk into the ground and filled with beer or other yeasty liquid to trap and drown slugs. Leave one inch sticking up above soil level to stop beneficial insects such as ground beetles from also being drowned.
- Old Grapefruit skins and Coconut Shells: These are my favourite means of collecting slugs - leaving a few on the soil attracts them into the overnight shelter. In the morning you can pick up the grapefruit ‘shelter’ and dispose of the slugs. Old wooden planks, bricks and slate also work well. (For full details see my article on dealing with slugs.)
- CDs and DVDs: Make bird-scarers by threading these onto individual strings and then attaching them to a washing-line across areas of your vegetable garden which suffer from birds eating the crop. In some areas you will find that this has a limited effect, since the birds seem to have become used to such tactics but they can be supplemented with recycled wind chimes or other noisy devices if the neighbours don’t object!
There are many more inventive ways to use throw-away items, of course. An excellent resource for this is the website www.RecycleThis.co.uk. Not only does it list lots of imaginative ways to recycle household items but you can suggest your own ideas and even request what items they cover in the future. The site is fully searchable and there is a garden category of 31 articles. They add three new items every week but most useful are the comments which other readers add as solutions to each recycling problem.
‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ has long been the mantra of the environmental movement. Many people believe this simply means taking their paper and cans to the local recycling point. This misses the important point that ‘reusing’ is in fact much better for the environment than putting something through the whole recycling process. So three cheers to the inventive gardeners who are putting this into practice! If you have come across (or invented) a great way to recycle items in the garden, then please do share it below...