Welcome to the renters guide to sustainable gardening, full of cheap and cheerful ideas, projects and actions that will help make your little piece of (rented) paradise an urban oasis! Landlord friendly, wallet friendly and planet friendly, this series of articles will help you garden sustainably on a budget, without losing your bond. So let’s get into it! Our first article looks at cool containers and top notch pots, and some spiffing ideas for impermanent gardens.

A Garden Full of Pot(s)

Great for vegie and herb growing, pots allow you a moveable feast, meaning that when the lease is up, you don’t have to give the plants up. Problem is, glazed and terracotta pots can be pricey, especially if you need a few of them, and plastic pots can be… .well… ugly! So, what’s to be done? Never fear, the SGA Super Saver Fairy is here! And the word for the week is scrounge…

Glazed and Confused

First stop… the local pot shop. Have a look in their seconds area, or even ask them if they have some gear they are throwing away. You’d be amazed how much decent stuff gets marked down to virtually nothing in garden centres and pot retailers, and what little gems you can find. Cracked and broken pots should be snapped up, cause, as we all know, no-one is perfect. Cracks and chips can be turned to the back, and pots broken in half can be excellent vessels for trailing plants (like, oregano, thyme, and strawberries). Do look out for massive pot clearance sales, as you can often pick up some unbelievable bargains here also.

Be aware though that some glazed and terracotta pots can have huge environmental footprints, and may not be the most sustainable solution!

Next place to visit… the local tip! Now, I know this may not be the most appealing idea, but let me assure you that tips have seriously grown up since I was a little tacker! These places are amazing now, and you would be astounded at the range of gardening gear you can pick up at the tip for next to nix! Think pots, sleepers, containers, sinks (if you find a cheap kitchen sink… grab it!!), bits of wire and shade cloth, stakes, ornaments, lattice… whatever you think you could work into your garden. Just check out the photo to the right to see what can be collected from a tip in just one (cheap) trip. And you’re pulling stuff out of landfill, going for the full reuse, reclaim, recycle on hard rubbish… super sustainable and cheerfully cheap!

Fantastic Plastic

Now, where ever you happen to see a plastic pot, regardless of size, grab it… these guys are so useful in the garden for a whole host of things that I just can’t go past them. You’ll often see these just hanging round on footpaths and by rubbish bins… grab them! Have a look at your garden centre too… the really big ones are perfect for miniature fruit trees (a renters dream), and can be pretty cheap. But, they can look really ordinary, so, read on, we have a couple of solutions.

The thing with plastic pots, is that they are enormously versatile, and the bulk of them end up in landfill. So hang on to them… you’ll be amazed what you can use them for – storage, moving soil, mini worm farms, raising seeds, striking cuttings, making scarecrows… the list is endless. Plastic pots can be painted (with non-toxic acrylic based paints), and you will find this a totally rewarding and garden enhancing project! They can look fantastic, so why not head down to the hardware, grab a stash of “mis-tints” (these are the colours that didn’t quite work, and get sold off cheaply) or sample pots, and get painting! If you happen to own (or can borrow) a hot glue gun, you can “draw” some designs on the pot before painting… they look amazing, and give your boring old plastic pots some real life!

The other thing you can do with plastic pots is disguise them. I have done this with eight large plastic pots growing miniature fruit trees at my place, and they look tops! It’s simple… place your planted pots in the appropriate space in the backyard, grab some wide plastic trellis mesh, a couple of stakes and a bale of pea straw. Wrap the mesh around the pot, leaving about an inch gap between the pot and the mesh, attach the stakes to the mesh and hammer them in. Then, simply chop off any excess mesh width and stuff the area between the mesh and the pot with pea straw. Use the left over pea straw to mulch the pot plant. The result is a really rustic looking, permanent appearing pot disguise, for the princely some of about $10 a pot (including the pot!). Check out the pic to get a fair idea of what it will look like! It also insulates the pots and stops it heating up and damaging the delicate young plant roots.

