Organic Gardening Goal 6: To use, as far as possible, renewable, biodegradable and recycled resources from local sources and to minimize waste.
Today, I'd like to give some examples of renewable resources and non renewable resources in the garden.
In 2007, I did a Certificate in Sustainable Building and Design At Yestermorrow Design/Build School. I learned how to build earthen floors and cob walls, timberframe, make my own paint, and even how to convert a vehicle to run off vegetable oil. I also took courses on sustainable design and permaculture, which is a design framework popular in organic gardening.
I learned that we have trashed the planet pretty hard core. We've taken out a huge percentage of trees, oil, fish, and so on. You know about that, I'm sure. There's not much point complaining about it because we actually have all kinds of totally cool ways to reverse the trends, and there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who are interested in joining us.
Today, I'm writing about just one way of thinking about resources when organic gardening - examples of renewable resources and non renewable resources.
In my opinion, the best way to make a bench is to get some mud and poo and grass (straw) and mix it all together and start piling it up and you have a bench. It's called cob. Okay, it takes a little more knowledge than that but it's super easy once you know how to do it and it's about as local as you can get.
When I was learning natural building in Costa Rica at Rancho Mastatal, I helped put in a floor and a wall made out of the same simple materials listed above. I did it again at Yestermorrow and when I moved to the west coast, I volunteered to help some folks put one in their new home. You can learn to do this, too.
But rather than try to summarize the many different resources you can use in this article, I'm going to give some examples of renewable resources and non renewable resources and tell you about 3 really good materials and 3 not so good materials that are often touted as being good when organic gardening. Let's start with the bad news:
Not So Good Materials
If you do a search for 'Sustainable Materials', one of the top websites that comes up as of this writing is sustainablematerials.com. Go here for a list of not so good materials. No, I don't mean that they have a page of unsustainable materials. I mean go to their home page and look at all of the materials they are promoting as sustainable. It seems they're on this recent bandwagon of promoting certain materials without really thinking hard about it.
- Cork, for example, is a very cool finishing material that comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. It's not so much used in hardscaping in the garden, but it is used in some pots from the nursery and as a soil amendment and water conservation product. It can be taken off the tree every 10 or so years and it will regenerate, apparently without any harm to the tree (I've actually never verified this and would not be surprised to learn that the tree would be much happier to keep its cork, but that's for another day). But where does cork come from? Mostly the Mediterranean. Sustainable for Europe perhaps, but not when shipped over to North America. Bamboo is another trend. It's a great material for use in the garden if it grows where you live, but most of it is coming from China and other parts of Asia. We need to think these kinds of products all the way through instead of just focusing on one or two good points.
- Concrete is not a very good building material for the organic garden. Many would argue that it is not a sustainable building material in general, but I'll just keep it to the garden here. The main problem is that it can substantially raise the pH of the surrounding soil (as much as several points), much to the dismay of everything living there. This reeks havoc on nearby ponds and fish, too.
- Peat and coir are natural materials that are allowed when organic gardening, but they are mostly not local. And peat bogs are important ecosystems in their own right, but once they're harvested (kind of like clear-cutting a forest), most of them are converted to farmland and not restored. Coir comes from the shell of a coconut. It's a great material, but not when shipped from South America.
- Hemp grows in a wide range of climate and soil conditions. It can be used to make a variety of materials such as fiberboard, roofing tiles, insulation, bricks, straw bales and cob. There are whole houses now being built mostly of hemp. In your organic garden, you can build benches, fencing and borders out of hemp.
- Are you forever picking rocks out of your garden? Keep them! It's a great idea to have piles of rocks around your organic garden. They make great homes for certain beneficial critters. Use them around the outside of your garden or as a dry creek bed.
- Local recycled materials are abundant and have many uses. Pallets are perfect for making your own compost bin. Some are heat treated and some are still treated with methyl bromide, and should be marked with 'HT' or 'MB' to indicate the treatment. I don't know if methyl bromide would remain toxic after treatment, but I still go for the former. Driftwood can also be used for compost bins and fencing. One common recycled material that should not be used is rubber tires. People like to use them to make planters, but they are toxic and leach into the soil.
These were just a few examples of renewable resources and non renewable resources that you might consider using when organic gardening, to show you that the latest "eco" materials are not always what they seem, but there are plenty of resources out there that are sustainably harvested or recycled from your own area.
If you're into gardening, you might want to check out this series of my favorite organic gardening lessons I've brought together on one page.