Pop-Up Cardboard Garden

UPDATE: Our first big harvest! That little cucumber grew up!

Electra has had her cardboard garden for over a month and a half now, and seeing that the cardboard is still in great shape after 6 weeks of rain, watering and sunshine, I thought it was OK to officially let it be known that our pop-up cardboard garden is a keeper.

When I was on a cardboard finding expedition at my local grocery store, the produce manager asked me if I was interested in any of the watermelon boxes they had out behind the store. Watermelon boxes, I thought, why didn’t I think of that before?

Watermelon boxes are made of triple-walled cardboard with a slight waxy finish, and they are super sturdy, even when exposed to rain. This garden isn’t intended to last for more than a summer season, but the cardboard should easily last that long. After we finish picking our tomatoes the plan is to distribute the soil onto the other needy beds in our front yard,  and pack up our watermelon box for curbside recycling.

I used a serrated bread knife that I got from a nearby thrift shop to cut the box down to 12.5″ high. Then I just positioned the box in a bright and sunny area of our front yard.

My husband kindly screened several wheelbarrow loads of compost from our backyard and added it to the garden. The last step was cutting off the little triangles of cardboard on the sides that center the watermelon box onto pallets for shipping.

We decided this would be the perfect first garden for Electra so I let her pick out all of her own plants at the local greenhouse. I encouraged her to choose a variety of vegetables, flowers and herbs. She chose cucumbers, tomatoes, chives, basil, cilantro, rosemary, zinnias and her favorite, geraniums.

She LOVED handling and smelling her plants and breaking up their roots to get them ready for planting.

Here she is watering the new crop, and facing a few skeptic neighbors who were sure we were preparing for failure.

We watered the garden as needed trying to let it dry out as much as possible to encourage deep root growth and preserve the box. I notice after one month of watering the box is starting to break down a little where the bottom  seam is touching the soil. It looks like it’s not to much of a problem at this point, so I’m leaving well enough alone.

After a big rain the cardboard gets a little damp and softens. It will harden up as it dries out, so try not to disturb the cardboard too much when it’s wet. I’m not promising invincibility here folks, but this IS a means of getting a few more cherry tomatoes into your little ones hands, and a great way to kindle a budding love of gardening.

Isn’t this tiny cucumber the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Seeing it all nestled up next to the side of the triple wall cardboard just about breaks my heart.

Finding Free Cardboard

Since we’ve been back in the U.S. on a summer holiday trip, I’ve had to start all over sourcing cardboard. In Tokyo I was hauling everything by bike and bike trailer and I had developed relationships with several places in my local community.

I was also able to scavenge from my neighbor’s cardboard piles weekly on recycling day. It was pretty easy to get whatever kind of cardboard I wanted.

I haven’t had time for a lot of cardboard projects while we’ve been in Michigan this summer. One thing I have been doing is scouting all kinds of exotic grades of cardboard.

There are some great materials out there… but before I tell you how you can get your hands on this stuff, let me first brief you on a few reasons why it’s not as easy to get free cardboard as it used to be…

DALIAN/CHINA, 15SEP11 – Cheung Yan, Chairlady, Nine Dragons Paper Industries, and Nora Wu, Partner, Asia Pacific Human Capital Leader, PwC, speak at the “Talent Management Philosophy in China” session at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China, September 15, 2011. Copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org)/Adam Dean

Exhibit A: Cheung Yan, (the woman on the left) CEO and power house of Nine Dragons Paper Industries. She just happens to be one of the richest self-made female billionaires in the world.

She is also partly responsible for the growing trade of U.S. waste paper and cardboard that is shipped to China to be made into cardboard boxes for export.  Yan’s story is quite remarkable, and she’s a big reason why even your local grocery store is baling their cardboard and selling it for a profit.

Exhibit B: Cardboard Compactor / Baler and Cardboard Bales. When I talked to the Produce Manager at my local mid-sized grocery store, he told me that cardboard bales sell for $75 a piece, and that their store produces about 2 bales on an average day. During peak holiday seasons they produce as many as 4 or 5 cardboard bales each day. That’s over $300 dollars worth. Wow!

