Tag Archives: recycling

my new composter

I often get the impression that to get your ticket punched as a real, serious gardener you have to take up composting. Still, I gave up on polishing my halo a dozen years ago. The old-fashioned compost pile I had took way more maintenance than I was interested in…all the hassles, especially keeping the beast stirred and watered.

Since those days tumbling composters have really come into their own as an alternative to the piles that just sit there like Uncle Ervin on his Barca-Lounger in front of the TV. The promise of a compost device that simplifies keeping the mix stirred and aerated sounded almost too god to be true, but I’ve been tempted to give them a twirl.

The opportunity came up as I headed to the back aisles at Costco to pick up some cheese and bread. On my way to the back of the store a big tumbling composter tried to reel me in with its dark tractor beam.

The thing with this store is that you usually have your choice of the one item they offer for sale, which in this case was the 80-gallon Lifetime model 60021 tumbling composter. (Costco offers several other models online.) Even with a price tag less than $100 I resisted at first. But I went home and did a little research online. Judging by the customer reviews people generally seemed to like this model, with the main complaint being being about an internal aerating tube that kept getting bent because it was made out of PVC. It seemed like a valid but relatively minor concern, so I decided to give the composter a try.

The composter in its box, as it looks when you bring it home.

When you buy this model, you’re really buying a composter kit, not an assembled composter. I documented the time I started, before I opened the box, before I assembled the necessary tools (which ended up requiring–among other things–an electric drill and socket wrenches), before I read the instructions that recommended that it would take two adults to assemble it. John is still hobbling around on crutches right now, so I decided to go it alone.

The time when I completed assembling it.
The time right before I began to open the box.

From the documented end time you can see that it took me about an hour and fifty minutes to put it together. That includes time spent taking a few pieces apart after I’d installed them incorrectly, as well as a few minutes when John came out to supervise my work and ogle the new toy. I’m generally pretty handy with mechanical things, if a little impatient to read all the way through instructions. I also did okay hefting the big 65 pound box the kit came in, and had the added benefit of a power screwdriver. Adjust your expectations for assembly time and effort accordingly.

The inaugural kitchen scraps.
The assembled composter.

Things fit together easily and made for a sturdy, double-walled, insulating composting chamber. Apparently the company read the customer complaints about the PVC aerating tube, because by the time they made my version of the model, the flimsy internal part had been replaced with a rigid piece of perforated metal pipe.

I couldn't resist doing a little trimming of plants around the garden. On even its first day, the composter is well on its way to being filled. The cuttings and kitchen scraps will cook down over time, making room for more waste.

The composter now lives outside the kitchen, alongside the trashcans and recycle barrels. It shouldn’t be hard to keep the compost barrel fed and tumbled. Once the barrel is filled it’ll need a few weeks for the compost to cook to perfection, a time when you shouldn’t be feeding it more clippings and scraps. To do things right, having a second barrel at the ready for those times would be the way to go. Within a few weeks I should have a better idea whether this model of composter lives up to my expectations and warrants my buying a second one.

So, will I become a real, serious, composting gardener? I’d say it’s off to a good start.

vinyl resting place

I realize that I’m dating myself when I reveal this, a long shelf of vinyl LPs, one of several in the house. I never listen to them, but I don’t know what to do with them. There’s a lot of common trash in the collection–Does the world need to preserve the billionth pressing of an indifferent rendition of the Pachelbel Canon? Then there’s music so bad that you can’t bear to part with it. Case in point: The Liberace Christmas album, in which Lee recites “The Night Before Christmas.” So badly done it’s a camp classic.

A few holidays ago I decided on a few truly trashable discs and recycled them into flowerpots. It’s one of those craft projects that you can find lots of instructions for out on the web. While visiting John’s aunt last month I saw one of the examples of my handiwork, with a small potted poinsettia set inside the craft project from hell.

Here’s one of the prototypes here at home, holding a potted plant. The hole in the disc for the spindle makes a great little drainage opening. This is more of a tray than pot, but I finally worked out a way to make something that had a nice pot shape to it.

