Free to Good Garden

It’s time to put the brakes on horticultural consumerism by obtaining all we need in the garden for free.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, June 2007. 

A glance at my computer screen reveals the latest clutch of gardening offers: a garden shed, a lawnmower, a garden vacuum, various houseplants, plant pots, and miscellaneous gardening books. Fairly run-of-the-mill offers that you might find in any ‘virtual’ gardening store, except that these are like no others you will come across. None of these items will cost me a penny.

Yucca in metal drum.

Even the most unlikely freebies can find a new purpose. This drum from a washing machine makes and ideal and perfectly-drained container.

All were offered by fellow members of the two local Freecycle groups I am signed up to. To snap up one of these freebies, all I need do is reply, via email, to the person making the offer. I can, if necessary, ask more detailed questions about the item. In the case of the shed, the details covered everything. ‘This is a 6ft (1.8m) x 4ft (1.2m) B&Q shed, with a sloping roof, a door at one end and a window in one side. It will need to be dismantled by whoever wants it. You will need a trailer or transit-sized van.’ The person giving then decides who will receive the item, arrangements are made for collection/delivery, and the lucky recipient is the proud owner of a shed – for free. Once an item has been homed, a ‘taken’ message is emailed to all members of the group.

The now global Freecycle network was born in 2003 in Tucson in the USA as part of a drive to avoid Arizona’s desert landscape being used for landfill. The movement, with the motto ‘think globally, recycle locally’, has grown to over 4,000 groups made up of well over 3 million members, one of them being me. The idea is simple: when you have something you no longer need, you offer it, via the internet, to other members of your local Freecycle group. There are few rules and they are succinct: everything must be free, legal and suitable for all ages. This quote from the UK’s Freecycle network encapsulates the movement’s ethos: ‘Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. Our goal is to keep usable items out of landfills. By using what we already have on this earth, we reduce consumerism, manufacture fewer goods, and lessen the impact on the earth. Another benefit of using Freecycle is that it encourages us to get rid of junk that we no longer need and promote community involvement in the process.’

“By using what we already have on this earth, we reduce consumerism, manufacture fewer goods, and lessen the impact on the earth”

This grassroots movement isn’t just about giving, it’s also about getting. You can post a ‘wanted’ message to group members to see if anyone has something you’re looking for. Recent gardening ‘wants’ in my inbox included a gazebo, glass for a greenhouse, a strimmer, some 90cm (3ft) tall hardy palms, an old carpet for smothering weeds, and a lawnmower. Other garden-related wants included chickens, geese and ducks, and roofing felt for a beehive. Anyone in the group can let you know if they have what you’re after, and you post a ‘received’ message when your quest is over.

Wildlife hotel made from pallets.

Even the most mundane of materials, such as wooden pallets, can be found a new home if you let folk know you have them to give away. Here they’re used to make a wildlife ‘hotel’.

While Freecycling is recycling at its most ingenious, it achieves something else that’s vital in helping us put the brake on our profligate, consumerist way of passing from cradle to grave (I hesitate to describe the way many in the developed world now exist as actual living). It helps to build local communities of folk who are individually pressing down on that brake pedal. And I know of another community who are equally committed to treading more lightly, who know all about the value of reusing and recycling, who tend to shun profligacy, and often harbour an anti-consumerist streak. They’re called organic gardeners.

“There’s something gut-wrenchingly awful about seeing the handles of lawnmowers, perfectly good garden sheds, and the frames of greenhouses poking out of the tops of skips”

You can see from my examples that Freecycling is already an effective way of keeping garden-related items out of skips and, consequently, landfill sites. But I reckon we could go one better by sowing the seeds of an exciting new sideshoot of Freecycle which, unsurprisingly, I would call ‘Freegardening’. Just think of it: the potential to create a whole garden from scratch, using locally recycled materials, from sheds and greenhouses to surplus seeds and seedlings. We could even start offering compostable garden waste to someone around the corner, rather than burning fossil fuels in exporting fertility to the tip. There’s something gut-wrenchingly awful about seeing the handles of lawnmowers, the sides of perfectly good garden sheds, and the frames of greenhouses poking out of the tops of skips.

Freegardening would tick all the right boxes. It would keep gardening stuff moving from garden to garden, so reducing the need to buy new stuff (much of which we will never need anyway, though that’s another story). If we need less new stuff, we need less finite raw materials to make it, so less fossil fuel-derived energy is required, both in manufacture and transport. Nor will Freegardening require the grotesque overpackaging that’s so much part of everyday life. An area, incidentally, in which garden centres seem to be giving even the worst-offending supermarkets a run for their money. And you’d be guaranteed to meet some equally committed gardeners who understand that shopping and skip-filling are two sides of the same badly dented coin.

“Freegardening could become not only a way of giving and receiving living things for free, it would be a catalyst for breathing new life into our inanimate gardening gear”

Your ‘new’ shed might now come from three doors down, rather than from a 20-mile round trip to an out-of-town DIY store. It’ll be delivered on foot, so won’t help stoke global warming, you’ll get a cup of tea and a cake out of it, a natter about organic gardening, and it won’t cost you a penny. Power your computer using renewable electricity, so you can do a carbon-neutral check on what’s on offer from your local Freegardening group, and you can shower yourself in greenie points.

Food cans growing flowers and salads.

If you’ve no budget but need some plant containers, why not put a call out on the Freecycle network? It’s amazing what might turn up…

There would be spin-offs, too. I don’t have the first clue how to resuscitate a dusty but otherwise sound lawnmower, or any other piece of powered, lost-at-the-back-of-the-shed garden equipment, but I could offer it to someone who would have it purring like a kitten within hours. At the very least it could be used for spares. So Freegardening could become not only a way of giving and receiving living things for free (seeds, bulbs, tubers, plants, cuttings), it would be a catalyst for breathing new life into our inanimate gardening gear, which is one less purchase, less gobbling of natural resources … you get the idea.

Let’s not forget that for many aspiring organic gardeners, establishing a plot from scratch, using newly bought materials, is simply out of financial reach. Freegardening would help put the dream of having a safe, biologically diverse garden, in which you can cultivate both food and an increasing sense of self-reliance, within anyone’s reach.

To even suggest not buying things in our gluttonous, materialistic age might seem sacrilegious, but a worldwide Freegardening movement would be a perfect counterbalance to our human short-sightedness. It’s time, methinks, for a new adage: the best gardening in life is free.

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