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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Repurpose Your Garbage in the Garden

By Kate
Living the Frugal Life

Reduce, re-use, recycle. This is the mantra of the smaller footprint crowd. And the mantra is an ordered list. After a while those of us who pursue a more sustainable lifestyle sometimes come to see too much of that last activity - recycling - as tantamount to failure. We come to view recycling as our garbage, a pile of waste that we generate with a barely salvageable aspect to it. Far, far better (we chide ourselves) to reduce, or at the least, re-use. A big part of frugality for me is finding value where I never saw it before. And for the gardener there's lots of value in much that we discard.

So today, even though it's the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, I'm going to point out a few of the myriad ways that our recyclable materials could be turned to good use in the garden. If you garden, it's a good time to stockpile some of this stuff now, so that you'll have it ready when you need it.

Newspaper This must be the ultimate mulching material. In the "lasagna" or sheet method of mulching, newspaper is layered thickly over a bed that has been cleared of weeds and enriched with compost, watered down, and then covered with a natural mulch such as dried leaves or grass clippings. Weeds can't penetrate it, and it's easy to punch through the newspaper wherever you want to put in a seedling. Corrugated cardboard can serve the same function in the lasagna mulching method, though it is harder to cut through for planting when newly laid down.

If that's not enough, you can also make little pots in which to start seeds from long strips of newspaper. Do this by first tearing lengths of newsprint into 6" (15 cm) wide strips. When you have a good pile of these, put them in a bucket of warm water. Separate the strips in the water so that they don't stick together too badly. Let them soak for about 5 minutes, then drain, letting them drip for a minute or two. Take a glass bottle and wrap the paper around the lower end of it, leaving about one third of the paper overhanging the bottom. When it's all wrapped around the bottle, fold the ends over the bottom of the bottle to form the bottom of your pot. Gently pull your pot off the bottle and set it upright. Let the pots dry overnight, and start your seeds the next day.

I especially like using a square bottle to make the pots, because I can form a tidy package fold on the bottom. Plus, square pots fit together more densely than round pots. Adjust the height of the pots by how much paper you fold under the bottle. Adjust the pot width by the diameter of the bottle you choose to work with. You can make newsprint pots with dry newspaper, but I've found that the wet method produces pots that hold together much, much better. Get kids on board as your production units if you need a lot of pots.

Newspaper is also a basic ingredient in vermicomposting. In the garden and in vermicomposting, be sure to only use black-and-white newsprint, and not the color inserts. Many of the chemical dyes are less than optimal for worms or garden plants.

Some frugalites also use shredded newspaper in place of cat litter.

The nicest thing about newspaper is that you needn't pay for a subscription yourself to get some. Ask any neighbor if they'd be willing to give you their old newspapers. Most will be happy to have it off their hands.

Plastic jugs and bottles There are plenty of good uses for these in the garden, especially if you're trying to grow a heat-loving plant either early, or in a zone that's a little too cold for it. First off, you can cut the bottom off a square-bottomed jug and use it as a cloche. You'll want the translucent plastic jugs for this purpose; opaque ones will block too much sunlight, while narrow transparent soda bottles can easily trap too much heat and cook the plant. Cover your tender seedling with a milk jug to give it some protection if you've transplanted it on the early side. Be sure to monitor your plants under these cloches. If the temperature rises on a sunny day you could easily bake your plants under the plastic. Removing the lid from the jug may offer some temperature regulation, but you may need to take the cloche off entirely and replace it when the sun goes down. You'll also need to figure a way of securing the jug in place so it doesn't blow away in the first gentle breeze. If you have dowels or sturdy thin branches, you can cut a hole at the top of the jug handle and push the dowel through the handle and straight into the ground.

The second way to use these plastic milk jugs or soda bottles to lend a little more heat to plants is to fill several of them with water and arrange them around the plant as a heat sink. The water jugs will provide some wind protection, but more importantly they will store heat from the sun and release it slowly over night. This is even more effective if you tint the water dark so that it absorbs and holds more solar energy. You can do this with food coloring or tea bags, or by the use of any number of natural dying agents. Keep in mind that you'll need a few of these jugs for each plant you plan to use them around. Start saving them up now if you want to arrange them around a large number of plants. If you save a lot of plastic soda bottles, these can be filled with liquid, arranged in a tight circle around the plant, and secured together with duct tape on the inside and outside of the ring so that they don't fall over and damage the plant. You could do the same with screw-top wine bottles too, I suppose. But you'd need a lot of them.