I ended up using two ceramic pots as forms, a small 4-incher and a larger one, around 6 inches. I’d place the disc and smaller pot on a cookie sheet in the oven, with the hole of the disc centered on the hole of the pot. The temperature was set at a low but vinyl-melting temperature, something in the high 200s if I remember correctly. When the disc reached the melting point and began to just sag, I pulled everything out of the oven, placed the larger pot on top of the disc, and these pressed down gently. The disc would assume a nice pot shape and form some attractive crinkles in the space between the two pots. Just let the disc cool a minute and you’re ready for the next one. The fumes from melting vinyl can be pretty intense, unpleasant, and probably not good for you, so this isn’t a project I’d tackle in an unventilated house during the dead of winter. Also, remember that plastic is flammable! Be careful.

Last month John gifted me this USB turntable for transferring vinyl into sound files that I might actually listen to. Now all I need to do in my copious spare time is sort through several hundred discs and decide which few I want to keep, which ones I want to convert and recycle, and those that can be turned into flowerpots right away.


  • Original Sargeant Pepper first release: keep
  • Liberace Christmas album: convert but keep (was there any question on that?)…
  • Alternative TV (a British avant-garde rock duo’s album that I bought after reading a glowing review): flowerpot
  • Pierre Boulez conducting Debussy’s La Mer: convert and recycle
  • Anything Barry Manilow: flowerpot (what was I thinking?)…

A similar technique can be used on 45s as well as 12-inchers. Here’s a little Rolling Stones candy dish, for example…

from shower to flower

Earth Day is coming up on Wednesday. What environment-friendly changes will you be trying to make?

Last year we installed a tankless water heater, a move that has saved us at least 30% on our gas bill. But it still takes a while for the heated water to make it to the bathroom. In the past, we let the cold water in the pipes go down the drain until the water got to a proper shower temperature. recovered-water-bucketBut now the water is going into a bucket that we’ll use to water the garden. (A prettier–or at least cleaner–bucket not formerly used for pulling weeds and mixing potting soil is next on the agenda…)

The next logical step for water conservation would be to install a gray water system to reuse washwater. Regulations in California have been complex enough so that only 41 households have done it legally in San Diego County, and only 200 state-wide. State senator Alan Lowenthal from Long Beach has introduced a new bill, SB 1258, that would mandate a review of existing codes to make it easier to design and install legal gray water systems, a piece of legislation that is being called the “shower to flower” bill.

It’s a good start, and one worth supporting.

Related reading:
San Diego Union Tribue: New watering source is surfacing (March 23, 2009 article)
Los Angeles Times: A solution to California’s water shortage goes down the drain (April 19, 2009 opinion piece)
The text of SB 1258, marked up with comments and suggestions for further improvements by Oasis Design.

talking trees

If a tree talks in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Tuesday morning I had my choice of places to view the televised inauguration of Barack Obama or ways to hear the audio feed. Working as I do on the UCSD campus, there were rooms in libraries, radios at coffee stands and individual laptops that were all playing the ceremonies. The most unusual venue I could pick from was to hear the inauguration broadcast through the speakers of lead-plated eucalyptus trees that were installed over twenty years ago as part of the campus’s Stuart Collection.

treesingingLeft: The tree in the installation that plays music.

The work is Trees by artist Terry Allen, and was constructed from three eucalyptus that either had died or had to be removed to make way for new construction. The dead trees were cut into big chunks, dipped in wood preservative, reassembled, and then covered with small sheets of lead attached nails. What was the artist’s intent? The Stuart Collection’s description offers this explanation:

One could walk through the grove several times before noticing Allen’s two unobtrusive trees.  Not only do these trees reinvest a natural site with a literal sense of magic but they implicitly make connections between nature and death and the life of the spirit.  It is not surprising that students have dubbed this area the “Enchanted Forest.”

At the entrance to the vast, geometric library the third tree of Allen’s installation remains silent – perhaps another form of the tree of knowledge, perhaps a reminder that trees must be cut down to print books and build buildings, perhaps a dance form, or perhaps noting that one can acquire knowledge both through observation of nature and through research.

treetalkingfrombelowRight: The tree in the installation that recites poetry.

