Use trash to make vertical garden, plant tags– even furniture!

patio furniture from pallets in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
cork plant tag in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Items that normally might have been thrown away found new uses in a student exhibit in March at Plantasia, Western New York’s premier garden and landscape show.

Aluminum cans became plant tags, coat hangers helped support vining plants and pallets became an A-frame vertical planter and an entire suite of patio furniture!

The exhibit was created by students in the horticulture programs at Niagara County Community College (NCCC) and the adult education program at McKinley High School as well as the day program at McKinley High School.

plant tag from aluminum can lid in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

The exhibit received three awards at Plantasia: the Buffalo Spree Award for Best Landscape, Best Garden in the small garden category and Best use of Water in the small garden category (the exhibit included a hydroponics demonstration).

The first thing that caught my eye in the exhibit were the plant tags. I’m always running out of plant tags, but I hate to buy them for myself because the nice ones tend to be expensive. The small plastic markers are cheaper, but they get knocked over in the winter by wind or rabbits or get pushed out of the ground when the ground freezes. When I go out in the spring to see what I have planted where, the small tag is lying on the ground and I’m not sure what plant it goes with.

The plant tags in this exhibit were clever and cheap and looked like they will be durable.

First we have a simple wine cork stuck on a piece of coat hanger. Write the name of the plant on the cork with permanent marker.

With the second style, you take the lid of an aluminum can, poke a small hole in the lid and thread it onto a shepherd’s hook made of a piece out of a wire coat hanger. The lid gives you a nice, large area to write on– You could include the the date you planted the specimen, the Latin name as well as the common name of the plant, or other helpful information.

aluminum can plant tag in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

I wondered if the marker would rub off the metal, so I tested it at home. While the ink is wet, you can erase it with a quick swipe of your thumb. However, once the ink is dry, you can run water over it and scrub, but that lettering isn’t going anywhere.

My favorite idea, though, was to take the entire can and poke it upside-down into the dirt. Write the name of the plant on the bottom of the can. I liked this idea because that tag can’t get knocked over– It is definitely going to stay put.

Another way you can use coat hangers is as supports for vining plants such as peas.

Tip: Dan Robillard, horticulture teacher at McKinley High School day program and adult education, pointed out that the students mixed in many vegetable plants among the ornamental plants– and it looked lovely!

coat hanger supports for vining vegetables in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Wooden pallets are another material you can reuse in your yard.  Pallets are used to ship merchandise, then they’re discarded. You can get pallets for free at any shopping center. Just go behind the stores where the garbage bins are and you’ll see pallets.

Tip: You can fit three pallets in a Ford Focus at one time. In a previous article, I told you how you can use pallets to build a no-turn compost bin. For that project, my husband and I were able to bring home five pallets in two trips.

vertical garden in pallets in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

It’s important to note that if you want to grow vegetables, fruit or herbs in this A-frame vertical planter or any other planter or raised bed made with pallets, you want to make sure you’re using wood that hasn’t been treated with certain chemicals, noted Joe Leshinsky of Ransomville, a student at NCCC.

In order to prevent the spread of insects that might be living in the wooden pallet (and thereby prevent the spread of invasive species), pallets are treated to kill the insects.

The wood can be treated with heat in a kiln or oven, or it can be treated with a chemical called methyl bromide. When you are growing food, you want wood that is heat treated.

According to this post on Instructables, pallets now need to be stamped to show which method was used to treat the wood. HT indicates heat treatment and MB indicates methyl bromide. The post includes a picture of what the stamp looks like and what each part of the code means.

The A-frame vertical planter was built by the adult students at McKinley with help from some of the high school students and is a simple project.

Simply take two pallets and nail on a brace (a horizontal piece of wood) in two spots to hold them together.

view of pallets as vegetable garden showing brace in Buffalo NY
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Make sure that the part of the pallet with the fewest planks faces out. You can remove some planks, too, said Tom Mitchell, faculty member at McKinley and NCCC.

They then stapled landscape fabric to form pouches to hold the dirt for each row.

The furniture that you see in the photo at the beginning of the story is also a project that a beginner can handle, said Leshinsky, the NCCC student. An accomplished woodworker, he already had experience building Adirondack chairs from standard lumber pieces in his home workshop. He came up with the design for the chairs made from pallets after looking at pictures of similar projects on the Internet.

Leshinsky aimed to keep the pallets intact as much as possible. It’s difficult to pull pallets apart, he said, because the nails that are used in them are like panel pins (sort of like a nail with the ridges of a screw) and are difficult to pull out.