Lastly, you can use plastic jugs as a primitive form of drip irrigation. Simply put a pinhole in one bottom corner, fill the jug with water, and place it next to the plant you want to water. Again, you'll need to save up a lot of jugs if you want to water a lot of plants simultaneously in this way. Also, you might want to tether the jug to something so that it doesn't blow around your garden and damage fragile plants once it's emptied.

For non-gardeners, a good use of these plastic jugs is to store drinking water for emergencies and power losses. If you have the space, just sterilize the jugs and start building up your drinking water supply. Store at least 2 quarts/liters of water per person for every day you want to prepare for. If you live in a very hot climate or think you may need to care for sick people in an emergency situation, store extra. So a family of four would need at least 28 gallons (112 liters) of drinking water to get through a two-week emergency without another source of water. As a best practice, you should empty the containers and refill them every six months at least. Use the old water to flush your toilet or water the garden.

Milk cartons and plenty of other disposable containers can be used to start seedlings. I especially like milk cartons for starting onions, leeks and other plants that tend not to have extensive networks of roots. That means that I can start a lot of them close together without a great risk of damaging the roots when it's time to transplant them. I use a serrated knife to cut one side off the milk carton. The rest of the carton becomes a pot for seeds, while the removed side can form a lid for those seeds that need darkness to germinate, and then a little tray to catch excess water from the container. Poke several holes in the side that becomes the bottom of the container before planting your seeds.

I'd hoped to have more sprouts to show by the time I needed to take this picture. Can you spot my tiny leek sprouts?

Wide plastic tubs are handy to have in the garden for melons and winter squash, especially if you live in a humid environment with a good deal of rainfall. Melons and squash that sit on damp ground are at risk for rotting on the vine. Punch or drill a few holes in the bottom of your plastic tub. Gently lift the growing melon or squash, then place the tub upside down on the ground underneath to support it. The holes assure that the fruit won't sit in water after rainfall, and will provide a little airflow too. If you don't buy margarine or the other sorts of things that come in these tubs, you could cut off the bottom of laundry detergent containers and use them in the same fashion.

In short, there are an awful lot of uses for "junk" in the garden. Ultimately these things will probably end up in a landfill. But at least we can squeeze a little utility out of them before that happens. How do you re-purpose common recyclable materials? Sound off in the comments, please!


Darren (Green Change) said...

It's pretty basic, but egg cartons are also a handy way to start seedlings.

The front grill of an old fan makes a great soil/compost sieve.

I've seen someone make a compost bin out of a large cardboard box, too. The whole thing eventually broke down into compost.

Anonymous said...

"Reduce, re-use, recycle. This is the mantra of the smaller footprint crowd. And the mantra is an ordered list..."

Yes but you are missing the first and most important "R" - refuse. If you refuse to bring these things into your life all the others fall away.

Joanne said...

Some great ideas here, thanks!
On the subject of leeks, I had almost given up starting them in containers. Every time I transplant them to the main beds they shrivel up and die. What size to you transplant them and are there any special things you do to ease transplant shock?
- beginner gardener.

Willo said...

Awesome! I have tons of big plastic vinegar containers (ok, not tons, but definitely too many) and now I have a way to use them! Thanks!

Tracy said...

Wonderful ideas! I'm going to try a few of these things in my garden this year. :)

Sadge said...

Save all your eggshells. I just put mine into a gallon glass jar without a lid and let them dry. When I need to use them, I smash them into bits with a potato masher. Some get fed back to the chickens for calcium, but others get put into the planting hole (along with Epson Salts) for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to prevent blossom end rot.

Joanne - If you plant the root part of a supermarket leek some place it can grow undisturbed, it will send up lots of little baby leeks the following year. I keep a leek "maternity" patch going year after year instead of even bothering with seeds. I wrote about it on my blog: or maybe I'll write more about it here when it's my turn.

Sarah said...

I use milk jugs for irrigation. I bury my milk jugs after I have made a bunch of small holes in bottom of them with the top just above the soil. Plant your plants around the jugs. Then fill the jugs from the top with the hose. No water evaporates and the water goes straight to the roots. Perfect for melons, basil and other heat loving plants that also like regular water.
There are also pop bottle self watering plant pots. Try googling. I made a few and they work really well.

Mist said...

We're planning to reuse some broken/old toys in our kids' garden this year: an old dump truck, a rusty old wagon, etc.

