recycling the garden, part one, the soft stuff

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Recycling the Garden – part one, the soft stuff

As far as possible we try and re-use everything the garden gives us, the philosophy being ‘if it came out of the garden it should go back into the garden’. This isn’t always realistic, but it is a good rule to try and abide by, both in environmental and financial terms. In hindsight we would have saved time and money if we’d have done this from the start. In the next two posts I’ll describe some of the things we’ve recycled, starting with all the things plants have given us, then talking about all the ‘hard’ materials like bricks and timber.

Kitchen waste

Add to the compost, mixed with paper, card and garden waste. Don’t use cooked food unless you have a hotbin (see below) same with meat and bones. We’ve started a couple of wormeries too in old containers with holes, kept dark with something underneath to collect the water (worm tea, great fertiliser)

Bread n stuff

Feed the birds! Avoid uncooked oats and rice as these can swell up in the birds’ stomachs. Birds seem to like cooked potato though. Move the bird feeders to avoid rats (we have had them, just cut off the food source for a bit and they’ll go to the next easy source). Keep bits tables clean with vinegar.

Annual weeds and small clippings

First things first, set up a compost heap. Chances are you’ll be clearing up a lot of weeds and clippings, so you may as well start making compost straight away. You can buy these online, make one or some councils will give you one for free. Ideally you want three – one for fresh, one for turning into and one for using. We have two and it works fine. Site it on soil, in the sun if you can, though you may want to sit in the sunny bit, it depends on the orientation of the garden. Putting it in the sun just makes it compost faster, and having it on soil gives the worms an easier route in. Ours are in the shade though and they do alright. If you’re worried about rats you can put chicken wire under the heaps.

When you have your annual weeds (weeds which reproduce just from seed, like chickweed, groundsel, speedwell, bittercress and fat hen)and clippings, just put them in and let nature change it into rich compost. You can add peelings, teabags, coffee grounds, cardboard, old receipts and lots of other plant based materials. Don’t add cooked food or meat and bones though, unless you have a composter specifically designed for these Some councils will collect these in your green bins – check local recycling.

Perennial weeds

“Weeds are what Mother Nature lays down to protect her precious skin”

(Greg Judy, Missouri rancher)

Perennial weeds come back year after year on the same root, and include brambles, nettles, buttercups, dock, bindweed and ground elder. They need digging out, getting as much of the root as possible. This can be hard as some go quite deep. Picking just the leaves can weaken the plant over time, but is unlikely to eliminate it completely. We’ve learnt to use, or live with, the weeds.

  • Use them to make fertiliser. You can buy organic fertiliser bins or just use a bucket. Beware – it will stink! Just put the weeds in and fill the container with water. Let them rot for a few weeks then use the water, diluted, to feed your plants. The rotted remains can go on the heap. Recently I’ve made an outside toilet (wee only) from an old water cooler bottle and a funnel. The weeds rot in there and the whole let gets diluted 10/1 to water the pots.
  • Learn to incorporate the weeds into planting. We have ground elder and wild garlic everywhere, and actually they look nice once you get past them being a weed. We’ve planted other ground cover plants, like woodruff, which keep them in check a bit, and have plant larger hellebores and dicentra that grow above them. The elder coming through the bigger plants looks nice in a woodland scheme.
  • Plant them in a ‘wild’ area, if you’re thinking of having them. If you are, pick the flowers of perennial weeds before they go to seed to stop them spreading
  • If preparing a large patch of ground, cover it for a few months with plastic sheeting, carpet or old blankets to help kill some of the weeds that might otherwise grow there.


Woody clippings and twigs

Bigger, woody clippings may not break down in your compost, or you might not want the twigs in the final product (you could always sieve them out)

  • Shred them – you can buy a shredder, borrow one or hire one. If you don’t have much material, save it up and do it once or twice a year. Then use the shreddings as mulch, or put them in the compost if you want them to break down more
  • Put them straight on the beds, the same with old logs. Bugs will love it, so will the soil microbes as they gradually rot down. Healthy microbes = healthy soil = healthy plants. Make piles of them in unwanted corners too.
  • Burn them. The resulting potash is high in potassium which is good for flowering and fruiting plants

Larger Sticks

These can be shredded or burnt if you don’t want them, or

  • Use them to build a stick stack to attract bugs, or give shelter around a pond
  • Use long, straight ones as plant supports. Hazel ones are particularly good because they’re long lasting and flexible
  • Bushier sticks can be used as pea supports, or for other climbing plants like sweet peas. I think they look nicer and more natural than some of the plastic/metal ones you can get, and they’re free
  • Put them straight on the beds, as above


There are lots of uses for logs, if you don’t burn them

  • Sawn crossways they can be used under pots to raise them off the ground. You may attract beetles, as the larvae like to eat the wood. You’ll also get interesting fungi (just keep an eye on the kids and make them aware of the dangers)
  • Make logpiles to attract bugs, or use them around a wildlife pond
  • Use them as edging for beds (and get bracket fungi as a bonus)
  • Leave the smaller ones for children to play with. This can help strengthen their shoulder muscles, which in turn can help improve fine motor skills. All good for learning to write and build lego models.
  • Put them on the beds to rot down


These can be composted, but if you’ve got lots you might want to make leafmould. Just gather them up, put them in a dark bag with some holes in (you can mow them first if you like to make them smaller), make sure they’re moist (but not soaking) leave them for 6 months or so and you’ll have a nice mulch. Leave them for longer to add to the soil as a conditioner. It’s not an exact science – some leaves take longer than others, but it’s worth it and the plants will thank you.


If you find yourself digging up turf to make beds, stack the turf face to face, cover the stack and leave it for six months or so until it has rotted down into fine loam. You can use this for potting up, or adding to existing compost. Every now and again a mole come up in our garden, which gives us some nice loamy soil to use!


If you’re lucky enough to have willow in your garden, you can use it to make a willow sculpture (if there’s enough) or if you only have small amounts, make willow water.

  • Collect up new willow growth (greeny/yellow)
  • Compost the leaves and cut the stems up into small pieces
  • Cover the stems in water and leave to ‘brew’ for a few days
  • Drain the water into a container with a lid. Put it in the fridge if you’re not using it straight away

This water will be high in rooting compounds now, so you can use it to feed cuttings before planting. Just stand the cuttings in the water for a while before planting, then use the water to keep the compost moist


My wife will tell me off, but weeing in the compost heap is really good as it helps speed up the composting process. Apparently male wee is better though, sorry ladies

Recently I started an outdoor toilet with and old water cooler and a funnel – this can be diluted as a fertiliser after a while.

Stale milk

Dilute it and add it to the soil. There’s growing evidence that the microbes love it.

Coffee grounds

Controversial one this – some studies show that coffee can stunt growth (caffeine is a natural weed suppressant in the wild), but other studies show that after a few years it can boost growth. You choose! I tip it about the garden and it seems ok.


Hair brush and plug hole hair! Either put it in the compost, which will eventually help give structure (replicating animal hair loss in the wild). Or, tuck the hair in nooks around the garden to provide the birds with some nest building material.

Coffee cups and stirrers

Use instead of plant pots. Use the stirrers as labels.


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