On Tuesday, the tree that ordinarily recites poetry and the one that typically offers songs and music were dedicated to an audio feed of the Presidential inauguration. The organizers had high hopes, predicting “hundreds of students” would show up for the event. But for the few minutes I could spend there, I counted just about a dozen people and two dogs (well-behaved ones, attending with their owners, not dogs doing their thing on the trees…).

treemutebarkLeft: The “bark” on the mute tree, showing the nails holding the lead plates, as well as the list of credits of the people who worked on the project.

treemuteLeft: The mute tree, as seen from the library entrance.

The special programming wasn’t the easiest sell that morning. The inauguration was already a huge event.

I’ll have to admit I had a hard time paying attention the the art event myself. You could feel change in the air. And even talking trees in a forest weren’t enough to get people to stop.

greener gardening practices

I think that these days all of us are trying to go green in many aspects of our lives as we try to reduce our demands on the world’s resources. Gardening has the shiny green patina of communing with nature and being kind to plants and animals that make up this green earth. But so many modern gardening practices consume big piles of the resources that we depend on, and others contributes significantly to environmental pollution.

Since it’s early in the year, the time that we many of us make resolutions, I’ve outline some areas that I’ll be trying to work on in my own garden. I’ve gathered them together below and categorized them into the three big Rs of going green: reduce, reuse, and recycle.


  1. Fewer annuals: The semi-twisted logic of planting annuals, nurturing them for six months, and then yanking them out when they’re all bloomed out to replace them with other seasonal annuals to enjoy for maybe just a few more months is starting to bother me. It’s a certain amount of work on my part, and the energy that must go into the production of bedding plants adds to what guilt I feel. I doubt I’ll give up on annuals entirely. But I’ll try to rely on them less, mostly as temporary fillers until something with year-round interest can take over. Alternately, a lot of annuals reseed, so that you can plant them one year, and they’ll return reliably in future years. Allysum, zinnias, melampodium, celosia, poppies and many ornamental grasses are just a few of the plants that reseed reliably.
  2. I’ll think twice before I pull out a plant. Is a plant really ill or dying? Or am I just bored with it?
  3. When I do decide that a plant has to go, I’ll work on using more plants that are better adapted to my environment. Living in San Diego, this means using more Mediterranean-adapted plants and plants native to the area. This will reduce needs for supplemental water, plant food and insect control.
  4. It’s more work, but I’m starting more plants from seed these days. Shipping a packet of seeds across the country takes way less energy than shipping the bed-full of plants that many packets will give you. Direct-sowing the seeds into the ground can save on transportation costs for potting mix and pots. Another bonus is that you can treat yourself to plenty more varieties than would be available at the local nursery.
  5. In addition to buying more seeds to grow, I’m saving more seeds from the plants I already have. For species and open-pollenated heirloom plants, the seed should come true to the original. For hybrid plants, the seedlings can be an adventure, some of them coming looking like their parents, others coming out to be interesting mongrel mixes.
  6. Grow more edible plants. There’s the push to buy locally grown produce, fruits and veggies that have been grown within a hundred miles of your house. Why not grow food yourself and drop the transportation costs to zero? I’ve got various herbs overwintering in the garden, and seeds for various plants are now in the ground or already germinating: kale, beets, amaranth, miner’s lettuce, plus whatever plants of romaine and New Zealand spinach will come back from seed. Several of these have terrific ornamental value, so they’ll get to live with the more decorative plantings.
  7. I want to learn more about how to prepare the edible plants I already have. For instance, the cattails growing in the pond in the back yard are often listed as being one of the staples of the native American population in centuries past. Some of the local succulent population of the genus Dudleya also were used for food, and in fact one of the species is called edulis. (With a name like edulis, it’s gotta be good!) Maybe those and other plants in the garden could be relied on for occasional interesting meals. Even if some of them might be a little too weird for regular consumption, eating, like gardening, ought to be an adventure.


  1. It’s not perfect horticultural hygiene, but I try to reuse pots whenever possible. Unfortunately I usually end up with more gallon pots than I’ll ever be able to use a second or third time. Many nurseries will take them to reuse. And then I found that our almost-local native plant outfit, Las Pilitas Nursery, will also donate 10 cents to the California Native Plant Society for each pot that is returned for them to reuse. (That would explain the Lowes and Home Depot pots that I’ve seen at the nursery!)
  2. For those situations when I decide a plant isn’t right for one spot, I’ll try to see if there’s another location in the garden where it would work better. Or may I know someone who’d be dying to do some plant rescue…
  3. When I buy seeds, I sometimes end up with more than I need. I’ll share them with interested folks, and it could be an way to get more native or drought-tolerant plants into people’s gardens.


