Building materials Turning one persons trash into your landscaping treasure

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Your first step when trying to minimize your building material inputs is to consider how much hardscape you really need. It isn't necessary to pour a patio big enough to accommodate a wedding reception when you really just need someplace for the family to have dinner. Get into the habit of self-restraint. After deciding how much hardscape you need, determine what you already have that you can use to build it. The first place you should look for materials is in your own backyard. What you have there is free, doesn't need to be transported from elsewhere (burning up fossil fuels in the process), and isn't doing much other than just sitting around.

At first you may think that you don't have anything useful, but I'm willing to bet you do. As you look around your property, make a list of anything that you could possibly transform into a landscape feature. For instance, here are some ideas:

  • Use native stones to build walls, paths, and dry streambeds
  • Harvest undesirable trees for lumber
  • Break up an old patio and turn the pieces into stepping stones

If nothing else, there's always soil, which you can turn into handsome earthen walls, benches, and even toolsheds. Visit Chapter 13 for details.

^ Don't overlook the neighbors' yards. Their so-called trash may be just what you need for your hardscape (and won't they be happy if you clean up their ■ JOJ1 yards for them!). Also, consider reusing things that come from the community's waste stream, such as broken concrete (now called urbanite, a brand-new mineral!), which you can easily turn into a lovely patio or a handsome dry-stacked low retaining wall. Similarly, old timbers on their way to the landfill can be used to build a raised bed or handsome footbridge. There are many ways to hunt down usable waste materials. Develop an eye for what might be salvaged from neighborhood remodels, cleanups, and construction projects. Tap local businesses for surplus materials. Scour craigslist, local classifieds, and bulletin boards. Dumpster dive.

Everything old is new again: Salvaged and reclaimed materials

Salvaged and reclaimed materials are resources that could have been wasted but are instead carefully saved and sold to willing buyers. In certain places, for example, you can buy wood that has been taken out of old barns (with the barn owner's permission, of course). You can also purchase logs dredged up from underwater where they sank a century ago. This lumber isn't cheap, but it's sold at a fraction of what you'd pay for similarly gorgeous old-growth wood (if you could even find it).

If you can't get your hands on used wood, note that modern portable lumber mills are circulating around some communities making usable lumber out of urban trees that have to be cut down for one reason or another. This lumber is sold at retail outlets and is usually advertised locally. Similarly, used bricks can be found in nearly any community; you'll find them advertised in the classified section of the newspaper or online.

^ A search of the Web can often turn up amazingly cool things for sale that you can use to create a one-of-a-kind refuse-chic landscape feature. There are ■ foil even stores around the country that sell used building materials of all kinds.

Most of these are small mom-and-pop operations, but you can also check out the chain of ReStores, which is operated by the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity. Purchases made at a ReStore benefit good works around the world. Visit to find a ReStore near you.

Reincarnation: Recycled content materials

The difference between waste-stream or reclaimed materials and recycled ones is the degree of processing involved. You can use a waste-stream material, such as urbanite, as is, with no special work to make it into something else. It's still just concrete when you're done with it. But a recycled material, such as plastic lumber, goes into a factory as a big load of sticky pop bottles and comes out looking like a 2 x 6. You'd have a hard time guessing what it was made from.

Some people refer to recycling as downcycling or remanufacturing because the end product is so different from the ingredients that went into it. These folks also use this terminology because in most cases you can never take it in the other direction. For example, you couldn't make soda bottles out of old plastic lumber. A few materials, such as aluminum and steel, are truly recyclable.

By using recycled materials, you're having a positive impact on the environment. You're making use of what had once been considered trash, and that reduces the need to cut down trees, strip mine raw materials, and do other environmentally irresponsible things.

Some recycled-content materials, such as plastic lumber, may cost somewhat more than conventional products. Others, like wood chips, are free or available at a very low cost. Refer to Table 2-1 for a list of recycled materials commonly available in most communities.

