The Dry Garden: Holiday tidings, trimmed in recycled wood

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My hand aches. My back aches. There is no end of aching in sight. But as Thanksgiving approaches, gratitude runs deep. I am thankful for a remarkably generous rain year, for California poppies, for sunflowers, local horse-stable manure so good that the guy who composts it calls it “craptonite,” for the bare-root plum tree that turned out to be a quince, for lemon-soaked quince wedges in stir fries, for the inventor of ibuprofen. This year, above all, I’m thankful for the things that I used to throw away.

The green bin system that picks up garden trimmings, processes them and then gives away finished compost is a wonder of efficiency. A California model developed to divert lawn clippings from landfill is now used across the country. Yet the very people who run it would be the first to agree that in the long arc that is learning how to garden, the ultimate goal is recycling without trucks.


In a modern, urban context, this goal starts with keeping less lawn and composting the clippings you do have. Municipal haulers would love us to keep back fall leaves too.

My latest discipline has been to reuse small wood from pruning jobs. It’s been harder than expected. Dealing with sharp sticks is an order of magnitude more difficult than composting the soft stuff. Woody stalks, branches and vines do not break down anywhere near as readily as leaves or grass in compost. Carelessly tossed in a compost bin, they can turn the pile into a mixing bowl full of daggers. But their applications are so numerous and so useful, this year all I want from Santa is a sharpener for my hand pruners.

Before embarking on a paen to the wonders of twig management, a proviso: Any thorny wood should go in a grinder or green bin. Ditto brittle and craggy deadwood from citrus or roses. Anything that might be diseased should go only in the green bin. Municipal composters cook their waste piles at a temperature that kill pathogens; home piles often don’t. But for small wood -- sunflower stalks, grapevines, bamboo, low-hanging tree branches -- recycling can be not only fun, but beautiful. Have a plan as you trim any branchlets, old leaves and nubs. Do you want trellising for next year’s tomatoes? A small border for a wildflower planting to keep out kids and dogs? A medium border to protect a salad garden? A fence? A rustic gate? Will the longest pieces make a good tee-pee building project for kids while you cook a turkey?

The small amount of time that it takes to trim and then triage small wood into long, medium and short lengths is nothing compared to struggling through a garden center with crummy stapled trellising.

If you keep small wood this season, do it neatly. Stack or tie it. Have it sorted, groomed and stored in a timely fashion. Only leave it in a rough pile if you have booked a tree trimmer who can put it in a grinder and reduce it to mulch. Otherwise you are creating a dump. Remember: The path to a starring role in “Hoarders” is paved with good intentions.

On that note, happy Thanksgiving, fellow gardeners. Happy recycling. Happy gardening.



Garbage Maven: household waste and recycling

A year in L.A.’s community gardens

A modern native garden

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays.