One of the reasons we garden is because we want to make the world nicer. So it only makes sense that we’d want to do what we can to lessen our impact on the environment. The garden is the perfect place to reduce and re-purpose items you might otherwise be throwing away.
When you garden, nothing needs to go to waste. composting is our favorite way to recycle. Who doesn’t love turning the garden and kitchen waste into black gold. Nothing’s better than compost for increasing garden fertility and productivity.
But don’t stop with composting
Newspaper: Typically we take our newspapers to the recycle. But starting in January, newspapers are in high demand. I start by making newspaper pots for my seedlings. But newspaper can do so much more. Use newspaper to line the bottom of the pots you have around the house. It will keep dirt from leaking out but allows excess water to pass. Coffee filters will also do a good job of this as well.
I have a few wire baskets that I bought at the thrift store. I line them with newspapers and fill with potting soil. These flower-filled baskets sit on my front steps.
You can also mulch with newspaper. Lay down 1-2 layers of paper and cover that with grass clippings. This will cut your weeding to almost zero. With both seedling pots and mulching, do not use glossy colored newspaper. The glossy paper and colored inks have chemicals that you do not want leaching into your soil. Use only newsprint with black printing.
Grass clippings: Most mowers mulch the grass clippings back into the grass. That really is the easiest thing to do with them. But if you have heavy grass or need to collect the clippings, use them as a mulch. This will keep weeds down and prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. Grass clippings are small and fine enough that you can easily tuck them in and around your small plants. Just keep the clippings (and all mulch) 2” or so away from the stems of the plants. You don’t want the plants to suffocate or have difficulty getting water to the roots.
Weeds: Use the weeds you pull up as a mulch like grass clippings. Weeds are bigger and bulkier than grass clippings, so they aren’t good for putting between small plants. They are better used between plant rows and in walkways. Using weeds to keep weeds down—isn’t that poetic justice?
Sticks and dead branches: Don’t burn or toss all those sticks and dried branches that blow down in the wind. Use them as plant supports.
You can buy a bean tepee at the garden center. It’ll set you back $30-60. Or you can make your own beans trellis with sticks. Yes, the professional one starts out looking pretty, but when the beans have completely covered the trellis, no one will be able to tell the difference. So why spend all that good money on something no one will never see?
You can also use sticks as plant supports. I choose the branchy sticks to support my floppy flowers. They blend right in, looking very natural. Again, you can buy supports to keep your flowers and bushes upright or you can use sticks. One costs money and takes up storage space in the fall and the other is free and keeps your yard clear of debris.
Ashes: OK, let’s suppose you do burn those sticks and branches around the yard. Or you burn other wood in your fireplace. Don’t throw those ashes away. They help your garden three ways: as a fertilizer, as a soil amendment and to repel pests.
Wood ashes add phosphorus, potassium and several trace elements to the garden soil. Just sprinkle on your garden in the spring and rototill into the soil.
Tilling ashes into soil also amends and improves soil consistency, especially clay soil (which we have a lot of here in the Red River Valley.) They help loosen up dirt clods and the amended soil retains more
air. The organic matter of wood ashes also helps increase the good bacteria action in the garden soil and promotes healthy plant root growth.
You can also add the ashes to your compost pile. This helps the compost have a healthy pH. It also helps speed up the decomposition of the compost and introduce helpful bacteria to the compost. Finally, ashes will help keep down any odors emanating from your compost pile.
Wood ashes can also be used as an organic pesticide on your garden. Scatter the ashes on top of your garden mulch to deter slugs, snails and cutworms. Sprinkle a light circle of wood ashes around cauliflower, onions, beets, peas and turnips to repel root maggots, aphids and red spiders.
Some say wood ashes around a garden will also repel bigger pests like rabbits and deer. Not the deer and rabbits around my house, but maybe the ones that visit you.
The non-biodegradable stuff
Old fencing: When we moved to our place, we found that the previous owners had done what all owners of rural property around here do: they used the woods as a garbage dump. Honestly! Ross pulled out garbage from the woods for fours summers straight, taking in at least 2-3 pick-up loads full of junk to the dump. But one of the things he didn’t take to the dump was the fencing.
I used the rest of the fencing to make cucumber trellises. I just cut off the cross-bars at each the end of the fence so that I had pokey ends to stick in the ground and a trellis that was sort of shaped like a tunnel.
