Scavenging Rocks for the Garden

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Our yard has been a very shady place until this year. A huge oak tree dominates the back yard from a neighbors property (and I love it) but that has limited us to mostly growing herbs in the back -lemon balm, sage, lavender, oregano, thyme, marjoram, mugwort, etc.) There is also a blackberry bush and a grape vine, but the grapes on the vine don't ever get enough sun to reach full maturity. However, Grape Leaves are edible and I use them in my dill pickle crocks.

The front has also been dominated by shade until three years ago when our neighbors old silver maple came down in a windstorm. Then we put in a front yard vegetable patch. This past winter he cut down the other tree -an old leaning evergreen- and so we decided to expand out the front yard garden, doubling the patch now that we will have even more sun. To double the size we needed to get some more rocks to expand the border. We had previously made a border of stone from a rock wall up the street that was torn down during a work project there during a house flip renovation, so we wanted stones of a similar character.

So yesterday we went on a scavenging trip to the South Fairmount neighborhood -one neighborhood away from our Northside in Cincinnati. Fairmount is a neighborhood already in collapse and it has been for decades. It's very Appalachian -not only in terms of some of the people who live there, but also in terms of it being full of hills, valleys, hollers. (I'm of part Appalachian descent myself so no judgment is implied here.) A lot of homes have literally crumbled on the hillsides, been torn down, or are in some other state of disrepair. The streets in this area are even more pot-holed, and might as well be uncared for gravel roads they are in such bad state. In any case we were able to retrieve lots of foundation type stones from several lots in the neighborhood to use to expand our garden border and double the front yard vegetable garden.

The last two years of veggie gardening we mostly stuck with plants we bought that were already started. This year I managed to order seeds from Baker Creek heirlooms, and we have a nice variety of seeds started on a table we set up in our bedroom to catch the sun. We have started beets, radishes, zucchini, pumpkin, a few different kinds of greens, hot peppers, cucumbers, eggplant & more. I've also started some milkweed & other flowers/wildflowers to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, etc. My wife has a big green thumb and we have lots of house plants. She also worked a few seasons on an organic farm in between jobs as a chef so I am learning from her and putting that knowledge to use. Since we already have lots of ornamental houseplants, I want to build on that too and add a few that produce fruit/veg = dwarf sugar snap peas & dwarf blueberries are what are going to try.

In any case there are lots of materials for aesthetic gardens waiting to be scavenged from the crumbling cities we inhabit. If I get a chance to take some pics of what we've done I'll post them here later. I'd be interested to hear about what other people have scrounged for to put to use in their gardens.

ClareBroommaker's picture

My garden scavenging life began when I was a teenager. Then, I picked up as many bags of grass trimmings from suburban neighborhoods as possible. Most people mulch-mow these days, so there are few bags of grass to be found. Back then in my area, no one seemed concerned about raking up autumn leaves, or if they did, they burned them rather than bag them to send to a landfill. Now people where I live deposit then in a dumpster which the city will empty for composting. If people bag up so many leaves they won't fit in the dumpster, and I find those leaves--yahoo!-- they are coming home with me. I also keep an eye out for straw bales fallen off on the side of the road. I will ask work crews who use them if I may have the remains, and I spy out neighbors who use them for autumn decoration. Many people do not want to deal with straw bales they've left on their front lawn once they've been saturated with several rains, begun to rot, and are perhaps frozen to the ground. In that case, have wagon, will travel. Straw in that state is excellent for the garden, even if I have to wait to spring to break it up.

I hear you on the rocks. When my child was young, before we homeschooled, I used to walk him home from school each afternoon. We walked across a small field where once there had been a clay pipe factory. You might guess I was looking for scraps of pipe, but I never found that. Instead I was scavenging chunks of limestone. Nearly all the old buildings here have limestone foundations set deep so that there is basement space under every building. That adds up to a lot of chalky white limestone. My son and I used to put small pieces in our back packs and carry one larger stone each in our hands. When we reached the ditch that railroad tracks run through, sometime we would toss our hand-carried rocks to the tracks so that we would not have to fumble with them as we edged down the hill. Reaching the other side of the tracks, we might pick up the rocks again and attempt to sling them up the other side of the ditch. Depending on the shape of the rock and the luck of the throw, they might not roll all the way back down to our feet. Once, I was doing some household chore when my seven year old came to me and asked, "Mom, why don't we build a bridge over the tracks?" Well, for eons that kind of initiative is the way things got done, so I was really pleased to hear the question, even if we did continue to carry those rocks in backpacks and in our hands, until we could find no more on the surface.

But then! Ah the old state psychiatric hospital nearby was closed and plans made to build little independent living group houses on the grounds. This meant the old limestone walls and wrought iron fences were torn down. More scavenging. It was surprisingly hard to find usable rock in those piles. Most of it was so weathered that it crumbled when the machines had knocked it over. We have lots of soft limestone in the soil here, so that is largely what has been used for such building. The harder, more decorative marble-like stone is saved for stairs, trim, railings, plinths, porches, thresholds, etc. I don't think I've ever found a piece of hard limestone.

Now, however, I do not have any of this limestone in my garden. I gave it all to my sister, who had beds that needed to be raised and edged, while I found that my own were better off not raised at all. With my sister, I once made a slow car trip between Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri, traveling the old hilly, curvy highways instead of interstate. We stopped at about twenty-bazillion road cuts in hopes of finding scavenge-able chunks of limestone, but again most of it was very weathered, not worth picking up. The lesson to me is that if I scavenge roadside for stone, I need to go to new road cuts, not the older ones.

When I lived in a neighborhood once described by an older German visitor as looking like Dresden just after WWII (an exaggeration), there was lots of that limestone available. Still, years later, my friend who gardens there finds all the foundation stones she can use and tells me I should just pick up any I may happen to need.

The city alleys are my biggest scavenging place now. Many people deliberately set out usable items in the alleys instead of putting them in the trash dumpsters. I have found a plethora of curtain rods that make light stakes for the garden, balls of twine, ready-made large sturdy tomato cages, small pepper cages, wood, hutches and shelves, an old oak table that was my potting table for years until it was retired to enrich the soil, bricks (oh, my bricks are so useful), terracotta tiles that I gave to yet another gardener to edge her mint and chives bed, eight foot steel pipes, bamboo already cut and dried, buckets and baskets (a gardener can never have too many), so many pots and cell packs/punnets, decorative aluminum corner support for back yard tents (these support vines now), a rake, kitty little jugs (for watering), full boxes of canning jars....

Hey, your neighbor's oak? One of my neighbors had a huge oak whose late afternoon shade reached my vegetable garden. I used to be so grateful for that. A few years ago, I recognized that it was infected with phytophthora , same disease as had killed my own small oak, my raspberries, and my other neighbor's rhododendrons. He tried trimming out the dying branches three years in a row, at great expense. This year the whole beautiful tree has been taken down. This will change condition for gardening in a large area. I think it was the largest tree within a half mile walk, unless there is something as large in the botanical garden or in the nearby "English walking Garden."

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for sharing your story of scavenging here.

Two more trees in neighboring yards -this time in the back- went down since I last wrote. A mulberry and an alianthus that the neighbor behind us took down giving us more sun in the back. So we have some bird feeders in the back there and this is where we are starting a wildflower/pollinator/herb area with: milkweed, betony, nicotinia, borage, foxglove, and a bunch of other seeds and bulbs we put in, as well as hummingbird mint and some other things we started. We'll see how it goes.

In the past two weeks we got all our sprouts started in the expanded garden out front. We're excited to see how it goes this year. I might need some additional crocks to make even more pickles and ginger-beet kimchi.