If you can track them down, polystyrene fruit boxes are great in the garden… all you need to do is punch a couple of pencil sized holes in the bottom, and you are away. These can also be painted, and look top notch as an edge for a garden bed, or around an entertaining or sitting area. They are deep enough to grow a whole host of perennials, annuals and edibles, so why not give it a go? They also make excellent worm farms, potato pits or storage boxes for the shed. Ask at your local fruit shop or market, they generally just toss them out.

Keep it Clean!!!

If you’re anything like me, I despise cleaning, but this is really important. If you’ve grabbed some used pots from the tip, hard rubbish, the local op shop or wherever, it’s really important to give them a good old clean out before you plant into them. Ideally, soil should not be bought into the property, as it seriously increases the risk of soil borne pathogens, viruses, diseases and bugs attacking your precious plants. To clean pots, first brush them clean (an old dish brush is perfect), over some old newspaper so you can wrap up the suspect soil and chuck it in the green waste bin. Follow this up by rinsing the pots in warm, soapy water (some people add a thimble full of bleach). You’ll need to use a bit of elbow grease on terracotta and glazed pots.

Raising Babies

Thrifty and experienced gardeners know that they get the best value – just by growing plants from seeds. Lazy, broke gardeners (I’m talking about myself here) know the costs can begin to add up if you need to purchase tiny seed raising pots to get you started. But, solutions are at hand, and they cost you nothing!! Firstly, egg cartons make awesome seed raising trays, just pop your seeds in, and leave them in a warm, sunny, humid place (the bathroom windowsill is a top spot). Once your babies are big enough, cut up the tray into the twelve individual sections, moisten well (including the egg carton base) and just plant them out.

The other option for seed raising, and raising cuttings, is to make newspaper pots. Now, there are a couple of ways of going about this, but my favourite is the “beer bottle/tabloid paper” pot, because it’s dead simple and I always have the necessary components. The beauty of these types of seed raising pots is that they can be planted straight into the ground or container… so no risk of damaging the roots when transplanting! No issues with the newspaper ink either… Australian newspapers use vegetable based inks in their printing process, so it’s safe, and sustainable!

It’s all about position!

Here is a hot tip… containers look best when they’re grouped together. It has a greater visual impact, cuts down on watering, creates some mini biodiversity and means you don’t have to walk so far to enjoy a plethora of plants. Group plants that require similar levels of watering together, bearing in mind that plants in terracotta pots will dry out a bit faster than others. I always try to keep my ‘frequently nibbled upon’ edibles by the kitchen door, as they are more likely to be used and monitored there. Stick some pretty stuff further out in the (beer) garden or barbeque area, remembering to whack some incredible edibles in these pots as well. Why not experiment with some mosquito repellant plants (like citronella, geranium, rosemary and lemongrass) in an area where you like to sit during the warmer months.

Pick Your Plants

There is a massive range of plants that can be grown in pots, but, I reckon if you really want to save money, and make the most of your space, grow as many edibles as you can. This is seriously sustainable, and the initial outlay for potting mix, compost and accessories will be well and truly be offset by the amount of money you save buying household vegies, herbs and fruit. Growing your own food at home also reduces your carbon footprint (less trips to the shops, less packaging), and saves you stacks of time. So, heres a selection of super tasty plants for pots:

Vegies: Tomatoes, spring onions, silver beet, baby carrots, capsicums, lettuces, rocket, chilli, eggplants, spinach, Asian greens and beetroot.

Herbs: Coriander, parsley, basil, mint, chives, curry plants bay tree, Vietnamese mint, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary and lemon grass.

Fruit: Dwarf citrus trees, Tahitian Limes, Pepino, Fejoia, Ballerina Dwarf Apples, guava, olives, strawberries and dwarf stone fruits (like peaches and nectarines)

Oh, and remember, plant what you like to eat, and cook with. There is no point taking up valuable real estate and resources with edibles you don’t enjoy or won’t use.

