Thrift stores, auction houses, yard and estate sales and even curbsides are becoming hotspots for finding potential garden riches. These recycled objects allow gardeners to impart personality, artistic interest and even a sense of humor to their gardens. The pieces can be used as focal points or accents.
Consider, for example, artistic flower-like shapes created from discarded steel wheels or horseshoes, old windows and doors used to frame views into secret gardens, refurbished mirrors used to make the garden seem larger or recycled musical cymbals fashioned into distinctive water fountains. Items with components that move in the wind add animation and sound, thereby heightening interest. All of these attention grabbers attract and hold the viewer’s eye before it moves on to discover the rest of the garden.
Discarded steel wheel on an old piece of fencing
Unlike plant material, these objects remain largely unchanged over time and impart a sense of maturity and permanence, a bonus in a new garden. Their evolving patinas, be it rusting metal parts, peeling paint, crackle patterns in ceramics or darkening wood, add to their charm. Depending on the shape, color and previous use, a recycled item can add a sense of whimsy and even humor to the garden. Notables are old push lawnmowers in a bed of flowers, planters made from children’s previously used play wagons, water gardens made from discarded bath tubs and Victorian canary cages turned into plant holders. Also, garden gates, arbors and bowers made from dismantled building parts or recycled barn beams provide human scale in the garden. Finally, these objects take on added prominence and provide much of the garden’s interest during wintertime when the landscape is pretty much bare of vegetation.
This copper inner tub from a wringer washing machine, now used as a planter, displays a very aged patina.
Location and mounting heights are important considerations. I’ve seen old tools, saw blades and even antique golf clubs placed on fences and walls as accent pieces. It’s important to take into account the viewing angles and the height of the object in relation to the average viewer’s height. A thorough garden audit will help in selecting the best sites.
Also, recycled objects should not be viewed in isolation from garden plants, since they’re meant to complement each other. Trees, shrubs and hedges, for example, often provide backdrops, curtains and frames for garden curios. Groundcover plants can be used to provide a blanket of vegetation around the base of an object, which helps it blend with the ground plane.
An old car (parked illegally!) makes a truly distinctive focal point and conveys the gardener’s creativity and sense of humor.
One of the most important considerations is the appropriateness of the object given the mood and style of your garden. Farm implements and larger machinery, for example, are more suitable on rural properties, while nautical pieces are more appropriate in lakeside and maritime gardens. Old millstones and grindstones work nicely as stepping stones in country herb gardens. City gardeners can take advantage of demolition pieces such as cornices, pediments, fretwork and columns.
It’s also important to resist using an excessive number of curios, as this diminishes the significance of individual objects. Particularly in urban gardens with limited space, too many items will look overcrowded. Also, when positioning items in front yards, you may need to guard against theft. Screen plantings and anchoring the items to footings or foundations should help.
Finally, consider the item’s safety and longevity. Recycled items with glass, wire, metal and movable parts could break or deteriorate over time, posing a safety concern for inquisitive children and pets. If necessary, consider removing glass, rounding sharp corners and child-proofing movable parts. You may also want to weatherproof and waterproof components, using caulking and specialty sealants. It’s probably best to bring pottery and ceramic items indoors during the winter to avoid cracking. Consult with others who have used such materials to learn from their experiences.
Glass ornaments glued together to make sun catchers that are mounted on old pieces of copper piping.
Don’t overlook nature’s recyclables. Moss-covered logs can be incorporated into woodland gardens. Dead woody vines can be draped on walls and stumps to add texture. The contorted branches of a dead corkscrew hazel shrub can be left standing to provide an artistic perch for various climbing plants. I have also seen shelf-shaped fungi, sometimes found on firewood, affixed to trees, and ferns planted in decaying and burned out stumps. There are courses on how to fashion discarded vines, branches and twigs into rustic furniture, lattices and wattle fences.
Recyclable items are a great way to enhance your garden, so think twice before you send objects to the curb or overlook odd but interesting yard-sale items. These just might be a treasure in disguise. The possibilities seem endless, if we open our eyes and use our imaginations.
A driftwood fence adorned with assorted old tools acts as a backdrop for perennials.
Text by Frank Kershaw
Photos by Marnie Wright
Frank Kershaw is an award- winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience.
Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over thirty years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.