10 Ways to Recycle For a More Sustainable Garden

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Pallet composter

Many gardeners are very creative people.  I think this stems from working with nature itself where rotting compost can be transformed into beds of beautiful plants and colourful harvests.  However, the opportunities for creativity are not limited to growing things.  Many gardeners find new uses for discarded materials and some of the most productive vegetable gardens I have known are filled with items which have been salvaged from the rubbish heap.  Plastic piping, old bath tubs, CDs, cardboard and many other thrown away items can all be put to good use in the garden...

It is very easy to see environmental gardening as a practice that should only involve sustainable natural materials: wood, bark chippings, straw etc.  We can create beautiful environments made out of these materials and they make good choices for many situations.   However, limiting ourselves to these sources ignores the huge problem of mixed non-recyclable waste going to landfill.  Why, for example, does every plant sold in garden centres have to come in a non-recyclable plastic pot rather than a biodegradable one?  Recycling and reusing makes a lot of sense - there are so many creative ways to give items a second use and prevent them being buried in waste sites.

Here are some of my favourite ways to recycle throw-away items:

  • Pallets: Build a compost bin from pallets.  It is so simple – you just use four pallets on their edges for the sides, held together with some strong garden wire twisted with pliers.  Don’t worry about the gaps – compost needs air and it will usually be held in place by the pallet slats which should face inwards.  I have successfully built a compost heap inside a raised bed using this method which has the advantage that any nutrients washed through by rain still end up in the soil.  Then in Spring the pallets are removed and the resulting compost is spread over the bed for the next season.
  • Bathtubs, sinks and buckets: These make excellent ponds when sunk into the ground.  With a little care you can cultivate a rich ecosystem in your pond and attract frogs and toads which will then prove very effective at reducing the numbers of slugs on your plot.  Add some pond weed to keep the water clean together with old logs or pieces of wood which the frogs can use to climb out, as recycled tubs tend to have very slippery sides.  Finally, don’t forget to make the pond safe if children are going to be around: either fence it off or cover it with a metal grid.
  • Wood: This can always be used - particularly reasonably long pieces which haven’t been pressure treated (see my article on treating wood for details of what to avoid) and don’t have flaky paint on them.  Compost bins, cold frames and structures to hold up netting or garden fleece can all be constructed from wood that is surplus to someone’s requirements.  A very useful source is old scaffolding planks – for health and safety reasons firms have to get rid of them as soon as they show any wear but they can still make very serviceable sides for raised beds.
  • Cold frame made with old windows
  • Windows: Preferably without sharp edges (!) these make great tops for home-made cold frames, to protect your tender plants from late autumn through to spring.  Double-glazed windows offer more protection from frost and are usually sealed with good metal edges but they can be much heavier to move when opening the cold frame.
  • Chicken wire and fencing: Drive a few posts into the ground and surround them with old wire fencing and you have the perfect bin for creating leafmould.  It will take a year or more to break down but you are left with an excellent soil conditioner.
  • Plastic Pipe: Because of the way this naturally keeps its shape, it makes an excellent material for creating tunnel structures.  Cut the pipe into equal lengths of one and a half metres (4 - 5’) and then push them into the ground to make hoops every 60cm (2’) along a row.  Netting or garden fleece can then be draped over this and weighed down with bricks or wood at the sides.
  • Plastic Bottles: Cutting off the bottom of large clear plastic bottles makes an excellent mini-cloche which will protect seedlings from harsh winds, slugs and snails.  Leave the top off the bottle so that it can breathe without excess moisture and heat building up (a recipe for mould).  Once the plants are touching the sides, the bottle should be removed.
  • Plastic bottle cloches
  • Yogurt Pots: Can be sunk into the ground and filled with beer or other yeasty liquid to trap and drown slugs.  Leave one inch sticking up above soil level to stop beneficial insects such as ground beetles from also being drowned.
  • Old Grapefruit skins and Coconut Shells: These are my favourite means of collecting slugs - leaving a few on the soil attracts them into the overnight shelter.  In the morning you can pick up the grapefruit ‘shelter’ and dispose of the slugs.  Old wooden planks, bricks and slate also work well.  (For full details see my article on  dealing with slugs.)
  • CDs and DVDs: Make bird-scarers by threading these onto individual strings and then attaching them to a washing-line across areas of your vegetable garden which suffer from birds eating the crop.  In some areas you will find that this has a limited effect, since the birds seem to have become used to such tactics but they can be supplemented with recycled wind chimes or other noisy devices if the neighbours don’t object!

