It’s hard to keep your eyes off some of the more bizarre recycled objects in Steven Wells’ garden: valve handles from irrigation pipes, porcelain insulators from electricity cables, a slide, fuel canisters, kitchen scales, terracotta drain pipes.
The more time you spend here, the more you notice. A tractor seat, a milk pail, a bath, mirrors, grape harvesting baskets. At every turn in this Montmorency garden, weathered materials are paired with deep layers of highly textured, foliage-driven plants.
Steven Wells in his Montmorency gardenCredit:Eddie Jim
It feels like a forest that has been lived in for centuries, instead of the garden of a 1970s house that Wells only acquired in 2005. So when Open Gardens Victoria decided to run a recycling-in-your-garden competition, it was not surprising that Wells, a nurse, horticultural therapist, gardener, garden designer and avid recycler, was appointed as judge.
Wells, who will appraise our most innovative recycling habits for the competition that runs until the end of August, is the sort of person who saves the lids of long-gone galvanised rubbish bins and squashes them flat, drills holes in their bases and turns them into growing spaces for succulents. When his recycled-wine-barrel planters finally bit the dust he kept the metal rings that once secured the wooden slats and turned them into sculptural objects.
Door frame views.Credit:Eddie Jim
He credits growing up in a family of market gardeners who never threw anything out “because it will come in handy one day” for setting him on a long path of “being sensible with the resources we have”.
It is an attitude with new relevance given how all the waste we generate is only exacerbating the climate emergency. While gardening is often viewed as being, by its very nature, good for the environment, that’s not necessarily true. Think of all the landscapes constructed with imported soils, newly laid concrete and hard materials transported from afar, or of all the plants we cosset with chemical fertilisers and intensive irrigation systems.
Making pictures with tools.Credit:Eddie Jim
Sometimes a garden can tread heavily. But while recycling can help make gardening more environmentally sustainable, Wells worries it gets a bad rap when it comes to aesthetics. “People think recycling has to be a hotchpotch of odd things that you don’t want to throw out, that it makes your garden look like a hoarder’s place.”
Quite the contrary, he says. “It can be done in a way that looks styled and creative.” While he says everyone has different ideas of what recycling can be, for him “it is about creating a weathered look and introducing different textures”.
An old bath finds a new home.Credit:Eddie Jim
For his father, who kept everything from off-cuts of timber, metal and cable to empty canisters and old tools, recycling was a means of always having materials from which he could fashion farm equipment for little or no cost. “They didn’t have hardware shops everywhere like they do now so Dad re-used things. He had a shed full of a whole lot of items and he knew exactly where they all were.”
While Wells has no room for stockpiling and takes a more decorative approach, he is similarly systematic. He has made “frames” for his father’s old spanners and wrenches and hangs them, like pictures, on outdoor walls and fences. Outdoor ‘display cabinets’ house his collections of salvaged bottles and tins.
Wells has made furniture with reinforcement mesh and found timbersCredit:Eddie Jim
As well as the patina of age, Wells likes the thrift involved and the idea that all these materials would otherwise be headed to landfill. And sometimes for the drain, because water is something else that Wells recycles. He uses all the water he runs in either the bath or sink (appropriately enough a recycled trough) in his garden to irrigate his plants.
Wells pairs weathered surfaces with textured plantings.Credit:Eddie Jim
“Recycling can be practical, creative and cost-effective,” Wells says. “And ultimately it is about not letting things go to waste.”
In keeping with Wells’ ‘anything-can-be-re-used’ attitude, the Open Gardens Victoria’s ‘Recycling in your Garden’ competition has a no-holds-barred brief.
Home gardeners have until the end of August to send pictures and written descriptions of their best recycled elements. It can be anything from the ground up.
Go to opengardensvictoria.org.au for more information.
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