Thrifting the Garden

I grew up in a household that frequented thrift shops out of necessity, and like many kids in that economic bracket I was deeply embarrassed by our sorely out-of-date second hand outfits and household goods. Somehow between ages 14 and 16 and I did a mental 180° and found myself embracing thrifting as a lifestyle and a thrill rather than a cross to bear. Buying my clothes used meant that I didn’t show up at school wearing the same shirt or dress as every one else… being different was suddenly a good thing. When I moved away from home at 17, I began buying my home goods there as well, and for a time, thrifts stores became my answer to one-stop shopping and cheap afternoon entertainment rolled into one. Where else can you see the bizarre, discarded detritus of decade’s past?

Thrift stores are magic.

I still love thrifting, but my frequency reduced significantly over the last 10 years as our urban shops became more and more picked over and filled up with completely useless garbage. We recently moved into a new neighbourhood and I don’t know what it is about this area, but the stores are pretty good. As a result I’ve starting looking in the shops again, pretty much weekly.

Scouring the stores for items that I can transform or use in the garden this spring has been one way that I’ve made it through the grim days of winter when I was practically scratching at the walls with the urge to get outside and get started making my scrappy yard into something.

I’ve picked up an assortment of obvious garden items including an assortment of high quality terracotta pots, a well-made orange metal watering can for just a dollar, a number of plates to be used as saucers, glassware for terrariums, a cloche, a vintage windowsill herb gardening set (complete with very old seeds), and several very good canning supplies that aren’t really for gardening but it’s all one and the same to me.

The two items shown above are my most recent acquisitions. I garbage picked the wooden fruit crate from my therapist’s neighbour’s garbage. I’m probably crossing some kind of therapist-client personal boundary there, and if I am, I don’t want to know about it as the box is not the first thing I’ve dragged home from their curb side discards! Recently, there have been other items that I wanted to take, but didn’t because I “didn’t want to be too weirdly inappropriate”.

I’m planning to use the crate as a box for holding transplants. Although, it would make an excellent box for starting outdoor seedlings, I’ve decided against that use as I don’t want to damage its integrity. Those plastic trays that come free from the garden shops are flimsy and often don’t hold a tray full of transplants well.

The larger item on the left that looks like a doll crib is actually a small shelving unit. I bought it the other day for $5.99. The plan is to line the insides with landscaping fabric or screening and use it as a planter. It looks crappy now, but just you wait and see.

What crazy items are you upcycling for use in the garden this spring?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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27 thoughts on “Thrifting the Garden

  1. Aw a topic near and dear to my heart! Alys Fowler has written some really great stuff about this topic – and I have on my website as well. I am upcycling lots of stuff in my garden right now, wood logs, a broken piece of chimney pipe, a wooden box that had wine bottles in it and wooden vegetable crates! No buying brand new containers for moi!
    Awesome post!
    the row house nest

  2. Oh, man — you are making me miss the thrift shops we used to have around here back in the day. We had a good thrift shop within walking distance of my house growing up, and I bought most of my clothes there. We even had a Salvation Army fairly close by, and they always had decent garden stuff, but they closed and relocated last year.

    I can’t wait to see the shelving unit transformed!

  3. I’ve been constructing a chicken coop for a lengthy period of time since I’m making it out of (mostly) found lumber. The municipal waste agency has a once monthly “large debris” collection and I’ve learned which day it is for surrounding neighborhoods, so the night before you’ll find me cruising around looking for discarded bookshelves or kitchen cabinets to deconstruct. I finally scored some free windows and although the coop looks quite ragged, I think it will come together nicely once it’s painted a uniform color.

  4. Wow i absolutely love thrift shops! God it seems like all i get is other peoples throw always. Ok well i took an old wine vase from one of my friends that was throwing it away and turning it into a terrarium, i found an old toaster in the garbage and I’m turning it into a succulent planter and at my work we sell kinder eggs and they throw the trays away when people have all the eggs and i saved at least 6 trays they make wonderful seed starters!

  5. I love thrift stores. I’m lucky enough to have four large thrift stores within walking distance of my home. They’re great for finding cheap canning jars, pots, and occasionally some really nice furniture!

  6. I use to feel the same way and now I just love combing through them. You can find some great things to use as container planters. I always grab up the big baskets.LOL! Your crates look like great finds.

  7. I grabbed a couple of dresser drawers sitting behind my alley’s dumpster last night. I’m hoping they might work for growing lettuces in!

  8. Last year I gardened exclusively in old tractor tires I found in our neighborhood during bulk trash pick up, and to fence in the area from my dogs I used white wrought-iron railings that I found behind my boyfriend’s old house. This year I scored a number of 45-gal containers for $7 a pop from someone on Craigslist. They’re ugly as sin so I’m decorating them today with a potent combo of regular paint, chalkboard paint and stencils :)

  9. We’ve got some great thrift shops near me and I visit as often as I can! We are so on a repurpose hunt lately, in fact I’m heading out now. I’d like to find a few cute watering cans to hang on our fence for the kids. We are always looking for garden signs and miniature houses to start our first fairy enchanted mini garden in one corner. I need some outdoor fabric to re-cover a garden swing… on and on the list goes!