There are many more inventive ways to use throw-away items, of course.  An excellent resource for this is the website www.RecycleThis.co.uk.  Not only does it list lots of imaginative ways to recycle household items but you can suggest your own ideas and even request what items they cover in the future.  The site is fully searchable and there is a garden category of 31 articles.  They add three new items every week but most useful are the comments which other readers add as solutions to each recycling problem.

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ has long been the mantra of the environmental movement.  Many people believe this simply means taking their paper and cans to the local recycling point.  This misses the important point that ‘reusing’ is in fact much better for the environment than putting something through the whole recycling process.  So three cheers to the inventive gardeners who are putting this into practice!  If you have come across (or invented) a great way to recycle items in the garden, then please do share it below...

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Show Comments


"I have used almost all of the above suggestions on our allotments. I have one comment to add to the use of CDs and DVDs as birdscarers and that is that you do need to remove them before the sun makes the plastic so brittle that they shatter. I have spent too many hours picking up shards of plastic which would have been much more productively spent in the garden!"
Peter on Friday 27 February 2009
"Wonderful article! You are so right, 're-use' is so often over looked. We have done pretty much everything you have suggested above, apart from re-using glass (it isn't allowed on our Lotties) or making a little pond - yet! Good advice from you too Peter; never thought about the DVD's going so brittle in the sun."
Carrie on Monday 2 March 2009
"Great article I use a lot of the ideas you mention. I also hava another use for plastic bottles. After using them as as cloches, bury the cap end in the ground next to plants growing in the greenhouse/polytunnel and use as a water resevoir for directing water to the plant roots. If you use thos type of watering system it helps keep the top of the siol dry reducing weed seed germination."
Colleen on Wednesday 4 March 2009
"Colleen - yes, a great idea about the top 'funnel shaped' bit of plastic bottles. I have heard of a similar thing being used in large containers but it should work well in many locations on a vegetable plot. Peter - thanks for the warning about CDs!"
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 4 March 2009
"I would love to get hold of some old pallets for making compost bins - any suggestions as to where they can be found? p.s. I don't have a car."
Jenny on Friday 6 March 2009
"Pallets can be found all sorts of places. I often seen them in skips when someone has been renovating, if you just want one or two at a time keep an eye out for neighbours building.. You can sometimes get other things as well we got a whole bunch of joist off cuts when the in-laws neighbours had a loft conversion done. If you want them in bigger quantities try wandering round a few industrial estates, I know several companies who regularly have piles of old ones to get rid of and they are happy to give you some if you ask. You might need to find a mate with transport though because even one can be hard to carry as good ones are quite weighty and if you are fairly short like me they are a stretch to reach round. You might manage one or two on a pull along trolley or similar though. Or you could see if the company vans go near you at any point and see if they will drop some off when they have space.. always worth an ask."
Esther on Friday 6 March 2009
"Excellent advice about re-using stuff. I obtained some wooden pallets on which German motorcycles had been imported. They are twice the length of the square ones and I have made a stunning compost heap!"
Matron on Sunday 8 March 2009
"Oh how lucky we are looking to build a fence with them while our hedge grows and himself would love some longer ones like that I'm sure."
Esther on Sunday 8 March 2009
"I use old tyres to hold the mulch in place around my fruit trees in the orchard. To disguise them and add benefits to the orchard, I plandt herbs and flowers on the outside, around the tyres."
Angela on Sunday 8 March 2009
"I reuse large plastic milk containers to anchor my weed control fabric. You do need a good pile of them but I brought some home from work - we go through gallons of milk there. I clean them out and fill them with water and use them as weights to hold down my weed control fabric. This saves having to puncture the fabric so no tears and fabric lasts longer. They even survived freezing temperatures, just leave a gap for expansion. Once I am finished with the fabric I simply empty the water out and put the plastic bottles into my recycle bin. "
