Recycling in the garden

Sunday, 17 July 2016

My erstwhile hens scratching in the compost heap: excellent recyclers

Gardeners on the whole are, I believe, very good recyclers. Most of us have some sort of composting system for garden refuse (prunings, lawn clippings, weeds etc) - whether it be a dome, tumbler, bin or haphazard pile in a corner. Many of us dispose of food scraps in an enclosed bin, worm farm, bokashi bucket or chook pen. We generally revel in the idea of turning all this organic material into compost (that we can put back into our gardens to improve soil structure, provide some nutrients and boost the microbial content of the soil, so vital to plant health) rather than throwing it away in the garbage bin to fester in some horrid tip. Many of us also collect rainwater in tanks, to be used to water our gardens rather than let it simply running away in stormwater drains.

Random-weave basket made by Robyn Morris from a palm tree inflorescence. Photo by Robyn Morris

Recycling in the garden can go beyond these fundamental processes, however. For example, it is possible to create beautiful organic objects by using materials from the garden: wooden bowls and plates from the logs of dead trees turned on a lathe; baskets woven from leaves and other plant parts; cloth dyed using leaves, bark and flowers; and fences and 'hurdles' constructed from stems and branches of trees such as willows.

Basket made by Robyn Morris from a palm tree inflorescence and palm leaves. Photo by Robyn Morris

There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in these sorts of traditional crafts in recent times, with lots of workshops available for people to find out how to do them. My talented friend Robyn Morris has learned to cleverly weave unique baskets from a number of natural materials from the garden, including Lomandra, jonquil, gymea, Juncus, Watsonia and Kniphofia leaves, and even the knobbly inflorescences of palm trees. No non-natural materials are used (apart from secateurs for cutting!). The results are functional works of art that have an attraction no commercially manufactured item can emulate.

Dry-cleaning bags recycled to help a transplanted shrub

Yet another angle on recycling in the garden is the repurposing of discarded household objects outside, either to aid our gardening efforts or as decoration. Right now we are in the middle of Plastic-free July, an annual challenge to refuse ALL single-use plastic items during the month of July, in order to raise awareness of the amount of plastic in our lives, which is the cause of significant environmental problems, especially for marine life. Whilst I am not actually signed up for this challenge, I have been trying hard to avoid plastic bags in particular. However, I have slipped up a few times, so have attempted to find ways to recycle those that have found their way into my hands. Those big plastic bags that dry-cleaned clothing comes encased in have been useful to place over some shrubs I have moved this winter. I've used tall sturdy wire plant supports to hold up the bags, and pegged shut the opening at the top of the bag. This provides a cosy cloak for the traumatised shrub and protects it from the drying effects of cold winds. It isn't a great look, but I am hoping it will help my plants recover well from their moves. Smaller bags from the fruit shop have been placed over the top of vases indoors containing coleus cuttings, to enhance humidity whilst they take root. Many of my coleus don't survive winter, so this is how I keep them going each year. I DO have homemade reusable netting bags for the fruit and veggie shopping, and a big cloth bag for the dry cleaning return, but oversights do occasionally happen!

Old boots used as plant containers, Chelsea Flower Show 2013, London

Other resourceful ways to recycle household rubbish usefully in the garden include cutting up plastic milk bottles or old venetian blinds to make plant labels; using polystyrene vegetable boxes as planters or to nurture cuttings; using wooden pallets to make compost bins or planters; turning a kettle barbeque or old boots into planters; employing old cutlery as dibbers or weeders (I have a precious, aged knife in my herb garden that came from my mother's first cutlery set as a young bride); turning an old sink or bath into a pond; using old pantyhose lengths to tie up climbers or unsteady plants; using newspaper underneath mulch to inhibit weed growth; or putting a cut-down plastic bottle over a cutting as a mini-greenhouse.

Old furniture used as part of a herb garden, Chelsea Flower Show 2013, London

I adore visiting gardens where discarded items have been used as quirky decorations. People's ingenuity is amazing! I've admired an old wooden house door used as a gate; chandeliers hanging in trees like exotic wind chimes; old furniture incorporated into borders and as plant containers; bicycles or wire bird cages used to support climbing plants; vintage mirrors in frames placed on walls to give the illusion of being a window into another garden beyond; and a melange of everyday objects placed artfully within a garden scene. In recent times I have seen some superb sculptures made of old barbed wire or welded horse shoes in country gardens; and an ancient rusty piece of machinery can often look fantastic in the right setting. In my own garden, the bowl of our dear old departed cat is now (with a certain irony) a water source for small birds; and a collection of superannuated teapots hanging in trees and adorning tables alludes to my love of wandering around the garden with a cuppa in my hand. Of course, we do need to know when to stop adding objects so that it doesn't end up looking like a junkyard, but it can all be great fun.

I'd love to hear of ideas you have for any kind of recycling in the garden!