  10. Love your ideas, as well as those in the comments! I’ve had a lot of luck with canning supplies and containers for houseplants. This year we’re also collecting all the shipping pallets we can — we made a 3-bin compost bin, and next is a fence around the veggie garden. I love reusing. Now I want to find some dresser drawers :)

  11. In this part of Australia they have something called Council Cleanup where anything you don’t want anymore but are too lazy to take to the charity shops, or don’t think they will take, and shouldn’t go in normal trash is put out on the curb a few times a year. It’s just been normal stuff so far for the garden, pots and the like but I get tons of stuff for our foster dogs that comes in handy. Most of the dogs we get are traumatized from where they come from and their time in the pound and as you may know, dogs work through frustration by tearing stuff up. When we are home in the afternoons and evenings all is well because we are playing and learning our manners, but when we go to work during the day, whatever they have been sleeping on becomes an avenue to vent. Old couch cushions are a wonderful thing for a bed since they stay comfy until the last bit of foam is ripped out. People also throw out stuffed animals, blankets, and even actual dog beds, all which are picked up by me on my walk home and are sacrificed in the name of therapy. After awhile the tearing calms down and they settle in. It must be working since all the dogs leave here to happy new homes and are eager to embrace new lives!

    Also I have a table I snagged from the curb and that story is here if you care to read it. :-)

  12. Gayla & all,
    If you love thrift stores, you’ve got to read -Second Hand- by Michael Zadoorian. It’s about a funny, nerdy Detroit junker and meditates on a whole lot of “junk” and the cycles of life and death and stuff–thrift stores, abandoned pets, dying parents. It’s a truly amazing book, and I teach it every year in my Material Culture course. Everyone loves it!

  13. We’ve been crafting a lot lately and I was thinking of using old baskets wire together to make a birdhouse…

  14. I “yard share” at a friend’s house — and a group of 2 to 8+ of us meet every Sunday to garden together. Though we often end up bringing additional craft projects and copious amounts of food and turn 2-3 hours of gardening into day long events.

    There is a running argument between myself and the “landowner” (my tongue-in-cheek nickname for my friend) over just how powerful tomato plants really are. He’s convinced I’m over estimating the support needs of 32 tomato plants in the backyard. (Yes, we already have 32 tomato plants in the ground – I live in the US SW and we already have seen triple digits in fahrenheit)

    A couple weeks ago, taking out the trash on my way to the garden, I noticed someone in my apartment complex had thrown out a perfectly good wooden bed frame, slats and all. Thirty minutes with a screw driver and I managed to get 90% of the wood in my car. The white painted sides of the bed frame are now the sides of a raised bed, and the thin slats that supported the mattress are now part of the mightyest tomato cage ever built.

  15. Annie: Dressers are my favourite thing for growing greens and lettuces in!

    Jennifer Whitaker: We used to have trash days like that back when I was a kid and I always looked forward to them. So many treasures free for the taking — to a kid it was heaven! I started stamp collecting all because of a small collection someone threw out. (Yep, I’ve done that geek hobby, too).

    Erica H: I will look for it.

    Melissa: Old beds are great. I love old futon frames. Large tomatoes can require quite sturdy staking to stay upright, especially once loaded with fruit.

  16. These are quite lovely. I’m not upcycling anything yet, but I have Mr Chiot’s grandpa on lookout for anything galvanized when he’d auctioning this spring/summer. I can’t wait to see what he finds for me.

  17. I love thrifting! Last year I did a container vegetable garden all from old baskets and crates that I had thrifted. I even found a small iron table by the dumpster to add levels to my little garden. The baskets probably won’t be useful again this year, but I’m definitely reusing the crates. And this year my boyfriend has a backyard where we added raised beds, so I’m excited to try that kind of vegetable gardening now!

  18. I think thrifting has not only gotten more picked over, but there is less quality stuff in there because more and more people are buying low quality crap from the Wal Marts and such of the world that does not last long enough for a repurposing. Clothes are stretched out and trashed after a few washings and many other things are thin plastic garbage that will just deteriorate and get brittle in the sun if used for garden beds.

    That shelf you got there, when I first saw the picture, screamed compost bin to me as one of my bins is constructed of old baby gates that we weren’t using anymore. I’d love to find some old wooden crates like the one you found there but they are just impossible to find around here unless someone is charging an arm and a leg at an antique shop.

    My favorite repurposing is my garden trellises that I made out of old bicycle wheels.

  19. I love wooden wine boxes for growing lettuces, arugula, herbs and flowers on my deck. They can be hard to come by sometimes. My top two tips are looking in the alleys behind specialty wines stores or making friends with the folks at your fave wine bar who might be able to save them for you. Happy up-cycling.

  20. I love checking into your site! Since I have a short summer, I start many tender annuals indoors. I try to avoid purchasing seedling trays or pots and try start most seeds in biodegradable handmade pots. Cardboard tubes, newspapers, grapefruit halves are great options—I often use eggshells. Besides the environmental advantages, eggshells provide good moisture retention for germination, less transplantation shock, a good source of beneficial calcium–especially important for fast-growing tender annuals. You can find a detailed tutorial here:

  21. I love finding things at auctions, yard sales, flea markets, etc. In my garden, I have a couple of fancy pieces from antique buggies, a small plow (all metal, including the wheel), some cast iron stove pieces that we found on our property, graniteware pails as planters, and more. It’s fun to find these things and makes me happy for very little!

  22. My husband renovated our circa 1979 fireplace this winter. The wall was covered with these fake stones made of cement (or something) that I’m going to use as bricks in my front flower bed. The big hearth stones will be stepping stones.

  23. For growing plants with wood materials, you are supposed to use petrified wood. Any other type including unfinished or finishing will rot once it gets wet and is exposed to air and bacteria. I’m not saying that that plants won’t be successful but the fact the wood will rot, is more of a concern if it’s near vegetables, or any plants that will later be consumed.

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