Rhona on Sunday 8 March 2009
"Angela and Rhona, What great ideas, thanks! The large plastic milk containers filled with water I have heard being used in a greehouse to store heat during the day and keep it above freezing at night. I don't know how well this works but would love to hear from anyone who has done this."
Jeremy Dore on Monday 9 March 2009
"I was using plastic bottles last year in my greenhouse as a heatsink, and sometimes using the water for the plants. I've since understood that water that has heated up inside plastic bottles contains high levels of oestrogen, and is not good to drink, so probably not good to feed your plants either - so I'm saving wine and beer bottles instead!"
Elspeth on Monday 9 March 2009
"We used an old bench type toy box for a worm bin and tossed out (but good) patio chair for a comfy seat in our community garden. Also used gallon pots strung together to make a bed border that holds annual flowers like marigolds or herbs like parsley. You could also bury wine bottles upside down for a border and use old pie tins filled with wet sand for butterflies to get moisture from. If you can't find a place to recycle those plastic bags you get, you can stuff old clothes with them and make a scarecrow. Just tie off the sleeves and pant legs and safety pin the two together at the waist so the bags don't escape. And don't forget garden art. I've even seen old musical instruments peeking out from behind plants and every garden needs a toad house made from a broken pot."
Barri on Monday 9 March 2009
"Cut up old ice cream boxes to label sizes, punch a hole both ends and thread through old knitting needles. Names on front, dates on back, re-usable. I bought mine from RSPCA shop, you need to ask for them as they are kept under the counter. Offensive weapon? Mine cost 40p per pair and they are rust proof."
beedle on Saturday 11 April 2009
"I see many companies who still toss their broken plastic pallets into dumpster thinking they are of no use. One pallet is equal to hundreds of milk jugs or water bottles. This plastic will never decompose and they take up a lot of space in landfills. A better solution is to contact a pallet company to recycle these items even if they're broken. These plastic pallets can be melted down to create other products. You can have this company in Michigan recycle your plastic pallets at http://discountpallet.com "
Randy-The Recycle Pallet Guru on Friday 20 August 2010
"What wonderful ideas. We are starting an organic garden at school and are thinking that we should also make it as much as a recycled garden as possible. Aside from being a powerful tool across all curriculums,we are hoping that this will become a model for ecology and environmentalism for our students. Your ideas will help a great deal. "
Emmie on Friday 11 November 2011
"can you use old saw dust in your compost recycle binas well as food stuffs"
ben on Monday 19 March 2012
"Has anyone got ideas for what to use to build a structure for an apple tunnel? The purpose made ones are very expensive, but I haven't come up with a great solution yet. Old cast iron central heating pipes for the uprights - will they poison the soil with iron? And will they freeze the trunk of the tree by conducting cold? And as the tunnel has a slicht bend in it, what to use for the horizontal supports? The arches will probably be made out of an old trampoline frame. Any suggestions welcome! "
Elspeth Campbell on Monday 19 November 2012
"Plastic Bottle Bird Scarers - Cut off the Base, Remove and make a hole in the lid. Thread string thru the lid, tie not in the underside. then push string thru the base to the top, tie the string to the handle, bend handle just a little, then leave a long length to tie to the top of anything that will allow the bottle to swing. The lid will rattle against the bottle. "
beedle on Monday 19 November 2012
"Recycling is very important!!!!!!!!!!!"
Paige on Monday 11 February 2013
"I would also want to add some recycling ideas like those old drawers you have.... it could be a great idea for a landscape of plants and flowers. Creativity is the key to make it perfect. I want to share to you a social garden site http://happyhouseandgarden.com/ I think you could love it as well those people who loves gardening and stuff this is the best place to share your ideas :)"
Jonathan on Thursday 17 October 2013
"Wow, I like your idea of how you recycled plastic bottles to use as cloches for growing plants. I think I'll take that idea and use it in my garden. Once the plants are grown I'll send these used plastic bottles to a recycling service company. "
Alice Jones on Thursday 1 June 2017

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