As seen in: Issue 19

Upcycling In and Out of the Garden

Upcycling is the repurposing of an old, unwanted, broken item, or it’s by-products or wastage into a brand new product, usually with a brand new purpose, making it more desirable, and giving it higher environmental value than it had in its original form.

Upcycling has really seen a boom in recent times. You only have to take a peek on Pinterest or Etsy to see the phenomenal amount of items that people tag with the word “upcycled.”

Something Old

There are many reasons why upcycling has come to the forefront in the sustainability movement. It prevents waste of potentially useful materials by reusing them in their existing forms. It also reduces the amount of new raw materials being used. We are exhausting raw materials at an alarming rate, so anything that slows this down is a good thing, right? Reducing use of raw materials also reduces all processes associated with it, which in turn will lower the overall carbon footprint.

Upcycling Food

A lot of upcycling that you see revolves around furnishings and decorations, but it can go much further than this. Food wastage is a huge problem worldwide. The gap between rich and poor has never been so big; 1 in 7 people in the world are hungry, and a 1/3 of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. That amounts to about 1 trillion dollars or 1.3 billion metric tons of food, enough to fill hunger gaps in the developing world by feeding 3 million people. There is also the environmental cost of food wastage, it is estimated that if global food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. Wastage occurs in many ways, from food being lost or damaged in transport, to supermarkets rejecting food on the basis of aesthetics, to over-cautious sell-by dates, and of course, just every day wastage of what we throw away and don’t give a second thought to.

As growers of edible and non-edible crops we are already doing our bit toward environmental sustainability, but can we be doing more? How does upcycling fit in with hydroponics? And why should you be bothered? Well, in the natural environment, plants receive everything that they need to grow from natural elements, such as old plant and food matter, animal remains and waste deposits all breaking down and providing the new plants with the exact nutrient-rich profile required.

It is completely logical then to upcycle some of your own household food waste into nutrient-rich feed for your plants.

Making compost out of leftover food scraps is not a new idea and while augmenting several types of fertilizers is usually advisable, why spend your money on a store-bought feed when you can make it yourself from things you would otherwise be throwing away? The plus points of doing so are that you know that you are doing your bit to respect the earth and reducing wastage and raw material use. You will become less of a consumer of harmful products, as natural feeds will rid your grow environment of toxic chemicals that harm wildlife, plants, soil, and humans. On a practical level, it saves you money and inevitably you will also learn more about what your plants need and when which can only make you a more resourceful and successful gardener.

Compost Tea

One of the most popular methods of creating an upcycled fertilizer is by making “compost tea.” There are a million recipes on how to make it, but it’s really just trial and error. Packed full of nutrients and minerals, the solution also gives you beneficial organisms and live microbes that enhance the soil and immune system of the plants, helping to suppress disease and encourage growth, greener leaves, bigger blooms, bigger fruits, and greater yields.

The only real requirement is that you use compost that has decomposed over a long time, so it is crumbly in appearance and has a rich earthy smell. A big shovelful from the bottom of your bin where the matter is most decomposed is enough to make a good 5 gallon (19L) bucket’s worth. The general process is to steep the mixture in water (the longer the better) adding an air stone if possible to increase the live bacteria. Then strain the mixture and use as either a feed applied to the medium or as a foliar spray.

The great thing about upcycling your waste is that ALL organic matter that would otherwise be thrown away can go in your compost bin. Just think how much waste that saves on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. It really mounts up and makes a big difference!

There are some everyday items that have above average beneficial properties, which makes them excellent additions to your compost mix or used by themselves.

Aquarium Water
Fish waste makes a fantastic fertilizer. Add it straight to your plants or pour it into your compost mix. However, only use water from freshwater tanks.

Coffee Grounds
An abundant source of nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. They are best left to dry and then scattered on top of your medium.

Cooking Water
Water from boiled potatoes, veggies, eggs, and pasta is full of nutrients. Allow to cool and add directly to your plants.

Powdered Milk
Full of calcium, this is an excellent boost for your plants. Mix with soil prior to planting for uptake by the roots.

Egg Shells
They contain nitrogen, phosphoric acid, calcium, and other trace elements. Crush them up in a coffee grinder and add to compost mix or sprinkle around your medium.

Epsom Salts
Mix 1 tablespoon (14.75 ml) with 1 gallon (3.78L) of water and use once a month as a foliar spray for a quick boost of magnesium and sulfur.

Full of potassium, you can throw them into your compost mix whole or just the skin, or bury them in the top layer of soil to release potassium for the plant to take up.

Wood Ash
Add hardwood ash to compost or sprinkle it onto your soil to release potassium and calcium carbonate. Be careful that it contains no lighter fluid or charcoal, and do not use on acid-loving plants as it will increase alkalinity.

Throw them into your compost or soak in water to dissolve the magnesium and then add directly to your plants.

Human or animal, this is a great source of nitrogen (and deer repellant! Who knew?) Throw it all into your compost mix and let it break-down.

Horse Feed
This contains molasses, which is a brilliant fertilizer. You can either sprinkle it on top of the medium or dissolve in water and then apply to the medium.

The only negatives with upcycling nutrients are that the dosage levels that the fertilizer is giving to the plant vary as you are using natural sources. So, you can never be sure that the levels of macro and micronutrients are sufficient until perhaps, it is too late. As this is a less measured and precise way of managing your plants, you may find that if you end up with a serious nutrient deficiency or pest problem that reverting to conventional nutrients necessary to eradicate the problem completely. The more you use your own nutrients, however, the more you understand them. So, if you persevere, you will have fewer problems as time goes on and your ability to read your plants will increase massively.

Other Options

Like the idea and ethos of upcycling, but don’t have time, space, etc. to make your own fertilizer? There is a company out there (Dr. Earth) that produces a specialist range of completely organic plant feeds. They have been around for 23 years and lead the way in cutting-edge, natural garden products, including soils, dry and wet fertilizers, pest control, and super-active compounds to name but a few. All their ingredients are 100% natural and harmless to gardens, people, and pets. They invest heavily in the use of fish bone meal from wild-caught ocean fish from cold waters in their products as it is a far superior and much longer lasting source of nutrition, free of bacteria or pathogens, and packed with calcium. Their products are truly handcrafted by nature.

Just imagine if everyone who grew both outdoors and in made some of their own organic feed, even if they didn’t use it all the time. It could dramatically decrease the levels of food waste across the world and the amount of synthetic fertilizer that is entering the ecosystem. You may think that you alone don’t make much of a difference, but every journey starts with a single step and if you take responsibility for your own little world and environment then your step added to everyone else’s could get the world to where it needs to be, much quicker.

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An industry veteran with over 20 years experience in a variety of roles, Rich is currently a business development manager for a large UK hydroponics distributor. The author of The Growers Guide series, Rich also writes on all aspects of indoor gardening, as well as being an independent industry consultant working closely with hydroponic businesses worldwide.