A Recycler's Garden

By Pam Peirce

Champagne bottles, artfully combined with other throw-aways and planted with yarrow, aloe, and geum (among others), makes a simple and cheap retaining wall.

Few gardeners consider empty champagne bottles landscaping materials, but Jana Olsen, a garden designer in El Cerrito, California, sought them out. She wanted champagne bottles because they are made of thick glass, and have an attractive "punt," or indentation, in their bottoms. She used dozens of them in her garden's retaining wall.

Recycled building materials are generally cheaper to purchase than new ones, or you may have some around already. The main difficulty with using them in garden design is that they sometimes look, well, like recycled materials used because they are cheap and not because they are beautiful. But Olsen has used recycled materials to create a fresh and appealing design. The trick, she says, is to look at each object in the abstract, to consider each to have a presence of its own, before you build with it.

Olsen reclines on a whimsical chaise fashioined of heavy-guage steel.

Olsen says her garden evolved slowly, beginning with a simple vegetable garden on the higher part, near the house. After the first year, she had the vegetable garden area leveled, added a bit more soil and decided that she needed a retaining wall around it. Her first idea was to use concrete set with colorful tiles, but at the time she was working all week building gardens, and pouring concrete didn't seem too appealing on the weekends.

She did find the energy to take out and redo the driveway, resulting in some slabs of broken concrete decorated with parallel grooves. To these she added some promising materials saved from other gardens she demolished, and some from her husband's business, Ohmega Salvage, which sells recycled building materials in Berkeley, California. From the accumulated piles she built a wall that she calls "a joke on a geological theme. It's like California geology in miniature with all the faulting and the folding."

What are those stepping stones? Why manhole covers, of course.

For the rest of the garden, Olsen chose an informal meadow look, enhanced by her recycled treasures. For example, a heavy-gauge wire screen, originally used in a gravel quarry, curved in a way that suggested a chaise longue, so that's what it became. The resulting piece, framed in an arch of twined rebar set in drilled rocks, has a look both elegant and "Flintstone-esque." The chair is set in an unmowed fescue lawn, which is traversed by a path made of recycled manhole covers.

Since she began to design her own garden, Olsen has opened a business, Omega Too, to provide an indoor show area for choice recycled items useful in architecture and garden design. (It is located across the street from Ohmega Salvage.)

To locate sources of recycled materials in your area, check the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Try "Building Materials, Architectural, Antique, or Used." Look under "Concrete Breaking, Sawing, and Cutting" for a possible source of free concrete slabs and used curbstones. And if you have a wedding in the family, remember to save those champagne bottles!

San Francisco-based Pam Peirce discovered Olsen's chaise longue at a local garden show.

Photography by David Goldberg

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