I never could figure out how my friends Stephanie Fay and Tom Aldrich managed to work full-time jobs, raise their 4-year-old daughter, Allie, and manage to have an amazing garden – all in a plot made of salvaged or secondhand materials.
Last year, not even my okra came up.
Fay, 44, and Aldrich, 42, live just west of Pittsboro in a small house they got cheap and renovated themselves. They’re out on a country road, close to town but far enough out to do what they please with their land. With outdoor benches made of telephone poles and a small bedroom-sized greenhouse made of old windows, their acre is a testament to creative reuse. They get the materials free or cheap. Sometimes, as with their chicken house, all they had to do was find a way to haul it.
And Aldrich is forever planning what comes next, like his latest idea. He wants to make an automatic door for the chicken house by attaching a power antenna, like those in some ’80s-era cars, to a board and using the mechanism on a timer to open and close the coop.
“The battery would be charged by a solar panel; it won’t take much to charge a battery like that,” Aldrich says, his invention equal parts Thomas Edison and Angus MacGyver. “Set the timer – close at 9 o’clock, open at 6. I’ve always got my eye out for a solar panel and an old power antenna.”
The edible garden itself, particularly in mid-summer, is rich with vegetables and herbs, while flowers and decorative plants offer tasteful accents. Come August, they typically have more tomatoes and okra than they know what to do with.
While many of Aldrich and Fay’s ideas, such as this one, require significant skill, many of the features in their garden don’t. I stopped by to find out how my friends do what they do.
Bricks and bottles
Fay and Aldrich bought a late-’70s ranch house, and they ended up with a surplus of bricks and cinder blocks from tearing out its old deck. Add the glass bottles they’re forever finding around the property, and you have gardening materials – not trash.
“This was just junk I found out on the property,” Fay says. She gestures to a raised rectangular bed. “These are all bordered with bricks that were reclaimed.”
Nearby, a flower planter is bordered by upended glass bottles in a line. Fay used a bulb planter to dig out the holes, and in the old bottles went.
For those who don’t have a surplus of bricks and bottles, there’s always the Scrap Exchange in Durham, Habitat ReStores or similar shops.
These two use old screen doors everywhere. The main garden entry is one place, as are the chicken coop’s double doors and the gate leading out of their fenced backyard. They rip off the old screen and replace it with something more substantial – chicken wire, say – though some of these doors are still in process.
One screen door leans on its side with gourds atop: “They’re good for drying stuff,” Aldrich says. The gourds, which they recently harvested, will eventually be sanded, primed, painted and made into birdhouses.
These doors, too, don’t have to be in amazing shape – they just need to keep animals out. One person’s ruined screen porch door is another’s garden gate.
Chimney flue planters
“These are all from the chimney that was inside the house,” Aldrich says, gesturing to narrow clay pots made of old chimney flue liners. “They’re filled with dirt and stuff is growing out of them.”
He was able to take down the chimney without breaking too many of the liners, and now they’re spaced along the back of the garden plot. As she’s done before, Fay plans to plant climbing nasturtiums in them, which will climb the back fence.
You may not have a chimney to take down, but you still may be able to find these at reuse stores.
One raised, rectangular crop bed has a different kind of bed resting atop it – the kind you’d sleep on. There’s no mattress, though; the old metal bed frame surrounds the planter, giving it form.
“This could be used as a trellis,” Aldrich says.
Fay nods and picks up the thought: “We could even put some extra supports in the middle and have a fully covered greenhouse,” she says.
By the chicken house, a row of upended bread trays – the kind used in grocery store stockrooms – lines the fence.
Fay and Aldrich throw a seed mix through the tray openings. “Cover crop will eventually grow,” Fay says. When the mix of clover, rye, oats and legumes comes up, chickens will be able to eat the tops of the plants, which will poke out of the bread trays, but the roots and lower leaves will be protected.
Keep an eye out for bread trays or use something similar – say, a row of plastic crates – if you want to provide your chickens with a self-replenishing food source that’s safe from their scratching claws.
While not everyone has the space for a garden like this one, there are ideas enough here to make even the smallest cultivated space just a little more interesting – and all by using reclaimed materials.
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