Frugal Gardening: Smart and Safe Re-Purposing

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Today’s post is one that I’ve had on my mind for awhile now, but one of those topics that may cause a bit of upset. If you’re reading this site, chances are you care about saving money. I do, too! When it comes to gardening, there are many ways one can recycle, re-purpose, and up-cycle.

However, I’m seeing more ideas shared on Facebook, Pinterest, and social media forums about ways to reuse items in the garden that make me…concerned…and sometimes, just puzzled.

So before I get very far into this Frugal Gardening series, I wanted to share some of what I’m seeing with you and ideas for how you can safely re-purpose items in your garden.

When Re-Purposing Might Be Harmful

I love that more people than ever are getting passionate and creative about growing their own food, particularly in urban and small spaces. But I’d like to raise a bit of a red flag of caution about some materials you probably don’t want growing right next to your edibles!

  • Old tires. I don’t want to say ALL tires are bad, but I do want to caution you here. Tires as they decompose may release toxins into your soil, which is something you obviously do not want. I also question what kind of heavy pollution tires have been exposed to. While you have to make your own decision on this one, I would personally not use old tires in my garden. 
  • Old furniture/lumber. I would advise to not use pressure-treated lumber in your garden. I have seen some cute pictures of people re-purposing dressers as edible planters, but I would be concerned in some cases as to how that wood was treated, varnished, stained, painted, etc. And of course, anything that may have lead paint would be a definite no-no. If you wish to use them, consider using materials like this for growing non-edible plants.
  • Some plastics. Growing food in buckets has become quite popular, and I personally think it’s an excellent frugal option for the urban gardener! Plants such as lettuce, radishes, beans, and even larger plants like squashes and tomatoes can grow quite happily in buckets. I would personally opt for food-grade buckets or plastics made specifically for growing edibles. Some plastics (including buckets) are made using lots of heavy chemicals – again, something you may want to consider particularly if you’re trying to grow organic produce! So how do you know if it’s safe? The Micro Gardener (who has done quite a bit of research on this topic) recommends you steer clear of plastics 3, 6, and 7. Take a quick look on that bucket or container. (Incidentally, I just popped out in the garage and discovered my Home Depot buckets are #2 plastic. I’d feel OK using those.)

Pictured above: my pal Erica growing tomatoes in food-grade buckets she got for FREE from a local restaurant.

  • Other dubious materials. Take some time to research about unusual materials you’d like to use as a container for your edibles. For instance, before growing herbs in an old barbecue, I’d want to know: are there harmful particles involved I should be concerned about? Do I have any other, better options for a fun, funky herb planter?

I should probably mention that there are different schools of thought on the above materials and that some gardeners will argue any “leakage” of toxins is minimal or wouldn’t get into your edibles. Some people may think I’m being overly cautious here, but I’d prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to growing food for my family.

In the end, you have to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. My goal today is to put the question in your mind – is it worth it to accept those free old tires to grow your potatoes? Or could you find another inexpensive solution (chicken wire or food-grade buckets, perhaps?) you can feel 100% confident about?

When Re-Purposing Might Not Be Worth It

Since we’re talking about re-purposing, I also want to suggest to you that some of the gardening ideas you’re seeing on Pinterest and elsewhere might be more cute or whimsical than practical.

One example that comes readily to mind is growing vegetables in a shoe organizer you could hang up. The other day, I found an image being shared on Facebook like this. On the second row, someone was growing TOMATOES in this thing. Um…do you know how big tomatoes get?

There is no way they are going to grow and produce in a tiny pocket. In my opinion, this is a waste of time, space, and plants. Your plants may grow in a situation like this for awhile, but there is only so big they can grow and so much they can produce.

You don’t have to throw out that shoe organizer though! Check out how I re-purposed one in my greenhouse. It’s perfect for storing small garden tools, twine, plant stakes, plant markers, gloves, and more.

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In my opinion, you’d be better to find another free or inexpensive solution to grow your edibles. I discovered these fantastic containers at my Fred Meyer last week and currently have pumpkins, zinnias, nasturtium and cilantro germinating away in them.

They are made from recycled materials and can be used over and again. The smallest ones were just $0.50 each.

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I truly get that some of these gardening ideas we’re seeing are experiments and perhaps even an art. For starters, just do seedlings. Trying to create a giant vertical garden the first time might be a little difficult.

It’s never a bad idea to start with basic, simple growing techniques first and develop your green thumb! If you are just getting your feet wet with gardening, you want some quick success to encourage you to keep going.

Final Thoughts on Re-Purposing

Truth be told, I am all for re-purposing, but when it comes to growing edibles, there is a measure of wanting to be smart about it, too!

Having a garden is a great way to engage the family and grow healthy food.