by Cyndy Crist
Remember the last time that a favorite pot from your garden broke? Perhaps a friend offered you left-over bricks from a patio project and you wondered what to do with those that were broken or less than perfect. Or maybe you brought some stones or shells back from a vacation on the beach or hiking a rocky trail and they’ve been collecting dust on your porch ever since.
With a little thought, you can reuse these bits and pieces in your garden, taking something that might otherwise end up in the garbage can and repurposing them to add interest and texture to your garden. And best of all, they’re free! Here are a few ideas to set you searching for your own trash-to-treasure finds.
One fun thing to do with a large pot that breaks into big pieces is to partially sink a piece into the ground, positioning it so that it looks like a plant is growing out of it. I did this with a tall, cobalt blue pot, which I sunk into the ground at an angle, at the “opening” of which I planted a daylily. The pot fragment adds a bit of color that is especially welcome in the spring when the garden is just starting to grow. An added benefit of my pot placement is that it allowed me to plant near the roof line of our porch without worrying about run-off drowning or washing out the lily, since the pot surface helps deflect the water.
Another way to use fragments of pots, saucers, or other dishes is in the edging of a garden. I have used pieces of a pair of broken, glazed, and painted Italian pots to create a kind of mosaic, interspersed with bricks, around my potager or kitchen garden. Now, after many years, some pieces have broken down and lost some of their decorative value and soon they’ll have to be replaced entirely, but for many years they’ve added color and style to the garden’s border. More recently, I set the two pieces of a small bowl that broke neatly in half into the edging to replace some of the older pot fragments. I think they add a quirky, three-dimensional touch to the garden. And I used the ruffled rim of another broken pot to create a kind of border in my fairy garden.
Small pot shards and other miscellaneous materials found around the house (such as marbles, shells, and smooth pieces of glass) can also be used to create actual mosaics in the garden. Community-minded neighbors in the Midway area of St. Paul have added color and interest to a busy street through their neighborhood by covering large concrete planters with mosaics, creating objects of beauty out of otherwise unremarkable, if practical, objects. I have a mosaic stepping stone in my garden that I made using a kit that was a gift, but with just a little research into workable materials (primarily the right produce to provide the mortar or base and a sturdy box of suitable size to use as the mold), a similar result could easily be achieved with found materials.
A non-decorative, but very practical, use of fragments of unglazed terra cotta pots is to cover drainage holes in the bottom of pots. Since their surface is porous, they’ll allow some water to soak through but staunch the heavier flow that would result if there was no cover over the hole. When a terra cotta pot breaks, I keep the pieces on my potting bench for the next time I plant a container, throwing them on the garage floor to create smaller shards as needed (okay, it’s not elegant or precise, but it works).
You can also use un-broken items in the garden that might otherwise be discarded. For example, if you have a stray cup and saucer, you can glue the cup to the saucer to make a little birdbath or bird feeder. This works especially well if you fasten it to a stake so that it sits up off the ground. You can also use a cup and saucer as a planter, though without drainage in the bottom of the cup, a little extra caution is needed to be sure you don’t drown whatever you’ve planted in it. And, of course, stray saucers and dessert plates can always be used under pots on a porch or balcony; over time, I’ve built a little collection from attractive finds in antique and second-hand shops that allow me to vary the color scheme on my porch as I wish.
If you’ve ever edged a curved bed with bricks, you know that broken or imperfect pieces can actually be a godsend, helping create curves in a way that intact bricks simply can’t. It takes a bit of experimentation to fit the pieces together, but it’s worth the effort. If what you have is masonry bricks (like the ones we asked the roofers to leave when they re-bricked our chimney), you may not like the looks of their holes, especially if they’re still filled with mortar. But if you set them in the garden on their sides, you can get a decent-looking edge, even though it will be narrower than what you’d get setting the bricks in flat, and if you leave the holes on top and fill them with soil, some groundcovers will grow into them.
Writing in a recent email newsletter from Horticulture magazine, Emily Dydo offered some other great ideas for reusing terra cotta pots. I especially liked her idea of writing the names of vegetables on pot shards for easy garden labels. Depending on the size and shape of the shards, these could be laid flat on the ground by the plant or stuck into the ground so that they stand by a plant. I’ve done something similar by writing the names of herbs on flat, smooth rocks with Sharpies (silver works well for dark stones) and then placing them in the garden. This creates simple, long-lasting, and natural-looking labels for your plants at virtually no cost.
I once did something similar to an idea suggested by Dydo – setting a row of plain terra cotta pots, bottoms-up, along a garden edge to create a three-dimensional border. Mine was a temporary solution for a newly created planting, and in any case this can’t be a long-lasting solution since unglazed terra cotta breaks down fairly quickly when left outside. But just as gardeners seek to create plant designs that provide a changing array of colors and textures across the seasons, periodically changing borders and other garden hardscape can add interest and variety to beds of ornamentals and edibles from year to year.
Another idea from the Horticulture post is to use pot shards like mulch on the surface of soil in a container. I just tried this with a decorative terra cotta pot of pink-hued plants, thinking it would give the pot, which sits on a deck railing, a more finished look. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on how much it adds aesthetically, but I’m hopeful that this “mulching” may reduce the need for watering. What I like much better is something I was inspired to do after trying the shards – arranging small shells in the same way. I think the pearly shells add a finished look to the pot and a nice color and textural contrast to the succulents and soil.
And that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it – to share ideas with others as a way to stimulate their creativity and yours. The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more ideas I’m beginning to generate for ways to re-use or re-purpose things in my garden. I’m ready to head out to the garage now for more inspiration – how about you?