  1. Stores often have last week’s bulbs on sale for not much money. If they’re bulbs adapted to the climate, this is a great way to save some of these plants from the dumpsters. And if you’re into dumpster-diving or cruising the back alleys of garden centers, you might pick these up for free. Most of the narcissus in my yard came through these mark-downs.
  2. I’ll have to admit that I’m a failed composter. I just don’t have the magic combination of time, space and discipline (in all honesty it’s mostly the discipline where I’m lacking). But the city fortunately has a greens recycling program for those of us who don’t have this down. Kitchen scraps are already making it into the bins, and I’ll try to be be even more fanatical with anything green in the garden that would compost.
  3. If you’re not doing it already, recycle lawn lawn clippings into mulch. Last summer I convinced John to put the onto the veggie garden instead of dumping them in the city greens recycling. This way they’re still getting recycled, only they don’t have to be trucked to the landfill to be turned into mulch.
  4. Even if you can’t find someone to reuse your plastic pots, there are some emerging uses for them that might become available to more parts of the country. I’ll keep my eyes open in case there are interesting local recycling opportunities, like the one where pots would be melted down for “landscape timbers.” (The link goes to an great program in Missouri.)
  5. Broken clay pots make great covers for drain holes in pots around the garden. They allow the water to drain out, but also reduce the amount of potting soil that you lose.

Like many new year’s resolutions, I know I won’t stick to them fanatically. One of the things that draws me to the plant world is the sheer variety in all the cool plants that I can invite into my garden. I’m a collector at heart, so saying no to a new and interesting specimen is one of the hardest things for me to do. I know that that’s going to be one of the hardest goals to stick to. Hopefully, putting it out in a public space like this post will provide me a little gentle pressure and reminder of what I intended to do.

recycling concrete

One of the easiest ways to reuse broken concrete is to stack up the pieces to make a low garden wall.


My house came with an expanse of dangerously uneven, cracked concrete that needed to be removed. One option would have been to haul it off to the landfill. But turning the scraps into this little wall for a raised vegetable garden ended up being a greener solution.

The hardest part was breaking up the concrete into manageable pieces. (We used a sledgehammer). And lifting the twenty to sixty pound chunks into place made for some hard work. But it was basically an “easy” job in that it wasn’t particularly technical and didn’t demand too many brain cells.

If your soil is especially unstable, the concrete could be set on top of a foundation. But for almost all soils, and for a low wall like this one–about twenty inches tall–don’t bother. Try to stagger the joints between pieces from row to row to make the wall more stable. Work to nest the pieces together as tightly as possible to minimize soil loss out the sides if you’ll be using the wall for a raised bed.

If you would like a softer look, you could also plant little succulents or compact rock-garden plants into the crevices. Creeping sedums, alyssum, low varieties of thyme or trailing strawberries would be good, easy choices for a wall that has a sunny exposure. You could also plant low-growing bulbs or annuals in front of the wall.


The result is definitely on the rustic end of the spectrum, more “cottage” than glam or glitzy. But you’ll feel better about not filling up the landfill. And in the end the project could be easier than loading the chunks into a truck to haul them away.

a mountain of plastic pots

I had a mountain of unwanted plastic pots, mostly in the 3-5 inch size, leftovers from when I was growing more than just a few orchids around the house. The pots were used, a little old, but basically functional. I couldn’t part with them–who knows when I’d need them? After a couple years of goading from John, a couple hundred of them went to the landfill last fall.

Then I heard about the Missouri Botanical Garden having a great idea. They’ve started up a program to recycle those unwanted leftover plastic pots into something useful.

Garden pots and trays have been recycled into landscape timbers, useful for building retaining walls and landscape borders. Each timber measures 7-inches X 9-inches by 8.5 feet long, weighs 280 pounds, and lasts for up to 50 years.

Well, yeah, Missouri would be a little far to go next time I have a pile of pots I need to part with. But I’ll be a little more diligent in looking around for more sustainable solutions than dumping them!