From Trash to Garden Treasure, by Meg Calkins

One person’s trash, goes the old saying, is another person’s treasure. And while we are used to thinking this way when it comes to great finds at the garage sales dotting our neighborhoods on the weekends, we don’t tend to think this way when remodeling our houses and yards. But the reality is that the built environment offers many valuable resources and materials that, when no longer needed, can be “mined” for use in new construction projects.

Five years ago, I was driving down the street thinking about the high cost of new bricks for my planned patio when I passed a pallet of old bricks stacked by the side of the road with a for sale sign tacked to it. I stopped to inquire about them and found that their owner was replacing his patio with new concrete pavers because the old bricks were mossy with a patina of age and wear. Most of the bricks were uncracked, but they just didn’t fit their owner’s desire for a crisp clean paver. On the other hand, they beautifully fit my desire for a lush, shady pavement that matched the age and style of my 80 year old house. His trash was my treasure for about 1/3 the cost of new bricks. Moss included.

With rising landfill costs in many parts of the country combined with sustainable priorities for resource conservation, the salvaged building material industry is booming as building and site demolition materials are finding new life in other projects.

Materials from one defunct structure can be repurposed for a completely different structure. An old concrete driveway can be jackhammered, removed and placed to create a new pathway through the garden or stacked with a small amount of mortar to become a low garden wall. Weathered wood deck boards can be removed and planed down for new fence slats.

Unusual finds can be used to reference a homeowners hobbies (eg. Empty wine bottles placed upside down 6” deep used as garden edging) or interests (eg. Old french doors without glass can frame a garden entry or act as a trellis for climbing vines).

Re-using salvaged materials in a new landscape project has many benefits. On the environmental end, materials are kept out of landfills, and virgin resources and energy that would have gone to manufacture new materials are saved. From a design standpoint, re-using materials can add a layer of meaning to a landscape, revealing the cultural history or personal aspects of a garden that is often difficult to achieve with mass- produced, internationally distributed, new materials. Salvaged materials are often unique and one-of a kind. Lastly, using salvaged materials can be cost effective, saving purchasing costs and demolition hauling and landfill expenses if they are found and reused on site.

Using salvaged materials is not without difficulties. Perhaps the greatest challenge for homeowners trying to use salvage is locating the right materials, in the right quantity, nearby enough to still gain an environmental benefit. Unlike some larger urban areas, Muncie’s salvage industry is in it’s infancy, so materials may be difficult to locate. Other challenges stem from refurbishing activities, such as paint stripping and nail pulling, that are required before the reclaimed material can be reused.

Things to keep in mind when using reclaimed materials in landscape projects:

–       Let the materials inspire the design.

–       Locate materials early in the design process so they can inspire the design and also to avoid major design revisions when the materials are found.

–       Use materials with interesting “stories” or personal significance to your project.

–       At the start of the project, evaluate the project site and old buildings for materials to reuse.

–       Hire demo contractors with experience in using salvaged materials.

–       Use materials for their highest use—avoid “downcycling” (eg. chipping up wood for mulch).

–       Avoid reuse of materials that are considered hazardous (eg. CCA treated lumber or railroad ties) or remove hazardous finishes (eg. lead paint) in a controlled manner.

Perhaps the easiest place to locate salvaged materials is in your own house or yard, however, the following lists salvaged material outlets in Muncie, Indianapolis and surrounding communities:

–       Habitat for Humanity ReStore, 1923 S. Hoyt Avenue, Muncie, IN (765) 286-5739; Indianapolis location is at 1011 East 22nd St., Indianapolis, IN (317) 921-2121;

–       Solid State LLC, 800 S. Liberty Street, Muncie, IN, (765) 716-0300

–       Rehab Resource Inc., 101 S Parker Ave., ndianapolis, IN 46201 317.637.3701

–       Asset Recycling Inc., 701 North Holt Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46222 317.635.7774

–       Craig’s List

Meg Calkins is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Ball State University and author of the books: Materials for Sustainable Sites and The Sustainable Sites Handbook.