When others buy my kids mylar balloons for their birthdays or other occasions, I cut them into strips to hang strategically around the garden to scare off birds and other produce snatchers.

Save every bit of string or twine that you can find to use in tying vines to their supports. The ties on store-bought bread are useful for this too.

Oh, and pantyhose... SO many uses for these in the garden. You can strips of them instead of the string or twine to stake your plants or store your bulbs over winter. You can also use them as slings for your melons to keep them off the ground.

Eilleen said...

Thank you thank you so much for this! I am planning on starting my own garden once I move into my own house and these ideas would really help me in getting it started. I especially love the newspaper seedling pots!

livinginalocalzone said...

Great post! I moved house last summer, so am looking forward to trying these in my new home garden. The newspaper pots for seed starting is something I've seen people talking about a lot this time of year, so your method helps a lot, as I would like to try that with at least some of the seeds. Regarding the milk jugs to shelter/warm plants, when they outgrow the jug, are they strong enough to be in the open, or is there a "part 2" in order to keep them safe?

sarahkeith said...

What a fantastic post, thank you! I'm just about to start some seeds this weekend, so it's perfect timing...I've been saving some egg carton, but now I'll be going through the recycling bin for some milk jugs.

Kate said...

Darren, yes, that's an oldie but a goodie. I now save my egg cartons for my eggs. I like the repurposed fan and cardboard box ideas.

EJ, to me that would fall under the first R: reduce. But it's all good.

Joanne, I guess I've just been lucky with transplanting the leeks. I transplant mine when they're only a few millimeters in diameter. Not sure how tall they were though. I tend to take a lot of care with preparing their bed. Maybe that has helped. If you have a lot of trouble with transplant shock, you might look into a product called MycoGrow. It's a mycorhizal dip that helps the roots of plants take up nutrients and water, and resist transplant shock. I've seen good results with it, though I didn't need it for my leeks.

Tracy, Willo, Eilleen & sarahkeith, thanks for stopping by, and glad I could give you some ideas for gardening uses for your recycling.

Sarah, that's a great suggestion. I haven't really been concerned as a gardener with reducing evaporative loss, since we get good rainfall here and can almost get away without watering the garden at all many years. But I like this idea anyhow for the melons and squash plants, as you suggest. It may help control the mildew that often sets in on the leaves of those plants.

Mist, that's a great set of suggestions. I've heard some of those before but have never tried them myself.

Sadge, I wasn't even thinking of eggshells for this article, since that goes to our chickens or our compost. But it's a great suggestion for anyone with blossom rot problems. Thanks for adding it here.

Livinginalocalzone, yes, the idea with the jug cloches is that you plant just a little on the early side, so that by the time the plant has grown to the top of the jug, the weather is mild enough for the plant to survive. The plant will harden off more gradually too with such protection, so that it's less shocked by the overnight temperature drops.

Lilli said...

I've been vermicomposting for over a year, and besides newsprint, you can feed them all of your fruit/veggie/organic scraps.

Pamela said...

when I was a very little girl -- before the use of plastic as the end all, my dad (1901-1976) used coffee cans in the garden. He dug a small hole beside various plantings. He would poke holes in the bottom of the can as you do your milk jug -- and then dug a whole and placed the can up to the brim in it. I remember following him around with his big watering bucket in the 1950s. (He was a grandpa-aged father to me)

Obviously he couldn't do this with his rows of beans, peas etc.

My 87 year old neighbor across the street uses milk jugs for frost watch. Same job, different material. You might say he just recycled and retooled the old methods.

I compost and enjoy curb recycling. But I know I should do more. I'll be back!

LizBeth said...

I'm so grateful for all your ideas. We have done the basics for years, but we are kicking things up a notch now that we have our own place. I've started saving the "clean" water in the sink with a large bowl and pouring it up in milk jugs to carry to the garden. Not water with soap or dirty waste, but the rinse-water off the potatoes, the water that has to run a few seconds to get warm, the water used to defrost something, or the drips from the faucet overnight to keep the pipes from freezing when its seven degrees out. Nothing that would make the EPA mad! . . . . . . Interested in constructed wetlands. Neat residential model in the book that just came out from the Rhizome Collective, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. . . . . .Thanks! LizBeth

Stephanie said...

Very useful ideas! Thank you. Will re-use trash items as much as possible.Save Planet Earth and our pockets ;-)