People who grow food in order to save on grocery bills are always looking for ways to keep down their costs. You won’t find these folks buying specialized cages for their tomatoes, expensive earthenware pots for their herbs, or fancy trellises for the peas, pole beans or cucumbers to climb. Such items can reach into the hundreds of dollars.

Pamela Hargest, a horticulturist with the Cumberland County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, says people don’t need a lot of expensive accessories in order to create a productive garden. While taking part in a garden day at Washington Gardens in Portland this past spring, she was especially impressed with one gardener, a new Mainer, who had created a garden from found and repurposed items. They transformed his small yard, she said.

The property is on a slope, so to begin, the man had cleverly used leftover wooden planks to create a step garden; it was clear from watching him, Hargest said, that he was an experienced gardener. Such an arrangement will keep the rain from washing the soil away. Anyone could do the same thing. “Any leftover wood can work,” Hargest said. “You would want to be careful about using treated wood, but it doesn’t have to be fancy.”

Similarly, the gardener had used wood supports that looked like they came from a closet to create trellises for his peas and tomatoes.

“Because there was a bit of a language barrier,” Hargest doesn’t know where the gardener found his items, but the scraps were a great example of the conservation mantra of “reduce, re-use and recycle.”

She added that this man’s garden was a more than simply a bed to produce food.

“He was creating beautiful and peaceful place in a built-up area,” she said. “There was a lot of Japanese knotweed around the garden, and he was also preventing that from spreading.”

My chat with Hargest got me to thinking about my own gardening practices. My wife Nancy and I buy some items if we need them, but we also have plenty of repurposed items in our garden.

Our peas climb wire fencing that we have kept for at least 30 years held up on broken 2-by-4s, and our compost bins were created using recycled pallets. Our stonewalls were built, as always in Maine, with rocks found in the gardens; stones from a neighbor looking to unload them would do, too. Instead of buying plant labels for the vegetable and flowers, we cut up milk jugs and write on them with indelible ink. We don’t put the traditional straw in between our rows of strawberries; instead, we gather up and use the pine needles from under the pines that stand in our neighbor’s yard, but whose branches extend over ours – the sea breezes blow the needles our way. Actually, the ultimate in productive recycling is the compost from our bins. I screen it through a big sieve I made out of four old pieces of 2-by-4s, cut to fit on top of our wheelbarrow, that are connected to a piece of chicken wire fencing I unearthed in our garage.

Some people buy fancy weed buckets, but we use five-gallon pails that in previous lives held everything from vanilla frosting to driveway sealer.

People who live in communities that have a (blandly named) town transfer station have an advantage over communities where the municipality sends trucks out to collect trash. Town dumps usually have places where residents can pick up items that others have thrown away – everything from planks to bicycles. Those without town dumps should check out yard sales to find items for the garden. Or try, an internet site, where people list things they don’t want; recent Portland postings offered a “push lawnmower” and “Greenhouse plant pots – several dozen, various sizes.” One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

Repurposing just takes creativity. Some gardeners use landscape fabric to keep down weeds between their rows of vegetables. A lower-cost, more environmentally friendly method is to put down cardboard – either picked up at a grocery story or recycled from any shipping boxes you receive. You could use newspapers, too, if you saved them throughout the winter for use during gardening season. (You are reading the local paper, aren’t you?)

Free bricks are a windfall, too. You may be able to pick them up from neighbors who are changing the hardscaping in their yard, or at the town dump. All of our walks, a patio and our driveway are paved with free bricks. Admittedly, it took four decades, but except that we are filling in the former garden pool (too much work and not enough bloom in the now-shady site), it would be all done.

Using logs and sticks from any trees you cut down can be tricky. If the trees are healthy, fine. If killed by winter moth, that’s OK too, because the moth isn’t in the tree now. But if the tree was killed by disease, maybe not. Assuming yours pass the test, logs can be used to make raised beds and seats, and the sticks to make fence posts and trellises.

Driving by commercial sites where trees have been planted, you probably have noticed plastic bags around the new plantings. These keep the soil moist without the necessity of coming back to the site every day to water them. My editor tells me of someone who fills an empty wine bottle with water, pushes it quickly into the soil, the neck down, letting the water slowly dribble out over time, using this same principle on rose bushes. I asked Hargest if people could also keep the cost of gardening down by sharing seedlings or seeds, and she said that is usually done as a neighbor-to-neighbor exchange.

“I do know of some closed Facebook groups, including one run by the Master Gardeners, where people will offer leftover materials,” she said. “And sometimes farmers will offer seedlings that they aren’t going to be able to use.”

The Master Gardeners also hold garden days each spring where they provide seedlings and seeds to gardeners in community gardens or in subsidized housing communities.

Many neighborhoods have plant exchanges in the spring, which could be a cost savings.

But whether looking for the plants themselves or the materials to build the structure of a garden, the important part is to keep an open mind and be creative.


TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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