These trellises make growing cucumbers a breeze. Since the cucumbers hang down through the trellis, they aren’t hidden by leaves. So easy to harvest! Nothing lies on the ground to spoil in wet dirt or get eaten by slugs.
Note: with all trellises and the bean poles, the first thing I do is fill the center with a mulch. This space is big enough that I can mulch with pulled weeds (instead of grass clippings.) And look! No more weeding between those plants.
Styrofoam peanuts: When you have a large planter to fill in the spring what do you do? You fill it with potting soil, right? If it’s a really big pot, all that potting soil can be really expensive. And heavy. And difficult to move.
But the truth is, the plants that you put into the planter only put roots down 8-10″. That’s a LOT of wasted potting soil.
Solution: save all those Styrofoam peanuts and packing material that you get all year round and fill all but the last 10″ or so of your pots with the peanuts. Then top it up with potting soil and plant your plants. It makes for very nice drainage, your pots will weigh a lot less and it saves you money on potting soil.
Plastic jugs: Don’t throw plastic jugs away. Make them into cloches. (Cloche is just a fancy French word meaning “bell”. You put it over cold-sensitive plants to protect them from cold.) Milk jugs will work for this, but they aren’t very sturdy and won’t last more than a season or two. The nice heavy plastic jugs that vinegar or apple juice come in will last several seasons.
Cut off the bottom of the jugs with an Exacto knife. Then put it over your little heat-loving plants. This will help them grow faster and protect them a bit from cool nights early in the growing season.
Plastic storage bins: You know… the ones you buy every year to store things and organize your house. If you have bins that have lost their lids or become cracked or otherwise unusable, don’t throw them away. Instead, cut them down to 2-3” in height. They make perfect seedling trays, much sturdier than the ones you buy at the garden center.
When my demand for seedling trays exceeded my supply, I discovered that most thrift stores just give away bins that don’t have lids. That’s fine—I don’t need the lid. Or you can usually find them at rummage sales for $1.
And the top that you cut off? Use it to corral and tame invasive perennials. One of the biggest reasons people are hesitant to plant mints is that they spread by roots. Within a couple seasons they’ll easily take over your garden.
Take that plastic square that you cut off to make a tray and bury it in the garden bed so that the top is level with the soil. Then plant your mints, tansy or other invasive plants inside. The plastic will act as a barrier and keep it from taking over your garden.
You only need the barrier to extend 5-8” below ground, so if the top portion is tall enough, cut it in half (horizontally) and you have two barriers from one bin.
Ice cream buckets: if the plastic bins are too big for for your garden bed, ice cream buckets can also serve as barriers to invasive perennials. Just cut the bottom out of the bucket and bury to so the top is soil level.
2-liter pop bottles: If you get these handy little watering spikes, your empty 2-liter pop bottles become watering reservoirs. This is especially good for your tomatoes and other plants that you don’t want to see get stressed with irregular watering.
There’s another cool way to use 2-liter bottles for watering: bury them next to the plant. Tape a coffee filter to the outside where the hole is to prevent dirt from clogging the hole. The advantage of this is that you won’t see the bottle sticking up and you can put the water down deeper, closer to the roots.
I personally wouldn’t use these buried bottles for temporary plants, like bedding or potted plants or my vegetable garden. But this would be good when establishing new bushes, perennials or even trees. Actually, for trees, I’d put in two or three of these bottles around the tree. That way you can deliver a good water supply to these plants in the first two critical years that it is getting established.
After the second year, remove the bottle. By then the plant is pretty well established and needs to adapt to the normal soil and rain conditions of its new home.
You can also use 2-liter bottles to make bug traps like this.
Here’s another use for your 2-liter bottles: make a sturdy broom. This isn’t just for gardens–it’s good for all your outside sweeping, like the porch or walk ways.
VCR tapes: If you still have any of these archaic artifacts laying around, they make a good bird repellent. Cut 3-4′ lengths of the tape and tie them around your fruit bushes and trees and as they flutter in the wind it scares the birds away.
CDs: Here’s another good pest deterrent. Hang a few up in the branches of trees or around the garden. As they spin in the wind and reflect light, they scar larger animals away.
What recycling or re-purposing tips do you have? How do you reduce or reuse in your garden? What tips here are you going to try?
Here’s hoping this will not only save you money, but inspire you to more creative re-purposing.
P.S. Stay tuned for more posts on reusing or re-purposing plastics. If you’d like to receive notices on new posts and free offers for our readers, be sure to subscribe.