When summer rolls around and gardens start to bloom, suburbanites flock to their local big-box stores to update their storage buildings and garden furniture. There’s a staggering amount of choice, from outdoor storage sheds styled like barns to patio heaters that kick out more CO2 than the average small car.
When they splash the cash, however, homeowners rarely pause to consider the long-term environmental impact of their new alfresco investment. In North America, sheds and storage buildings made from synthetic resin dominate the market. Thanks to their fossil fuel-makeup, they retain their old-world cottage charm for decades. Unfortunately, these sheds are non-biodegradable and can only be destroyed through controlled incineration to minimise release of toxic gases.
The wooden alternatives are barely any safer. Fences, benches and sheds are maintained with paints, preservatives and sealants containing creosote, arsenic, pentachlorophenol and lead – to name but a few. Most adults will be familiar with the short-term health effects of such preservatives, including skin burns and seared airways. However, many are unaware of the long-term risks posed by their carcinogenic compounds. When rain causes them to leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater, they present a risk to all who relax in or eat from the garden.
There’s good news for the environmentally conscious, however: There are much safer (and cheaper!) ways to keep up with the Joneses. Read on to discover the upcycles and simple swaps that’ll leave both your garden and conscience clean.
Use natural sealants. There are a host of environmentally safe alternatives to conventional paints and wood sealants. To add a splash of color, opt for milk paint – an organic and non-toxic alternative to regular paint that comes in a wide variety of colors. Choose a version designed for exterior use, apply a couple of coats and allow a few weeks’ drying time (it’s best to paint during a summer dry spell).
For a clean, shiny and natural finish, seal wood with raw linseed oil. Made from flaxseed, it has excellent preservative and water resistant properties and rarely needs reapplication once dry. Buyers beware: linseed oil is sticky, flammable and will take weeks to dry. However, you should resist the temptation to go for ‘fast-drying’ linseed oil – often labelled as ‘boiled linseed oil’ – as this is known to contain mineral spirits and heavy metals.
Build your own fire pit. There are few things as calming as a campfire on a cool evening. By building your own fire pit, you’ll sidestep the need for costly and environmentally damaging patio heaters, barbecue grills and chimineas. For a cheap and easy fix, create a circle of boulders and fill the centre with gravel. With a little more effort, you could dig a hole to create a recessed firepit or build a raised version with bricks. The internet offers plenty of inspiration.
Encourage biodiversity with insect hotels. Bee and hedgehog populations are dwindling and barren, walled-in, concrete-filled yards do nothing to aid the problem. ‘Bug hotels’ cultivate biodiversity in the garden and create excellent conversation points, providing homes and breeding grounds to beetles, ladybugs, bees, woodlice, spiders, hedgehogs and toads – to name just a few. You can build one cheaply (see here) by stacking disused pallets and cramming them with straw, bricks, bamboo canes, dry leaves, bark and corrugated cardboard.
Upcycle wood pallets into garden furniture. Stack wooden pallets horizontally in layers of two and cover with large cushions to make attractive sectional outdoor corner sofas. To make them more attractive, use sandpaper to remove excess splinters and then paint the wood. In case you hadn’t already figured out by now, there are a plethora of outdoor uses for old pallets – most of which require no DIY skills whatsoever.
Choose hardwood garden furniture over softwood. Hardwood comes from angiosperm trees such as maple, oak and walnut. Generally speaking, they’re the trees that produce leaves that die and renew. Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees – mostly evergreens such as pine and spruce. As a general rule, softwood is more susceptible to damp weather and can disintegrate quickly once rot begins to set in. If you are looking for garden furniture that will go the distance, choose hardwoods. Though more expensive to buy, they can last over 20 years with minimal care and won’t incur the same financial and environmental costs as shorter-lasting softwood furniture.