Growing up in the rural Midwest, and being a child not unlike millions of others with a more selective than exploratory palette, I was reminded most evenings while trying to escape the dinner table of the countless less fortunate, starving children who wished daily and in earnest for a meal like the one I had just been served. Gratitude was an important virtue to my mother and she had no qualms about using guilt to cultivate a thankful attitude in her children. My mother is a remarkable woman.
Her socially-conscious reminder fell on sensitive ears and the result is a waste-sensitive country girl who will find a fix or a new purpose for just about anything before it gets hauled away in the trash. Especially non-meat food scraps, which are repurposed into compost and are integral in my efforts to restore nutrients to the soil in my garden. What food scraps we have, that is. Clean plates are encouraged, of course. Finding a use for potato peels and carrot tops is a good place to start in an effort to reduce waste, but it is only the beginning of the creative process of turning trash into treasure.
A Sunday drive through the country can supply all the repurposing inspiration you need if there are items laying unemployed around the homestead. For example, you will find at least one antique farm implement transformed into a stylish and functional replacement for a standard, boring old mailbox post. Rural dwellers can be quite creative when it comes to mailbox décor. Old driftwood, antler sheds, or metal pipes can adorn the post; I once saw a box and post covered entirely in marbles. Seashells and stones are popular as well. Another old standby is mosaic, which can be made out of old broken colored glass, dishware, or extra tile. Another common theme is climbing flowers or ivy, but there is a different way to add a living element to your curbside mail receptacle while using what would otherwise go out with the rubbish. The best way to do this I’ve seen is by using self-tapping screws to attach a plain old metal mailbox to the top of a bent-and-not-so-sturdy-anymore galvanized or painted metal step ladder, and then adding potted plants to the steps on each side. I saw one once with Minutemen Hostas planted all around the base and every color imaginable in the flowers stepping up to the box.
No need to make a special trip to town for flower pots though; just about everything you have purchased before came in a container, and almost anything will hold a bouquet, from a hollowed-out log to plain plastic buckets. This is where a splash of paint can make all the difference in the world. If you already know that you’ll be planting lavender in that old coffee can, paint the outside of that repurposed can a vibrant orange or yellow for contrast. For a more uniform, elegant, and versatile look, paint all the containers you plan to use black, white, or green. The pinks, purples, yellows, whites, and reds of any bloom will look stunning against the simplest painted repurposed canister. A favorite planter, of course, is the old worn-out tractor tire.
By way of saving mailboxes from the doldrums, I once saw a collection of various types mounted to a recessed entryway wall. Some of the vessels held mail, of course, but some held books and other collectibles altogether. Several of the boxes were lined up on a shelf with the doors fixed in the open position and hooks attached to hold coats and bags. Gloves and hats were kept in the boxes themselves. When considered for alternate uses, the mailbox is a genius container. Flat on the bottom makes for easy mounting to deck posts if one were inclined to hang them there for holding small outdoor toys or gardening hand-tools or yet again, foliage. A spare box can be kept near the hearth for keeping those old newspapers and kindling to burn. If you are the crafty or handy sort, mount the bottom or back of the boxes to the wall in your workshop for your larger tools like hammers, flashlights, silk flowers, scrap fabric, or paintbrushes.
Storage is highly important in any home, indoors and out, large and small. Just as valuable in my experience is any flat, horizontal surface which can support any amount of weight greater than its own. Older farmhouses can be found lacking in both areas, and newer homes seem to sacrifice these necessities as well in favor of bright, open floor plans. The brilliant homesteader can combine the two and become the example of style and efficiency.
Plain wooden crates, much like old junky mailboxes, have limitless potential for repurposing and no homesteader can be shamed for hoarding dozens of them. They can have solid or slatted sides and may or may not display some corporate logo or agricultural insignia which may be current or vintage. If the motif is not vintage and you prefer an aged look, just take a bit of sandpaper to it or apply a thin coat of watered down, water-based paint with a dry brush. If you are so lucky to have four or six of the same size and shape, turn them on their sides and arrange them in a rectangular shape in front of the sofa. Carefully place an old door or large framed window atop the side-turned crates and you’ve created a rustic, country, home-spun coffee table. And when your family stashes their shoes, reading materials, and toys under the table, they will find that they have been cleverly tricked into storing these items in appropriate containers. For a more feminine than rustic feel, a table like this is easily skirted. A large tablecloth transforms into a good skirt, or a nice, heavy-weight bed sheet. Place the fabric under the table-top and let it drape over the sides of the crates to conceal the treasures within. If you are skilled at utilizing your sewing machine you can pleat the skirt for a more deliberate feel, or attach rope or ribbon at the hem.
