by Judy Allen
Though gardening is certainly a “green” endeavor, you can make it even greener by using recycled materials. In landscapes, and in ornamental and vegetable gardens, recyclables can solve problems and help ensure a successful harvest. What’s more, they’re free or available at low cost, preserving the garden budget for items more fun and interesting than miles of weed fabric or metal edging. The following common items have been granted a new purpose in my garden; all are easy to salvage from household waste or to find locally:
• In a landscape or perennial garden, shun black plastic or landscape fabric and use corrugated cardboard to block weeds in large areas. Two layers curb the most invasive grasses for two or more seasons. Blanket the cardboard with two to four inches of pine shavings, available by the truckload from area fencing businesses for a fraction of the cost of commercial mulches. When weeds poke through in subsequent springs, apply additional layers of cardboard and shavings. For tighter, less weedy areas, use several layers of newspaper instead of cardboard, covering it with more pine shavings or compost (homemade, of course).
• Enclosing new perennial areas with landscape edging gives a finished look and bars the invasion of adjacent lawn. Instead of purchasing lengths of expensive steel edging, try installing six-inch-wide strips cut from sheets of metal roofing. Roofing contractors often have full or partial sheets left over.
For cutting the sheets, an electric metal shears is the tool preferred by roofers—my source lent me his for a few days to do the job. Or use a metal blade on a circular saw, a trickier, slower (and louder) process. Roofing edging is less rigid than standard steel edging, so installation is a little more troublesome, as its floppiness resists easy handling. Also, it lends itself more to straight-lined, square-edged beds than to curves, so design accordingly.
• In vegetable gardens, recyclables help tackle problems persistent in our high-altitude setting. Especially in spring, ravenous rodents plague many gardens, nibbling tender young seedlings and digging up newly planted seeds. Deter the vandals with “collars” of toilet paper rolls (yes, really). Transplant vulnerable seedlings, like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, into the rolls, embedding the cardboard an inch or so into garden soil, and allowing leaves to drape over the tops. This will prevent rodents from gnawing the stems and toppling your entire plants (an unfortunate event that happened in my garden one tragic May). To protect new seedlings of corn, squash, and pumpkins (which rodents relish), plant seeds directly into rolls pushed into the soil. Better yet, create mini-greenhouses for these heat-loving, frost-sensitive crops with plastic beverage bottles. Using a hacksaw or good kitchen shears, cut the bottoms off the bottles. Remove the caps. Press each bottomless bottle into the soil over a few seeds. As seeds sprout, they will flourish in the heat created by this micro-greenhouse effect. Remove the bottles when the seedlings begin to outsize them.
• Utilize another solar principle to contribute free heat to plantings of any tender, warm-season crop. Fill one-gallon plastic milk jugs with water and cap. Place filled jugs every few feet or so around seeded areas or in beds of new transplants. The water in the jugs will absorb heat in the daytime and radiate it at night—a cheap thermal mass in the garden. To imitate Wall O’Waters™—cone-shaped cylinders of water-filled plastic tubes designed to protect plants from frost—circle filled milk jugs around each plant. Rocks also function as thermal mass. Though somewhat more attractive than plastic jugs, similar-sized rocks are heavier and more taxing to transport and install. Milk-jug thermal mass is especially effective in expelling Jack Frost for at least a few weeks when used in conjunction with other season extenders, like floating row covers, cold frames, or small greenhouses.
• Any creative gardener will devise more uses for other recyclables. Need to tie vines to a trellis? Use strips cut from discarded pantyhose—stretchy and non-binding, these ties hold securely while expanding as stems grow. Pots and 4-packs from nursery stock find another life for starting seedlings; just wash in hot, soapy water with a few drops of bleach added if you’re worried about contaminants. Most nurseries will gladly reuse black plastic pots and seedling trays; some will even give you a small credit on your next purchase for larger returned pots.
• And shame on you if you throw away your polypropylene floating row covers each fall! Purchase only breathable covers for sun and frost protection that are UV treated. These will resist degradation in our intense sunlight. If there’s no information on the label, check with nursery staff or catalog customer service to make sure. With careful handling to avoid rips, UV-treated covers will last four years or longer. Hose down or wash them if you want them mud-free the following spring.
• When recyclables become landscape art, the possibilities are limitless. Old washtubs or wheelbarrows are classic planters; just drill a few holes around the base for drainage. In my garden, rusty steel pipes cut to length disguise both the septic clean-out and the wellhead. Each pipe length is welded with a metal cap on top, becoming a platform for a cherished garden sculpture.
This fall, squirrel away those recyclables in the basement or garage, and hoard those treasures that can reinvent themselves in the garden. Come spring, your green thumb will be even more vivid!
Gardening in the Teton region for thirty years, Judy Allen also teaches classes on intensive vegetable growing and composting. She rents garden beds at Darby Canyon Gardens, where she lives with her husband and son.