Gardeners are scavengers. We’re always on the lookout for materials we can re-purpose in our gardens.
Nothing lights up my life like finding a good stash of cardboard, for instance. It makes a great weed barrier that eventually decomposes to add organic matter to the soil. A two-fer! When I found a big refrigerator box, I was so excited I called my brother Noel. I knew he’d appreciate the magnitude of this acquisition.
Of course he did. He had his own successes to crow about. Making great compost is his new passion. Twice weekly he stops at a local donut shop to pick up used coffee grounds to compost. He also frequents a horse farm to collect manure. He brings it home in 5-gallon buckets in the back of his Jeep Cherokee. If you don’t mind hauling manure in the same SUV that carries your groceries, you’re a true gardener.
We learned scavenging from our gardener mother. Once, my dad and a neighbor were on their way to a football game when they spotted Mom standing outside her car along the road. Straight from church in high heels and a dress, she was wielding the shovel she always kept in the trunk of her car.
“Should we stop and see if she’s ok?” the neighbor asked. “Drive on,” my dad replied, neither concerned nor amused. “She’s spotted a plant she wants in her garden.”
Even professional gardeners are scavengers. Jeff Epping, head of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, proudly showed me how he’d used broken pieces of concrete to edge one of Olbrich’s new gravel gardens. In his home garden, he’s turned airport landing lights into fixtures in a low stone wall. He and his daughter also used found items to create a fountain.
Once I visited the garden of a master re-purposer. An artist, she turned pitchforks into people, colanders into lights, utensils into wind chimes and reassembled farm equipment into arbors. While volunteering at a recycling center, she collected blue glass bottles that she turned into a charming edging for a garden bed. I was so taken with this that I tried it along a woodland path in my own garden.
Turning junk into garden art is not as easy as it looks. My project did not have the intended effect. Instead of being wowed by my creativity, visitors to my garden wondered how much Skye Vodka those bottles represented.
Undeterred by that setback, I turned to experimenting with using castoff wheelbarrows, wash basins and boots as planting containers. I also keep an eye out on garbage night for anyone tossing real planters. Recently, after my husband replaced the suspension on his Jeep, I “planted” the springs and shock absorbers in the garden as “art.”
There is no end to this scavenging. Nice, big, interesting rocks are always on my wishlist. I also just can’t get enough leaves, woodchips or cardboard … and we haven’t even talked yet about plants or seeds.
I’m proof positive that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Turning something free into grist for the garden, now that’s blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.