Tip from Leshinsky: Don’t work with cold pallets. When the students retrieved the pallets, the weather was in the high 30s  and the pallets were covered with snow. When they tried to work with the pallets right away, the wood kept splitting. Leshinsky took the wood to his workshop where the temperature was about 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the wood was much easier to work with.

He used a full pallet for the back of the loveseat, seen in the center of the photo at the beginning of this article. The loveseat can accommodate two people. (In the photo, you’ll notice that the loveseat is set into the soil of the garden. That was done simply because there wasn’t enough space in the exhibit to allow it to rest on the ground as the chairs do, he explained.)

closeup of chair made of pallet in WNY
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

He used just over half a pallet for the backs of the chairs.

The most important thing to keep in mind when building the chairs and loveseat are the angles, Leshinsky said. You don’t want the chair back attached to the seat at a straight-up-and-down 90-degree angle– It won’t be comfortable. Tilt the seat back an extra 15 degrees.

The angle of the back legs to the floor is also 15 degrees.

While the chairs were comfortable to sit on while wearing pants, I’m not sure I’d like to sit on them wearing shorts. You could sand down the seat and smooth the edges, Leshinsky said, or drape the chairs with a towel or add cushions.

You can seal the wood or paint the furniture if you choose. Leshinsky thinks the pallet furniture won’t last as long as furniture made from better lumber. He estimates the pallet furniture will last five to seven years and other furniture will last 12 to 15 years.

However, the pallet furniture is much less expensive. He estimated the cost of materials at about $1 per chair for the 16 screws he used.

The parts of the chairs most likely to show wear and tear are the planks on the seats, Leshinsky said. If a plank splits, you can remove it and replace it with a plank from a new pallet, he said.

More tips from Leshinsky:

  • Drill pilot holes before attempting to nail or screw the pieces together. This will help prevent the wood from splitting.
  • Take out nails before trying to saw the wood. If you hit a nail with a power saw, sparks will fly and it’s not safe. Wear safety glasses. Whether you’re using power tools or a hand saw, hitting a nail can ruin your saw.
  • A Wonder Bar (a brand name of a crow bar) can be helpful.

Other faculty members involved with the exhibit included Carolyn Stanko of NCCC and Ron Callea, high school teacher at McKinley.

Photos by Connie Oswald Stofko

21 Comments on “Use trash to make vertical garden, plant tags– even furniture!

  1. Use clear nail polish over the labels to keep ink/marker from fading/washing out. Clear spray would also work 🙂 Great idea with the mini blinds!

  2. Just talked to Buffalo ReUse and they said they do classes. As soon as they send me the information, I’ll add it to the Upcoming Events Page.

  3. I wish that our recycling ‘stores’ offered free classes in how to repurpose and give new life to cast offs.

  4. I’m glad you enjoy the ideas. It’s easy to present cool ideas when you’re surrounded by creative people. A note to my other readers: Charlie is from Seattle; there’s no recycling class this weekend (that I know of) in Western New York.

  5. I will use old plant markers from the nursery and use duck tape and make a new front & back, though the sun does fade the writing over time.
    What great ideas for pallets. I have an idea of using them as a vertical growing ladder for polebeans, morning glory, sweet peas, etc. Never tried it but, perhaps I will! They could also be a summertime ‘shade’ for say, lettuces and parsley that like some shade in high summer.
    Thanks for great ideas.

  6. I think a tomato soup can would look cool as a marker for a tomato plant. The label would peel off eventually, but it should last one season. You’d know what you had to look forward to!

  7. I like the idea of using empty cans to label your vegetables in the garden. Why not use an empty can of tomatoes or tomato soup for the tomato plants – empty can of peas for your garden peas, etc….

  8. The problem with plastic markers is the permanent markings fade or disappear over winter. I have a lot of blank tags and no idea what to expect when they bloom. Of course that just makes it interesting when I have that “oh yes” moment.

  9. What great ideas! I guess if you have one set of broken mini-blinds, you’d have a lifetime supply of construction material. The milk jugs and yogurt containers give you a small but steady supply.

  10. I cut labels for my seedlings from yogurt cups, or milk jugs if I want a bigger label. I don’t have a source for the mini blinds I hear about people using, but I consume lots of milk and yogurt.

  11. Love the idea of using pallets to create outdoor furniture!

    I use old mini blind slats to make plant marker. They are easy to cut with household scissors and no sharp edges. You can get hundreds of plant markers from one mini blind.

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