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Monthly Focus On... April 2014

By Lucy Purdy:

Beet the System

With the retail gardening industry now turning over £5 billion a year, the soaring popularity of the grow-your-own movement has been accompanied by a huge surge in business.

Whether it is sacks of compost, planters or flowers, seeds and shrubs, many of us see a trip to the local garden centre as the way to kick-start a weekend in the garden. But many of these products involve a hefty dose of fossil fuel-derived energy and can simply be done without.

Lucy Purdy discovers how, by thinking creatively and using recycled materials, there is no need to spend a small fortune, or any more of the planet’s resources, on your growing efforts.

Recycled plastic bottles feature in vertical growing solutions by Brazilian company Rosenbaum. Photo Rosenbaum. 

In an age when we’re taught to create our identity through consumer choices, it is difficult to separate shopping from success in any area of our lives. But growing, particularly fruit and vegetables for us and our families to eat, should be celebrated as a natural and authentic thing to do, resisting our learned ‘need’ to spend and shop. Take soil for example... 


Composting is arguably the most efficient form of recycling on the planet and any garden without it is missing a trick. Adding kitchen scraps, shredded paper, cardboard and other compostable waste from the home into a compost heap not only stops them languishing in landfill and releasing methane into the atmosphere, but creates beautiful, nutrient-rich soil to grow in.

Though you may need some bought or swapped compost to begin with, particularly in spots where the earth has been depleted by industry or agriculture, in time, composting can create enough “black gold” to meet your needs – and all for free. Worms and micro organisms feast on your unwanted scraps and help keep the soil perfectly in balance: fed, structured, aerated and happy, ready for your plants to thrive. Community compost schemes are growing in number too, and many councils now offer compost, often at low prices, made from household green waste.

Garden sculpture made from recycled materials, at Capel Manor Gardens in Enfield, North London


Gleaming tubs of fertilisers promising miracle plant growth in exchange for a few quid can look tempting. But a well looked-after, balanced soil should not need them, and ultimately won’t thank you for adding chemicals in the name of a short term growth spurt.

Natural fertilisers can be made by using plants all around us. Leafy nitrogen-fixing plants such as peas, beans, clover and comfrey can be applied directly to the soil as green mulches or even fertilising ‘teas’ made, to harness valuable nutrients and feed other plants when they most need it. Leaf mould, worm compost, grass cuttings and even stinging nettles can also be used, prompting us to redefine our use of the word ‘weed’. 

Fertilising in this way recycles the natural abundance around us, creating healthy and strong plants which taste great, without injecting chemicals and pesticides into the mix. And it’s something for nothing. Food for free!

Garden sign and pea trellising made using recycled fence boards and old paint, by Lucy Purdy

Planters and pots

Pots and planters, from ornate Grecian-style pots to modern, luxuriantly-glazed plinths, don’t come cheap and it’s easy to lose £100 and more in these aisles of our local nurseries. Most gardeners use some sort of bought flower pots, even if it’s a teetering stack of the ever-present plastic ones, but a whole world of creatively recycled alternatives exists. 

“You can make a whole container garden – literally – out of recycled,” stuff, said Mark Ridsdill Smith, founder of the popular gardening blog, who advocates using waste packaging to grow salads in. For example: mushroom, fruit and polystyrene fish trays, even plastic bottles.

Growing vertically, by Brazilian company Rosenbaum. Photo: Rosenbaum

“Because these trays are not always the most attractive, you might want to use your creativity to make them more beautiful. One simple idea is to hide the trays behind a wooden board.” 

Another of his ideas is to make a wormery out of recycled materials and waste food creating both nutrient-rich compost and a concentrated liquid fertiliser.

Freelance journalist and keen grower Tess Riley advocates starting off seedlings in yoghurt pots or making your own from newspaper folded and wrapped to form pot shapes. 

“Once the seedlings are ready to go into the ground, you can put the whole thing in as the newspaper casing is biodegradable too,” she said.

“I also reuse those bits of bendy wire that come wrapped around headphones/cables as twine and have repurposed some old gun carriers as window boxes. And our hotch-potch greenhouse is made from old stained glass panels. At the allotment, we’ve built raised beds out of scaffolding planks and used CDs to make decorative mobiles and keep the birds off the fruit.”

Matt Franks, founding director of urban gardening enterprise Connected Roots, has used old wooden packaging pallets, ubiquitous on building sites and in skips around London, to make attractive planting troughs. And Sara Ayech told how a project she worked on in Dartmouth Park, London, made use of old floorboards from local flats which were being refurbished to build raised beds for community growing. Useable materials lie all around us if we choose to see them.

Wooden pallets used to make planters by urban gardening enterprise Connected Roots. Photo: Connected Roots


Huge, multinational seed corporations would have us believe that we need them to provide us with the means to grow things. A myth! 

Some success can be had in saving and planting the seeds remaining from bought peppers or garlic bulbs for example, but an ever more empowering thing to do is to join or form a local seed-swapping group. Not only will you be sharing seasonal varieties which grow well in your local environment – as opposed to those forced to appear unnaturally and shipped or flown across the world – but you will be improving the diversity of the food at our disposal. The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield, which describes how to grow using permaculture principles in the UK climate, emphasises that only the seeds most suited to commercial growing make the national list of registered types. It reads: “Varieties that don’t get on the list become extinct if no one takes the effort to save them. It’s vitally important work. Of all the things on earth, biodiversity is the most fragile. We can never recreate it and we need it for our own survival.” 

Plastic bottles can be used to protect young plants from slugs, (Photo: Lucy Purdy) and community growing beds in Dartmouth Park made from old floorboards.

It’s no coincidence that the fruit and veg we grow almost always tastes better than what we buy. It’s fresh, we know what has gone into it, and it usually contains many more nutrients than in what we buy. In fact, nature naturally grows the kinds of plants and vegetables to provide us with the minerals and nutrients we’re likely to need at that time of year. Another reason to grow seasonally and locally.

Seed swapping and sharing then: a form of recycling which contributes directly to humanity’s chances of survival. Not bad work for a Sunday afternoon in the garden...

In short..

..these ideas only scratch the surface of green-fingered recycling ideas. Gardening, in itself a calming, meditative activity which brings balance and a simple joy to our days, seems a natural area to think about recycling and the circular economy.

Share your ideas with us on Twitter @Recycleopedia and on Facebook  and help inspire us and others.

More Features:

A flood of kindness

(March 2014) A volunteer army is being assembled to tackle storm debris on UK beaches, just one of the measures to sort and recycle the rubbish left in the wake of recent bad weather.

Heart on your Sleeve

(February 2014) The modern age has been described as a ‘story of stuff’. A treadmill of frenzied acquisition in which the buzz we get from buying never quite satisfies, urging us onwards still in a depressing narrative of accumulation. For many of us, this is particularly evident in our wardrobes: the stuff we buy ostensibly to keep us covered and warm, but which in reality is about so much more.

Green Shoots

(January 2014) When mum-of-two Anna Pitt found herself being asked for the recycling tips she practiced with her family, she decided to gather together her snippets of recycling and eco living advice and realise a lifelong ambition of writing a book.

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