Watering

Water… I must say, this precious resource has caused numerous issues in my series of shabby share houses; from “whose turn is it to wash the dishes”, to “who turned on the hot water tap while I was in the shower”, “why is the bathroom flooded”, to “who didn’t fill up the water jug”, the list goes on. Water is a deadset luxury, especially in the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and we have to learn to manage it more effectively, both globally, locally and in our own little patch of rented real estate. Problem is, this can be easier said than done, especially where water restrictions and lackadaisical landlords are concerned. So, let’s have a look at some affordable water saving tips, tricks and techniques that will allow us renters to have our garden and water it too!

Have You Ever Seen The Rain?

Alright, I know there is a whole heap of this great big land that is seriously lacking in the rain department at the moment, but when it does come (and I’m sure it will!) we need to be ready to capture as much of it as we can. You see, while it may be irregular, it is a good, clean source of water for the garden, and just about every rented residence can capture and store a fair whack of water. Now, unless your landlord is a saint or an eco-minded property manager, it is fairly unlikely you are going to get a water tank installed. And who would blame them… the government rebates are very ordinary in most parts of Australia and are hardly an incentive to put in a tank for a mob of renters! But, never fear, the SGA Water Fairy is here… prepare to be dazzled at how you can save dough and H2O.

Where’s ya bin?

Converting a wheelie bin into a rainwater tank is one of my favourite methods of collecting rainwater, and, while it’s not free, it is effective. Most garden related retail outlets now sell wheelie bins in a variety of sizes and guises, and my hot tip would be shop around for a good deal. With a little bit of work and a couple of fittings, these bins can be a great little water storer. Loads of decent retail outlets will actually fit these bins out for you (complete with basket filter and tap fittings at the base). But if you are up for a wee challenge, see the end of this page to learn how to build one yourself from scratch!

Create a Diversion

Okay, this is all well and good, but how does the water actually get into the bin. Again, you’ll probably have to spend a wee bit of cash, but the beauty of most of these devices is that they are cheap, and you can take them with you when you move. The best option would be a downpipe diverter. Available in round or square to suit a variety of tenements, these guys require a small section of the downpipe to be removed, and the diverter slipped into the gap. Keep the removed section to enable you to replace it when your lease is up (this will avoid a mad panic on pack up day!). Generally they require a small length of garden hose to be attached to a supplied tap fitting, and can be turned on and off as required. They range in cost from $15 right up to about $35, but I reckon they are definitely worth it. What to look for in a rainwater diverter… measure up before you go a-shopping, and don’t try to fit a square diverter in a round hole (or something like that!).

Use Your Grey Matter

Now, let’s talk all things greywater. I know we have done this a few times on this astounding website, but it is important to rehash a couple of things. Greywater is water from your shower, bath and laundry. It does not include water collected when the taps are warming up, or water collected in a bucket from washing your fruit and vegies. Both of these types of water have no detergents and soaps in them, and are therefore not included in the following do’s and don’ts. Pay close attention to the following:

  • Untreated greywater must never be stored for any longer than 24hours… ever!!!!
  • Untreated greywater and vegie patches DO NOT MIX!!!!! Edible plants (with the exception of fruit trees) should never be watered with untreated greywater.
  • Don’t let children, pets, partners or random strangers play in or drink greywater… its disgusting!
  • Untreated Greywater must be dispersed via subsurface irrigation (that is, in the soil, or on top of soil and under mulch).

For an amazingly comprehensive and important list of do’s and don’ts with greywater, check out our Greywater page.

There are a number of ways renters can collect and divert their greywater, and by far the best method is to use buckets. Every shower in every house (rented or otherwise) should have a bucket to collect warm-up water. You would be amazed how much clean, fresh water you can collect every time you bathe, and this water is perfect for veggies, herbs and pot plants. Why not splurge and buy an additional bucket for the kitchen sink, and wash your fruit and veg in it. This water can then be used in the same way, as it is clean and free of soaps, detergents and nasties.

Diversionary Tactics

Unlike a lot of things, you get what you pay for with greywater diverters. While a $10 black rubber funnel diverter may seem like a bargain, it may lead to tears. You see, these guys have the unfortunate habit of back flowing, generally into your (rented) laundry! Yup, it’s bad news all round, so think carefully about you choice of diverter. For a full wrap up of greywater diversion options, click here.

