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Great Gardening: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Rethink

Do you remember when recycling entered our collective conscience? Did you first think about The Three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – in the 1960s or 1970s?

In popular culture the 3-R mentality has certainly had highs and lows along the way, but now commitment to environmentally responsible consumerism is reaching a new high.

That’s thanks in part to a caring younger generation, and partly out of necessity: We hear daily about environmental threats and negative impacts of our wastefulness.

Islands of plastics clog the oceans and kill animals; China will not be accepting our waste plastics; recycling companies are overwhelmed; waste that’s put out for recycling in some cities still goes to the landfill if it’s not sorted carefully ... We have so many problems to solve, and it’s not simple.

What is simple

How each person can or will reduce or reuse or recycle will vary. Those behaviors depend upon lifestyle, economics, habits, the community services available and the will to change.

But one thing is simple – I’m calling it The Fourth R: We can all Rethink what we’re using and what we’re doing with it.

I’m taking plastic baggies or foil into restaurants for my take-home and not accepting Styrofoam. Many people now carry cloth sacks for all store purchases, not just groceries. Participants in events, from church breakfasts to seminars, often wash their own glass mugs and carry their own water bottles. We’re rethinking old ways.

Gardeners’ old tricks

Whether in Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine or 1986 master gardener meetings, home gardeners have traditionally shared ways to recycle or repurpose things. (That’s the current phrase for good old practices.)

Some were being frugal; some called themselves “cheap.” Instead of buying new on Amazon, try these:

• For plant markers: Collect and use chopsticks, Popsicle sticks, paint stirrers, or cut up strips from bleach or laundry containers.

• For raised beds: Form rectangles with salvaged cinder blocks, old boards (avoiding treated wood), fallen tree trunks, rocks or straw bales.

• For staking plants: Use broom or mop handles, old tools, fence posts and the winter driveway markers.

• Make a compost bin out of reclaimed (often discarded and free) skids or pallets, screen windows or fence sections.

• Scare birds off the berry patch or cherry tree with aluminum pie-plates, cut-up Mylar balloon strips or hanging silverware wind chimes.

• Strap together a ring of pop bottles, mouth up, filled with water, to provide heat for young tomato plants.

Use organic matter

Even if your town grinds up and uses the tree branches, leaves and grass clippings, it’s a lot more earth-friendly (no gasoline or outside labor required) to use your own organic matter.

Pile the yard material for slow composting; rake the leaves and grass onto garden or landscape beds; bury the vegetable scraps in holes; make brush piles that benefit wildlife – whatever is acceptable in your neighborhood and lifestyle.

Use cardboard and newspaper (also organic matter) in thick sections to block weeds around the garden beds or as the foundation for a casual path.

Just know that yard “waste” is a fallacy: Organic materials are yard treasure.

Purchase what lasts

I know that most people won’t give up buying tempting deck furniture, picnic tables or one-time use outdoor products. We can certainly try to choose recycled plastic outdoor furniture (Polywood™ just one brand) or good wood; buy a good set once, rather than repeatedly buying cheap stuff that ends up in a dump.

I don’t appear environmentally perfect because for decades I have used black plastic sheets to block large weedy garden areas (downwind from a hay field and horse pasture after all), but I learned to buy thick builder’s plastic that lasts many years.

Oh, and so many more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, once we start rethinking.

Here’s a good place to start: Ask an old-time gardener or farmer. They did all this because they had to.

Now we also have to try.

In other news

Something huge has happened in the arboretum community: Draves Arboreum of Darien was just accredited as a Level III Arboretum making it one of just 28 in the world, including just 16 in the U.S. (among them Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Arboretum and the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore).

Arborist Tom Draves at his arboretum in Darien. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

What’s an arboretum? It’s a living collection of woody plants intended at least partly for scientific study.

What constitutes a Level III arboretum? It must have at least 500 different species, varieties or cultivars – Draves has close to 800 now – and it must demonstrate a plant collections database, an education program, professional staff including a dedicated curator, and a conservation and research agenda.

How can you benefit? The public, horticulture students and the landscape and nursery industry can schedule group tours or book events at the arboretum, to study the labeled trees and learn which ones thrive in what site conditions within the WNY climate. It’s not about prettied-up flower beds – although the views can be stunning – but it is a breathtaking opportunity to learn about trees.

Note: You can read my 2016 column on Draves Arboreum below.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant and author of the newly published book, "Buffalo-Style Gardens" (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95), along with Jim Charlier.

Great Gardening: A new arboretum in town

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