What’s Old is New Again

A very basic concept has sparked an exciting revolution with this generation, but it is far from new. Upcycling is the act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. Some of the best examples of modern-day upcycling come from the 1930s-40s when families had very little economic or material resources. In this age of thrift, they reused almost everything, repurposing items over and over until they were no longer useful: Feed sacks became dresses or old doors became the new dining room table.

Thrift is still a trend today and a big reason some people upcycle. Others enjoy the artistic aesthetic. One of the biggest reasons for the rebirth of upcycling is the positive impact on the environment. Items destined for the dump are rescued and remade into something useful.

Many garden upcycling ideas start with items around the house and a need for something. So, before you throw away or recycle broken or used items, give them a second look and ask yourself if they can be used in the garden. A quick search on the internet under “repurposing or upcycling in the garden” will give you all the inspiration you will need to get started. We aren’t all artists, but with some elbow grease and a little creativity, even the novice can fashion some fun and quirky statements for the landscape.

Here are some of my favorites to help get you started!

  • One of the first projects to come to mind are upcycled garden containers like an old bird cage with a spill of charming succulents in the bottom. Paint old tires in vibrant hues, stack them and fill with dirt. Use colanders to make hanging baskets or decorate an old dresser and plant in its drawers. An old chandelier can be spruced up with some paint and makes a great hanging flower planter.  Whimsical items take on even more charm when plants are installed in them. Children’s rain boots, rusty tool boxes, old tins, teapots, glassware, and more provide interesting planting options.
  • Install an old mailbox onto a fencepost near your garden, and use it to keep gloves, tools, seed packets, and other necessities nearby and safe from the elements.
  • Milk jugs are amazing garden tools! They can be used as cloches, seed starters, scoops, waterers, dusters, upside-down vegetable planters, and more!
  • Yogurt containers, egg cartons, and toilet paper rolls cut in half make perfect containers for holding soil and starting small plants from seeds. Make sure to poke a few holes in the bottom of anything that is solid to allow water to drain.
  • Use plastic mesh baskets from cherry tomatoes or strawberries to protect newly-sprouted seedlings such as corn, cucumber, melons, and squash from birds.  By the time the seedlings are tall enough to reach through the tops of the baskets, they are no longer as tender and detectible as the birds prefer.
  • Save sets of jars for sorting and storing seeds you’ve collected.  Use the same type of jar for each type of seed for quick sorting.  Choose the jar size to match the quantity of seeds you have.  Place them together on a shelf for quick, at-a-glance recognition and easy retrieval.
  • While some plants require lots of room to be happy, succulents actually do better in small containers or planted close together. Colorful food cans make great homes for succulents!
  • Don’t throw out that chair with the broken seat! Turn it into a pretty planter for petunias and other flowers.
  • Planting veggies and need some plant labels? You can paint old kitchen spoon vibrant colors and add your sprouting seedling name. Old mini blind vanes or pained rocks work well too! If you have some wine corks lying around, you can stick them on a bamboo skewer and write the name on the cork for a unique label.
  • Turn an old, broken bike into a cool planter.  Paint it bright colors, install a planter or basket at the handle bars and park it amongst a wildflower garden.
  • Decorative garden balls are an inexpensive alternative to the classic gazing ball. Take an old bowling ball or mason jar, add some paint and glue on some flat marbles (glass gems), pennies, or old costume jewelry to create a unique garden decoration.

With upcycling, the possibilities are limited only to the materials you already have on hand and your creativity. Dig around your basement or garage or scour yard sales to find objects that appeal to you. Then get out the paint, super glue, twine, glue gun and any other decorating tools you need and go to town. Upcycling in the garden can be a fun, family project that let’s everyone put a special touch on your outdoor spaces while making a positive impact on the environment.

For advice on gardening related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/




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  • Blog Author

    Marcy Sousa

    Marcy Sousa is the San Joaquin County UC Master Gardener Program Coordinator. She is a Stockton native and enjoys teaching others about gardening. She has her bachelors from Stanislaus State in Permaculture. She has been with the program since 2007. Read Full
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