Recycle, Re-use, Re-Imagine

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Finding Good Homes For Plastic Plant Pots

Now that spring has finally arrived, plant accumulation is definitely on the rise. After the long, wet, wet, WET winter and slow, sodden spring, the belated arrival of sunnier days has most of us gardeners in a positive planting frenzy. Though the planting is delightful and the outcome is happy, empty nursery pots can mount up fast at this time of year. Since most nursery plastics are not recyclable in many communities, it can be tough to figure out what to do with them. Happily, there are quite a few good ways to put them back into use and keep them out of the garbage stream.

You can always use a few plastic pots in creative ways. Your local library probably offers lots of craft books, and many online craft sites demonstrate inventive ways to paint and decorate plastic pots. Wrap them with twine, stencil them in elaborate patterns, add mosaic trims, or sew quick slip-on “pot skirts”. Some folks turn old pots into sculptures or bird houses, while others create artful imitations of terra cotta, marble or metal. As-is uses abound, from twine holders and button sorters to hanging planters for home grown green walls. I keep a pair of round quart pots around for spreading baking soda on mossy walkways (stack two pots of similar size so the bottom holes don’t quite line up. Fill with baking soda and shake over the moss to get nice, even coverage).

Round And Round They Go

Despite all this creativity, many of us end up with a lot more empties than we can find good homes for. Once you’ve used all you can yourself, look around for other uses. Since I’m involved with many plant projects, I try to keep a few hundred 4-inchers around. That way, I can pass them along with packets of seeds when inviting both kids and adults to help with keeping local play parks and other public places full of edibles and flowers. Early in the year, I visit each group, explain the project in detail, then ask for their help in growing seedlings and planting them in public places. Such groups might include 4-H, scouts, school classes, garden clubs, the Senior Center, or the local affordable housing community. When planting time rolls around, we can arrange for a planting session in a park, at the library, the new community housing site, or wherever the need is.

After that, of course, there are once again a bunch of empty pots to deal with. Large scale projects can result in a plethora of pots in many sizes, none of which are recycleable. Now what? If clean and sorted according to color, type and size, some nurseries will take back 4-inch pots as well as 1- and 2-gallon pots. Generally, they’ll be most interested in larger sizes that can hold bare root plants that are ready to be potted up, such as 3- and 5-gallon pots and tree pots. Nursery flats are also happily received at most nurseries, since they generally pay the growers a fee for them. This can be as much as a dollar per flat, so do your local nursery a kindness and return any plastic or wooden flats you may find in the shed. (Clean them out first, please.)

Reaching Out

Local specialty nursery plant growers may be interested in reusing 4-inchers, quarts, and 1- and 2-gallon pots, especially in early spring. I often take a bag filled with clean, sorted pots to the local farmer’s market where some venders are happy to take them. Garden clubs, Master Gardener groups, and grassroots nonprofits such as land trusts and native plant societies often run seasonal plant sales as fund raisers and willingly take clean pots. If you finally run out of options, take your (clean, sorted) pots to the nearest Lowe’s and ask where they keep their empties. In my neck of the woods, the local Lowe’s stores have a big outdoor swap bin where gardeners can leave and take home plastic pots. If yours doesn’t, ask if they might consider starting such a service. Around here, I’m told by store staff that the pots come and go quickly and only broken ones end up being tossed.

If you want to recycle whole or damaged ceramic or terra cotta pots, find your nearest mosaic artist. Many of my friends indulge in this emerging art, decorating everything from birdbaths and tiles or bricks to old watering cans, tools, and even tea cups with bits of broken pots. Indeed, mosaic garden art is very hot these days, and it’s rare to see a open garden on tour that doesn’t sport at least a mosaic stepping stone. Some go whole hog, with mosaic mirrors, chairs, tables, and tea pots, not to mention shovels and trowels. Some, like the furniture, are usable, but the tools are strictly decorative. Quite a few nurseries offer books and classes on garden mosaic projects. Next time you crack a piece off your favorite pot, don’t curse, just glue it to your bird bath and call it art.

End Of The Journey

When really large and lovely pots suffer tragic accidents, a further method of recycling involves placing the broken pot strategically in the soil so it looks half-buried instead of broken. Plant a foaming skirt of something billowy–perhaps a silvery santolina or a frilly petunia–inside the sloping pot and you will have a container that functions like a mini folly. Follies or mock ruins of temples and so forth were extremely fashionable in England several centuries ago and no self respecting estate would be without one. In the current challenging economy, not everybody can afford a real ruined temple with an accompanying hermit. However, every one of us may break a pot now and then. How rewarding (and how much more fun) to make it look like a deliberate piece of referential art instead of a dreadful mistake!

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