Table 2-1 Commonly Available Recycled Materials




Fly ash

Added to concrete for paving, footings, and so on

Residue from coal-fired power plants

Landscape ties

Walls, steps, and planters

Plastic reclaimed from old cars

Plastic lumber

Decks, planters, railings, fencing, and furniture

Grocery bags, milk and soda containers, and wood shavings and scraps

Recycled plastic

Composters, pots, other materials, and gadgets

Waste plastic of various kinds

Road base

Sub-base under paving

Ground asphalt and concrete

Wood chips Mulching around plants Tree trimming operations and municipal green waste

Wood chips Mulching around plants Tree trimming operations and municipal green waste

HflNG/ Some recycled materials are controversial. For example, there's concern about crumb rubber that's made of ground up tires and used as mulch, as a base under artificial turf, and in playground mats. Zinc and other chemicals leaching from the rubber can kill plants and permanently toxify soil. The rubber also may be a fire hazard. And of course it stinks to high heaven on a hot day. Similarly, biosolids (treated sewage in common parlance) that are used as fertilizer come from uncontrolled sources that may contain contaminants or toxins. Even wood chips can contain weed seeds and contaminants. Some years ago many areas had a problem with persistent herbicides in municipal compost. The moral of this story? Investigate all claims made for recycled materials.

Taking it easy with low-impact materials

Low-impact materials are those that have been produced using practices that create a minimum of harmful effects on the environment. For instance, you can look for lumber that's been certified by an independent organization as having been sustainably grown and harvested. Such organizations include the Forest Stewardship Council in the United States ( or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (

Here are a few other low-impact considerations:

  • Use straw bale or earthen construction instead of lumber.
  • Grow your own wood or bamboo for a low-impact, ultra-local resource.
  • Substitute high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or galvanized piping for PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Also avoid copper, because it's strip mined.
  • If you must use paints and finishes, choose those that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Low-VOC paints don't emit as many pollutants into the atmosphere.

Protecting the future with renewable materials

Simply put, a renewable resource is one that you can continually get more of. Trees are a renewable resource — you can simply plant more trees. Oil, on the other hand, is not a renewable resource. The amount of oil on the planet today is as much as there will ever be.

By choosing renewable materials, you can ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy them too. Renewable materials are those that come from living sources, because they're the only things that can replicate themselves. Examples include lumber and other wood products, bamboo, straw, animal manures, and organic fertilizers, such as bone meal, fish emulsion, and kelp.

Creating things that last: Heritage materials

A special category of materials includes what I call heritage materials. These materials are produced so they can be reused over and over again as circumstances change. An example is the interlocking concrete paver block systems that are beginning to pop up in driveways all over.

For a long time, I truly hated these systems, mainly because of their lack of aesthetic merits. Then one day I realized that the most important thing about these pavers was the fact that they could be taken up and reused. Your driveway, 40 years from now, could become a neighbor's driveway, and then in a few more decades it could end up in the next block as a patio in the backyard of somebody who hasn't even been born yet.

When you create things that last and make them modular so they can be used again or repurposed, you're doing something very sustainable indeed, because the initial environmental impact can be spread over many decades of use.

The totally cool art of junkscaping

Living off the fat of the land is easy in our world, and it's so satisfying to know that you helped clean up a waste problem, got a material for nothing (or next to nothing), and reduced your demands for new materials — all in one fell swoop. That kind of synergy can really make you grin. The idea of junkscaping is simple: Find something that's headed to the landfill, and then take it home and make it a really cool part of your yard.

The possibilities for junkscaping your yard are endless. In fact, you have so much waste going by your door every day that you simply have no excuse for not building something out of it. Heck, I've seen planter beds edged with bowling balls bought for a dollar or two at the thrift store, a planter made out of old car headlights, lovely bonsai pots made from old truck brake drums, furniture crafted from fallen trees, old patios beautified with artfully inlaid scraps of tile and waste wood, and gorgeous wrought iron work made from old oilfield piping. Used materials often have that funky glow that only old things can provide. Think of them as outdoor antiques.

Where do you find this stuff? On craigslist, freestuff listservs, and Web sites; in classified ads; sitting by the side of the road; at junkyards and used materials stores; in the backs of shopping centers; in dumpsters; and in your neighbor's backyard. Junk is everywhere!

Any durable and movable item — bricks, stones, paving blocks, and segmental retaining walls, for example — could fall into the category of heritage material. The key is understanding the long-term potential of these materials and setting them onto a bed of compacted sand rather than cementing them into place so they can't be reused.

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