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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener, Dead Palms and Travertine

Updated on January 26, 2015

My "Secret" garden

The palms have since decomposed, but used to be where the short wall is now holding the metate stone. You can see the travertine tile.
The palms have since decomposed, but used to be where the short wall is now holding the metate stone. You can see the travertine tile. | Source

Compressed Paper Pulp and Dead Palms

Many items you have used, or grown can be recycled into the garden. Here are a few more ideas from Palm trees to travertine times, from railroad ties to telephone poles, even old galvanized buckets can be interesting garden elements.

Do you remember seeing biodegradable pots in the nursery? You might not have known what they are but they are simple compressed recycled paper pulp.

Here we have a good example of an industrial or commercial use for recycled paper that does indeed end up in millions of gardens every year.

Let’s take a step back, back to something that, if you live in a temperate zone, you may well come in contact with periodically: palm trunks or palm leaves.

In San Diego I have a small garden next to a porch all of which is surrounded by a block wall. The palm clump that was removed was one extremely common in Hawaii, often called a cat palm, the trunks look like segmented bamboo, a yellow green color, and a nice “feather” leaf. I have used the back of this garden for some time as a dumping ground for plant materials including for the tropical vine that is usually grow as a house plant, an African vine called Nephthytis.

The garden is basically a triangle and in the front center was this clump of palms. The palms, the tallest about 9 feet at the very top, were blocking the view of the garden, so, they had to go. Out comes the reciprocating saw and in three minutes they were laying on the ground.

What can you do with a palm trunk?

So, being consistent with our writings here, I asked myself, “Self, what can you do with these palm trunks and leaves.”

To understand the answer, you have to understand that the trunk of a palm, and the largest part of the largest here was less than 5” in diameter, as a mixture of pulp and fiber which can hold water and resist rot for years. In fact, I found several old pieces from several years ago still in the garden. I cut the two larger pieces to fit between the wall segments, then stacked those two to create a raised area which I would later fill with mulch, most of the rest, tops and leaves I stacked on my lap while seated in the garden seat, parallel then took the long opposing leaves and tied them to make a bundle then stacked this over the other two, and viola! No palm in the trash cans.

Now I happen also to pick up a rock called Sonora Ornamental which has holes in it and I plant small plants in them, so I used these to barricade all of that creating a stepped area at the rear of that garden.

Because I had stepping stones made from remaining travertine tiles, I used these to create a short walk way (two tiles long), then improved the soils with my own mulch, plenty of worms, mixed this in and planted bromeliads both in the ground and in metal containers.

So now you can see how to recycle just a little thing, but think of the impact on the city dump if everyone prevented, say, five cans a year from going to the dump. In a city like San Diego, that is nearly a full day’s trash load. I probably recycle ten times that which either doesn’t go into the garbage disposal or into the trash pickup, rather, back into my soils.

Revisiting the palms, can you do this with larger palms? Yes, they can be made into tables, if you will, that will help hold water in the soil, or laid down ad barriers, small retaining walls, larger versions of my 8” wall, hollowed out as a planter, all of which you realize will need to be replaced sometime in the future, but you have created a small version of a jungle by allowing the plan to decay on the ground to the benefit of the ground, microorganisms, plants who slowly feed off of the decaying trunk, and saves water because Palm trunks hold water.

Of Railroad Ties and Telephone Poles

You may ask, other than both being structural wood, what do railroad ties and telephone poles have in common?

The answer is simple: The tar made from the Chaparral bush! We call that creosote and it is in its natural form, that is, when in the root of the plant, not only an insecticide but an herbicide to everything including seedlings of its own species.

Boil that down and soak wood in it and it adds the quality of being a water repellant. This is why they have used it on wood for over 100 years.

When we were kids we used these as landscape elements along with used bricks, before they were popular, and broken concrete, discussed elsewhere.

We collected railroad ties that were headed for the dump and made terraces out of a sloped back yard than initially immediately was canyon from the back of the house. We reclaimed the wood, put it to use, kept it out of the dump, and made fairly useless land into usable gardens and yard.