Remember, loads of greywater (and rainwater) systems need to be installed by a licensed plumber and can be a bit out of the price range of the average renter, so it may be worth checking with your landlord, and seeing if you can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement regarding greywater.

General Water Saving Tips for Renters

While we have discussed a few different methods of collecting water, there are some really simple actions we can all undertake to minimise how much water we use in the garden.

    • Give grass the arse… unless of course you have pets or small children who need a bit of time on the turf. Lawns can be really thirsty, and many parts of Australia under water restrictions do not allow the watering of turf at any time. Laundry water is a pretty good way of keeping turf chugging along, but remembers, the irrigation has to be sub-surface!
    • Grouping plants according to water requirements saves both precious H2O, and time.
    • For goodness sake, get the old soil moisture tester out and see if the garden actually needs a drink before irrigating. The best soil moisture tester of all is a finger, and most of us have at least one of those we can use.

  • Add organic matter to the soil, and use mulch. This increases the water holding ability of the soil, and the mulch will reduce evaporation considerably.
  • Weed… it’s rewarding, and reduces the competition for water between the stuff you want and the stuff you don’t.
  • Water the roots, not the leaves.

So there you have it… a few water and cash saving suggestions for savvy, sustainable renters who love the garden…..but I know there are some fantastic ideas out there. While I do claim in the office (and, evidently, on my resume) to be all knowing (especially about things soil and water), I am constantly amazed by the ideas and ingenuity some of my fellow renters and gardeners come up with.

Building Your Bin

So, here’s how to do it. Grab a bin, then head down to your local SGA garden centre and ask them very nicely for a rectangular plastic seedling tray (most nurseries are generally pretty happy to throw one your way). While you’re there, check out the irrigation department, and pick up a 20mm (3/4) tank adaptor (Picture 1), 20mm ball joint tap (Picture 2) and a 3/4 sprinkler adaptor (Picture 3). All up, this should cost you about $15.00 – $20.00, and this is seriously all you need to rig up your bin.

Take all this gear home, grab a drill and a hacksaw (or electric jigsaw) and get to work. First up, lay the seedling tray upside down on the lid of the bin, and draw around the outside. Using your preferred cutting device, protective gloves and some fine motor skills, cut around the outline. Better to go too small rather than too big. The idea is here that the seedling tray will sit fairly snugly (the right way up) in the lid of the bin, and will act as a great little water filter. Once this is done, lay the bin on it’s back, and on the front drill a hole as close to the base as possible. Make sure it’s a snug fit for the threaded tank adaptor. I stress snug, otherwise we will have leakage! Crawl inside the bin and fit the tank adaptor, so that the long threaded section is to the outside of the bin. (You may have to persuade your housemates to assist at this point.) Screw this up nice and tight… very important again to prevent water wastage. Once this has been fitted, stand the bin back up, and whack the ball joint tap onto the thread of the tank adaptor, and then screw the sprinkler adaptor into the end of the tap. Now you have yourself a great water catchment unit!

Now, there are a couple of tips here: firstly, you will not be able to wheel the bin when it is full, so don’t even try. One litre of water ways one kilo, so a full bin can be upwards of 100 kilos. As buff as I am, there is no way known to man I could move one of these guys, so think carefully about placement before allowing it to fill. Secondly, filtration is the key, so be sure to track down a bin that has some sort of basket type filter at the top.

Unless you need to move the water uphill, you shouldn’t need a pump. The “head pressure” in the bin should be sufficient to see the water disperse fairly well, either through a standard hose, porous hose or dripper. However, without a pump, when you’re watering, you will notice that the water will disperse more rapidly close to the bin and begin to slow down as you move further from the bin. You can fill buckets and watering cans from the bin and water by hand… it’s a great way to build impressive muscles, and put the water where it is needed most.

Pic 1: 20mm Tank Adaptor
Pic 2: 3/4 Inch Sprinkler Adaptor
Pic 3: 20mm Ball Valve Tap