Garden Ingenuity

In our little urban garden, “ingenuity” is a simple–albeit slightly imperious–way of saying “using free stuff around your yard to maximize growing space.” Folks all over the globe can lay claim to this plant-borne genius, some with a success that both humbles and inspires their fellow gardeners.

Our foray into the urban variety of garden ingenuity began two years ago, with the simple act of re-purposing several cinder-blocks, languishing on one side of our house. Doing little more than taking up space, and harboring an impressive array of spiders–both friendly and non–the blocks were slated for the dump, until an idea formed in my mind. Sprayed off with the hose and turned on end, they formed a shelving system up a previously unusable section of our good neighbor fence.

Solid in its ugliness, the new “shelf” brought eight pots of herbs up into the light, where they have flourished ever since.  Under the row of herbs I placed pots of Alyssum flowers that spill over the front, and moved a large clay potted lavender plant in front to hide the lower cinder blocks.  Sage-green matching plastic pots (on sale at the local home store) work with the industrial light gray color of the blocks. With the flowers, green plants and bees flying around, the blocks have settled harmoniously into place.

While my cinder block herb shelf works for our space, I have seen lovely examples of large-scale re-purposing in various places around the web. (See Above Photo)

Getting enough sunshine has plagued my back garden since our first growing season, nearly five years ago. A lovely white alder tree sits almost in the center of the main garden plot; while we utilize said tree in keeping the raised beds wattlebearing afternoon sun off the lettuces, cilantro and spinach, the shallow, gnarled root system makes raised beds a must. Expensive to buy–or build–raised beds can be made for next-to-nothing from sustainable materials if you have trees, or have neighbors who do. A relative of one of my neighbors made her beautiful woven (or “wattled”) raised beds with an ancient technique of weaving green pruned branches around wooden stakes in the ground (see similar beds in adjacent photo) but… it took her a month.

For me, Time is a capricious ally, thus I made a far uglier raised bed with bits of wood scrap and trimmed, green branches, woven through a leftover bit of wire fencing. The result was a fairly-decent lean-to by  our back garden wall. We planted butternut squash in the bed; as it grows, we’re training the tendrils up the sloping wire and out over the bent branches. While it doesn’t look so pretty, it accomplished its purpose which is to get the budding vines of squash out from under the alder’s shade, into that all-important afternoon sunshine while keeping the roots in shaded moisture.

Other re-purposed items we’ve used successfully in the garden:

  • a footstool with 1′ high sides–that lost its top–turned into a mini-potato bed
  • scrap 4×4 posts (not chemical-treated) and painter’s plastic made into a shallow, moveable strawberry bed
  • a large IKEA bright-blue “carry” bag, with holes in the bottom, turned into a moveable tomato planter (which might also work–with a bit of sand mixed into the soil–for potatoes)

The last bit of ingenuity arose out of a dilemma most hobbyist tomato growers find themselves embroiled in: how to spot and extract those precious tomatoes from within their dense forest of foliage. Wire rings, posts, fence wire and netting all do the job of keeping thosePVC tomato arches bendable green branches off the ground, but they also inhibit the harvester from getting at all the fruit.  Scoffing at the infomercial method of hanging your plants upside-down, I scrounged up two 10′ pieces of bendy PVC 1/2″ pipe for one bed, slowly bending each into a striking arch and sticking the ends in diagonal corners of my 2’x4′ tomato bed. After wiring the tops of the arches together over the bed I found the system rigid enough to bear the weight of four tomato plants; from the top where the arches intersected, I hung a straight stick, tied on each end with leftover plastic twine and  tied the smaller plants in the middle up off the soil. The result looked rather space-age, but functioned just as I hoped. As soon as I source some more unwanted PVC scraps from my neighbors I’ll utilize this method on the other four tomato beds, and perhaps for the pole-beans and peas as well.

Feel free to share your own space-saving, re-purposed garden stories in the comments section.

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books


3 thoughts on “Garden Ingenuity

  1. Anytime we can repurpose materials it is good for the land. We learned that we have to be very careful with materials from the city as we do not know what their old purpose was and as we are Certified Naturally Grown, we do not want to endanger our certification. So we have had some really good material that we had to make the decision that it was not worth the risk to use. Even so with all the good “stuff” being thrown away, it is possible to put together the materials that you need. You do have to make it a year around project of salvaging so you have what you need at the time that you need it.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you for the encouragement and for taking the time to respond to this article. It’s true that we did consider the prior uses of each item before utilizing it. Some of the wood scraps we had to pass over, for instance, were pressure-treated and as such unsuitable for garden use.

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