Once you’ve perfected your shabby chic crate-box drapery and replaced the tabletop, take a moment and try to remember where you put that old wire dish-drainer you picked up for a dime at that yard sale in town. When you find it, you’ll find that it will repurpose perfectly as a remote control/TV guide/magazine holder. Gather up some wildflowers for the wine bottle you saved from your anniversary and artfully situate your homemade beeswax candles and you’ve created a beautiful focal point in the family room for zero dollars. The benefit of finding a use for items that previously lay idle is priceless and exceptionally rewarding.
When you run out of horizontal space on which to store your goodies, the only way to go is up. Imagine stacked nesting boxes as opposed to sky-scrapers. This always makes me think of the bathroom. My house has one bathroom; thankfully it is a pretty good-sized one. It would not matter, though, if I knocked down all the walls and doubled its size, there would not be near enough storage in there. Somehow over the years, try as I might to keep things simple and streamlined, the items I find necessary in the bathroom multiplies uncontrollably. Solution: repurpose a salvaged porch railing. Such a rail hung sideways makes the perfect towel rack. Stair rails can be made to perform the same function with minor alterations. If you get two sections of discarded porch railing, you can use large S-hooks to hang robes and canvas or burlap sacks for storage of the things you use most often.
While visiting a friend down the road one day, I discovered a nifty improvisation in her powder room. She had mounted plant basket hangers on the wall next to her claw-foot tub and hung an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. It held everything she needed: shampoo, body wash, hand towel, and even a Mason jar full of bath salts. There is another unusual item brought in from the yard some folks use in the lavatory that I find clever, if impractical: the bird bath. Set next to the tub, a dainty birdbath keeps ready your pretty homemade soaps and bath salts, your loofah, and your pretty needle-point adorned towel.
It seems most of my more useful re-born items come from outdoors. While raking away a bit of frost on Valentine’s Day this year to spread my leaf lettuce seeds, I unearthed a small portion of cut chicken-wire. It was filthy and covered in rust, but I have an intense aversion to wasting chicken wire (almost more so than food scraps.) So, in the garden bucket it went. When I got it back into the barn and cleaned it up, I chastised myself for picking it up at all. What on Earth was I going to do with a five inch by seven-inch scrap of chicken wire? And who cut a piece that small anyway? And why was it laying in the lettuce bed and not busy doing what it was cut for? Later that night the thing happened that always happens when a girl wants to look her best for a nice dinner in town. I couldn’t find the match to one of my pretty dangly earrings. The next day I spray painted that chicken wire and wrapped the edges around a fabric-covered 4″x6″ cardboard cut-out and slipped the concoction into a photo frame that had the glass broken out years ago. Brand new dangly-earring-holder and handy use for scrap wire all in one.
My grandmother used newspaper to line her cupboards. My aunt hung an old metal soup ladle at her kitchen door to catch the whatnots that came out of her pockets as she came and went. Another aunt bent the heads of mismatched forks and spoons, mounted them on her kitchen wall, and used them as decorative hooks for her aprons and tea towels. I have a small deer shed suspended at my door to hang keys on, and a larger shed hung next to it on a support beam to hang up jackets. I have lined chipped terra cotta pots with coordinating fabric scraps and used them to keep utensils in. Our curtain rods are made from old copper piping and contrast beautifully against blue walls and pine window frames. We have what were once sliding glass doors turned on their sides and used as windows to look out over the pond. My better half used his genius imagination and/or logic and turned an oversized dog house into a raised chicken coop, a wooden crate lid to make their ramp, and large portions of fencing to make their run. He did it in one day and didn’t spend a nickel.
I’m proud to say that our microwave is older than I am, but I am one of few. One day, the lounge microwave stopped working in my old office. Someone was designated to take office cash and go purchase a new one that evening. The new microwave cost less than a box of copy paper, and no one cared why the old one had broken, it went in the trash. This incident upset me so much that years later I’m still telling the story. Our instant-fix, instant-gratification, instant-everything society has put us in a state of planned obsolescence. We have been conditioned to throw everything away and buy new for all of our wants and needs. We are a land of consumers, not investors.
In my pursuit of a more holistic, “zero-waste” life I feel I have gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence and personal strength. As gardeners, we learn to appreciate the land, soil, and effort that goes into making food out of seed. The animals on our homesteads teach us about caring for all that we’ve been charged with. Keeping healthy critters means keeping a healthy farm, which means living a healthy life. These caretaking measures preoccupy our daily thoughts and the chores become a day-by-day ritual. They create a lifestyle that is good for us as individuals and families; it is also good for the whole world to create less total waste.
There is no better therapy, no better cure for those searching for a bigger meaning to life than waking up early and feeding and watering the animals before coming in to make a big breakfast of homegrown bacon and eggs with fresh-from-the-oven bread and butter from the churn. Even better for me is knowing that there is no vacuum-sealed packaging going into the trash for this breakfast. No Styrofoam egg cartons will journey from my kitchen to the landfill. The only evidence left to prove we consumed anything at all are the eggshells and coffee grounds added to the top of my compost heap, and the extra space in the landfill.