It looks great and has lasted for fourth years so far.

Railroad ties for retaining soils can be used in many ways. As steps, you simply step each back as you build up sols behind the previous one. As a retaining wall you can link these with steel rods, say, rebar, or bury several near corners vertically to hold the horizontal ties back.

With telephone poles, bury the bottoms so they stand upright to the height you want them. They are usually used as points of interest and large rope or chain can be used between them to separate a garden area and give a nautical feel, especially when three are grouped together, perhaps at different heights, and rope ties them.


There are many types of containers and many of uses for them...

Galvanized Buckets

Galvanized buckets are an inexpensive way to create a garden element or group of elements for display, to create uniformity for a collection, or to create a container garden such as an herb garden.

For instance, I have decided to expand my collection if bromeliads. Their beautiful foliage is simply irresistible. So, I will go to my local hardware store and get 5-10 buckets of various sizes, one for each plant.

I will use a nail to create some drainage holes in the bottom of each bucket. You could put this in the side of the container, but it doesn’t look quite as nice. I will fill the containers with mulch from my pile, some sand, and some dirt from my yard. Then plant the buckets and place them along our wall where they can make a nice display.

I already have several of different sizes and use different sizes and numbers of holes in the bottoms according to what I want to grow. I have three large “wash bucket” sizes with only a few holes despite their large size because I grow mint in them and mints enjoy a moist soil, so holding more of the water is a good thing. I have a small pan size bucket also that has about four holes, so reasonably fast draining, but the oregano growing in it simply loves the bucket, another with a poinsettia from Christmas several years ago, also covered with Baby Tears.

There is a branch of a juniper I trimmed out front and I hung this size bucket on it before the branch started to grow back. I put petunias in it and in a few months I will have petunias draping over the edges and showing their pink and purple flowers.

Of course, here, I am adding some color to a tree that has none and a point of interest as the new growth covers up just how I got that bucket onto the tree.

So plan a container garden of your favorite herbs, flowers, whatever, then use them creatively.

Plants like them because unlike some containers, they do not drain as fast as, say, a clay pot. In Hawaii in most places it rains often enough and hard enough that they can use cement pots which drain quickly, but then again, to grow an orchid, you just tie it on the tree in the front yard and forget it.

Orchid Cactus in Galvanized Bucket

This is only one of many orchid cactus I have growing in galvanized buckets, but other I have plants as well from rare ficus to Bearded Iris.
This is only one of many orchid cactus I have growing in galvanized buckets, but other I have plants as well from rare ficus to Bearded Iris. | Source

There are many types of containers you can plant

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Planting by Tim NewcombPlanting by Tim NewcombPlanting by Tim NewcombPlanting by Tim NewcombSome of my Orchid Cactus, all of which are in pots. There are many uses for containers.
Planting by Tim Newcomb
Planting by Tim Newcomb | Source
Planting by Tim Newcomb
Planting by Tim Newcomb | Source
Planting by Tim Newcomb
Planting by Tim Newcomb | Source
Planting by Tim Newcomb
Planting by Tim Newcomb | Source
Some of my Orchid Cactus, all of which are in pots. There are many uses for containers.
Some of my Orchid Cactus, all of which are in pots. There are many uses for containers. | Source

Container Gardens

Container Gardens for are a great way to improve and green up patios or porches, plant over poor soils, or bringing flowers indoors.

Containers are portable. At least most containers are portable.

I raise freesia in containers and then bring them indoors to enjoy them as a living bouquet when they are in bloom.

But even outside, clusters of nice pots adorn my entry way with bright flowers of various types to add that splash of color that is so welcoming.

Herbs love pots. An herb collection can create a very nice container garden where each adds a different color and texture to the yard or patio.

Do be careful as to what you use. I have used five gallon food containers, those big white plastic buckets for containers and they work well, but don’t look good, so do be careful what you plan. Ideas have consequences and hopefully all your ideas turn out to be good ones and are well thought out.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb


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