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Are you generating a lot of garden waste? Having to pay to get rid of it? Instead become a more sustainable gardener by reducing and reusing the “waste”.

wheelbarrows filled with garden debris

Whether it is leaves, dead plant material, branches or plastic bags from amendments and soil, gardening generates a lot of “waste”. Especially in fall when you are cleaning up and preparing for winter and in spring when you are cleaning up from a stormy winter.

But it doesn’t have to be considered waste if you find other uses for it in the garden. 

So if you desire to be a more sustainable gardener, read on for some tips on how to reuse and recycle what could be considered waste.

Leaves

sweeping up leaves

Every fall I see homeowners haul all of their leaves to the curb for pickup or stuff them into bags and bring them away. Even more amazing is that they then go out and buy expensive mulch and amendments.

Leaves are a great carbon source and mulch for all of your plants and planting beds. The simplest way to deal with leaves is to leave them where they are or rake them off the lawn onto flower beds and vegetable beds.

As I live in a very wet climate (fall, winter and early spring), the leaves I leave on the ground become wet and slimy. This poses a safety issue when walking around the garden as these leaves are very slippery underfoot! Plus we then get issues with the plants in our beds getting too wet and having rot and disease issues and attracting slugs and snails.

So instead of leaving them, I rake them up and put them into one of my unused compost bins. In just a few short days they compact down a bit and I can keep adding more until the bin is full. If my bin overflows I then make a temporary bin from some chicken wire or hardware cloth secured with stakes.

In the spring and early summer, the leaves have broken down a bit into a rich leaf mulch or mould as it is sometimes called. These then go directly on my vegetable beds and help reduce weed germination and keep the soil cooler and damper during the dry part of the summer. In the spring I then dig the remaining leaves under as an amendment.

Plant material and spoiled fruit

spoiled fruit

If you are not already composting, you really should start. It is not as difficult as you may think and it has such lasting benefits in your garden, it is worth the little bit of effort it takes to have a successful compost pile.

By composting all of your plant material and spoiled fruit, you are generating what is called “black gold”. Compost is rich in nutrients, beneficial organisms and can change the texture of your soil.

It is easy to collect your kitchen scraps (no meat, dairy or bread or anything cooked if you don’t want to attract rodents) in a bucket and then empty it. Occasionally you may want to give the compost a stir and turn. I like using my Wingdigger turning tool.

Otherwise the only real effort will be to turn your compost and sift it to use it in your garden.

Weed seeds and invasive plants

weed seeds

These usually should not be composted, unless your compost can get hot enough to kill these seeds and plants. The last thing you want when you use your compost is an infestation of weeds!

However you can solarize these in black plastic bags or under a black tarp. Let the sun does it’s work of raising the temperature in the bags high enough to kill the weed seeds and render the invasive plant material incapable of regrowing. Then the contents can be put on the compost to further decompose.

If you have a municipal green waste bin, you can use that for weed seeds and invasives, although check to ensure that is allowed. Municipal/commercial composting facilities use hot composting. They deal with tons of compostable material and the interior of their piles gets extremely hot! And they regularly turn their compost piles with large frontend loaders to get all of the material into the centre of the pile to cook.

Branches

branches pile

If you have fruit trees or ornamental trees you will generate some branches that either break off in high winds or that you prune off.

You can of course bring these branches to your municipal drop-off location or leave them on the curb for pickup.

However to keep them on your property, you have a couple of options.

You can shred or chip them using a portable chipper. There are both gas-powered and electric powered models. I have an electric-powered model that I am quite happy with and it does the job with no stinky exhaust so it is more sustainable. I use the resulting mulch on my flower beds, vegetable beds and around my fruit trees.

Or you can allow them to dry thoroughly and use them in your wood stove, fireplace or pizza oven. The small twigs are great for starting the fire and the large ones can get it going hot enough to add on the large logs.

Plastic bags

plastic bags

Ideally you wouldn’t need to bring in soil, mulch or amendments from outside. You could generate enough soil through composting and plant green manures and cover crops.

But especially when you are first starting out with growing the garden, you need to provide some external inputs. These soils and amendments usually come in plastic bags although you can also get bulk deliveries if you need a lot.

Unfortunately this generates waste. However there are some uses for the bags once they are empty:

  • Store compost or leaves, either to break down or when finished to store for later use
  • A liner for wood planter boxes to save them from rotting prematurely
  • A smock for when you do some messy work in the garden
  • A liner for a pail to keep the pail clean
  • Cut open and used as a weed block under mulch for heavily invested areas. Keep in mind that the area won’t drain well after a rain or watering and putting drain holes in the plastic defeats the purpose so this is a temporary solution just until the weed problem has been eradicated.
  • Cut into thin strips and use to tie up plants to stakes or trellises (leave them loose though so the ties don’t choke the growing plants)

Other “waste”

broken pot

You will generate other waste than what I’ve covered so far. Things such as seed packets, string, containers from liquid fertilizers, broken pots and seeding trays, smaller plastic bags, etc.

First step is to try and reuse. I won’t go into great details here but with a bit of imagination, you can reuse almost anything.

If your municipality has recycling programs, use those where possible. Ensure any items are clean especially pots and trays as most programs don’t take dirty items.

And consider reducing. Buy your seeds in large packets if you find yourself buying the same seeds every year. Most seeds are viable for at least 2-3 years if kept dry and cool. Or save your own seeds so you don’t need to buy them (that is cheaper too!). And take care of your pots and seed trays so they don’t break or consider buying sturdier ones that will last a longer time.


As you can see it is relatively easy to deal with your garden waste on site and become a more sustainable gardener. It is the first step in my opinion if you want to switch to a permaculture or homesteading approach to gardening.

So think before you buy and before you throw something away and you will help to contribute to a more sustainable future for all of us. Please leave a comment if you have any other tips on how to deal with waste in a sustainable manner.

If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.

Wishing you all the best!

Marc Thoma Signature

Marc Thoma

Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC

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Marc Thoma

Marc is the founder of Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead. He has more than 15 years gardening experience and is working steadily on creating his own urban homestead, trying to be more self-sufficient by growing most of his own vegetables and fruit.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Marc, this is an excellent article. Lots of good information and ideas here. Another alternative to composting is bokashi. Do you have that in Canada? It is an enzyme mix which you sprinkle over your food scraps every time you add them to your bokashi bin. Over time the food “pickles” then you bury it in the garden to break down. The bin is two large buckets. The inner one has holes in the bottom for liquid, which forms as the food pickles, to drain into the outer bucket. I find that if I compost food scraps I get rats coming into the heap. Also there are so many scraps you shouldn’t compost which are okay to put in a bokashi bin like cooked food and citrus peels. Finally, you can dilute the liquid and use it as a plant food. One downside, though. You have to bury the scraps in quite a deep trench, otherwise I’ve found that birds will scratch them up.

    1. Thanks Lyn for your feedback.

      Yes, we do have bokashi here in Canada and I have been tempted to give it a try. I also want to try setting up a worm bin with my daughter as I’d love to have the castings as a fertilizer.

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