Gardening offers original ideas for repurposing goods

by Adrian Higgins

The Washington Post

Ruthie Mundell opens a door within the warehouse of the nonprofit thrift store known as Community Forklift and eagerly displays the donations of countless gardeners.

Hoses, weed whackers, clay pots, axes and lawn mowers all form a silent testimony to hours of yardwork. What are the stories behind the artifacts? Did some donors get too creaky and move to a condo? Did they find a new life in Texas? Did they accumulate too much stuff and decide to have a clear-out?

“Everyone seems to end up with five rakes,” she says, casting an eye over at least that number of leaf rakes.

Mundell hopes the tools will find new homes when the Maryland store holds its fourth annual Spring Soiree, an event that includes the sale of the garden items. It’s a good way for new gardeners to find affordable gear, and a source of tools for school and community gardens that need stuff in quantity.

I find that I do about 90 percent of my gardening with just three tools: a garden or digging fork, hand pruners and a hoe. The fork seems to confuse people — it’s not a pitchfork but a sturdy, five-tined wood-and-steel affair that is a match for the heavy clay soil in our mid-Atlantic area. It’s great for digging life into old soil and working in compost and other amendments. The only time I touch a shovel is when I’m planting something; otherwise it’s the garden fork. The hand pruners are a pretty obvious asset for trimming branches, grooming roses, cutting flower stems, snipping the greens off newly harvested carrots and a million other little jobs. I use a sharp hoe to weed, chop up clods of soil and grade a freshly dug bed before seed sowing.

Those are the sorts of tools I would search out if I were at Community Forklift this weekend, along with a lawn rake, a weeding knife and a pair of lopping shears, perhaps.

The nonprofit group formed in 2005 and primarily sells building materials that have been salvaged, and in a way this side of its business might be of greater value to gardeners. We are an inventive lot — visit a community garden and you will see how stuff has been repurposed: a piece of fence for a trellis, a ladder reworked into a gate, a toy box used for tool storage.

In my community plot, I used iron gas piping to make a perimeter fence and, because a lot of terracing was involved, old cedar planks for shoring. I didn’t want to use pressure-treated lumber in a garden where I grow food. The cedar, which I bought from Community Forklift, is naturally rot resistant and now retains a bed currently housing fava beans and peas.

A lot of repurposed materials in the community garden are inherently junky, but that is part of their charm. I call it shanty chic. Recycling reveals gardeners to be thrifty, inventive and self-sufficient, all part of our “green” ethic.

This can become amusing when items are used for decoration as well as utility.

Mundell showed me a storage yard containing a row of bathtubs, some of them decidedly out of date in style and color. Some folks treat them as plant beds. This is a bit extreme for my tastes, but I could see a land-starved city dweller with a concrete patio using one to grow veggies and herbs.

Wooden pallets are another favorite: People turn them into fences, compost bins or growing beds. Broken pieces of granite and other stone end up as mosaic stepping stones. Almost anything will do duty as a tomato stake.

For the soiree, staff and many visitors will dress in garden-party garb, floppy hats and floral dresses. “Basically,” says Mundell, the soiree is “a chance to usher away the cold winter and welcome in the spring.”

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