With that in mind, here are my top 3 sources for cardboard BEFORE it gets to the baler:

1. Befriend a manager or two in the produce department of your favorite grocery store.  They all use some kind of cardboard that they will probably be willing to set aside for you if you speak with them directly and explain what you’re doing with the cardboard. This is my favorite place to score banana boxes, kiwi boxes, and the über fabulous watermelon boxes (I’ll be posting about those next week.)

2. Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, or your local “everything” store. Call ahead or stop at Customer Service first to find out when and how they break their cardboard down. The more specific you are about what kind of cardboard you’re looking for the better. (Banana boxes, large boxes without holes, etc.)

I learned that Wal-Mart stocks at night and does all their re-shelving and cardboard processing then, so it’s best to ask or call after 10pm at night and have them hold boxes for you until the next morning. They kindly held a shopping cart full of boxes for me in the area near their bathrooms at the back.

Target told me that the only time they had boxes available was Thursday mornings at 8am. Apparently this is when they restock and break all of their boxes down, and the only time to get any cardboard from their store.

If you get the cold shoulder, try talking to someone who stocks on the floor, they might be more willing to help you, particularly if you are looking for a small quantity of boxes. Persistence is key.

3. Any Local business that is small enough to pay for a cardboard recycling service is more likely to hand over their cardboard to you. It also helps if you are a regular patron of their business.

Deliveries are usually made according to a weekly schedule and cardboard has to be broken down right after delivery because of space issues. Call ahead to find out when is the best time to pick up the cardboard and if it works with your schedule.

ALWAYS Be ready explain what you are doing with the cardboard, how much you need and what size box you are looking for.

More Ideas:

* FYI Cardboard dumpster diving is illegal, mostly because waste management companies do not want to be held liable for any injuries that could take place during the “diving” part. Your best bet is to intercept the cardboard before (it’s also cleaner that way) it gets to the dumpster, by talking to a business manager at the storefront responsible for the cardboard-only dumpster.

* Freecycle and Craigslist are other great options. Sign up and post a request for free cardboard. You can also peruse the “free” section or do a search looking for people giving away free cardboard boxes.

So that’s my advice for cardboard collecting. I hope you get out there and start putting all this bounty to good use.

But first I need your help!

What’s your secret for scoring recycled cardboard?

What kind of cardboard is available where you live?

I’m hoping to turn this post into a static resource page along with information on tools and materials, so I’d really love to hear from you in the comment section!

Update: March 2013

Some time tested ideas from Readers:

  • Costco
  • Sam’s Club
  • Independent Bicycle Retail Shops
  • Independent Car Auto Body Shops

Cardboard + Your Car = Sun Dried Banana Chips

Materials used: cardboard, parchment paper, masking tape and an egg slicer is great for getting the bananas the right width for drying, but you can use a knife just as easily.

It’s taken a while, but my whole family is starting to get excited about cardboard.

I’ve got a few posts in the works inspired by mom, dad, and this post idea was sent by my sister who lives out in sunny Santa Fe, New Mexico USA. (see the little adobe house behind her truck?)

The bananas take about 4 hours to dry in her car in New Mexico. It could take a little longer in other places, but with the heat wave that’s been sweeping the US,  maybe not?

Is this not perfection? The BEST summer snack!

My sister said that she’s thinking about doing kiwi and apricot next, maybe even some  cantaloupe. But she said the best part is that it leaves a nice dried banana smell in your car.

Thanks Sis! This is fantastic!

Stackable Cardboard Puzzle Trays

Getting our toys organized to the point that they can easily be used and put away has been a huge focus in our home this past month.

Electra is a complete puzzle nut, so I thought getting our puzzles straightened up would be a good place to start.

These are just kiwi boxes, super sturdy ones, that I rescued from the grocery store. I cut out the front portion of the box with a utility knife.

The boxes have notches at the top that interlock with the box above. This feature makes the boxes great for stacking since they always stay in place.

In the first version I tried, I removed the entire front of the box, which I wouldn’t advise. It’s important to leave at least an inch or so on all three sides to maintain the rigidity of the cardboard.

We thought about decorating the boxes in some way, but I in the end I fell in love with the punchy red and yellow (and the little diagonal break.)  Bold, graphic colors are such a great contrast to all of the neutral shades we have in our apartment.

I’m a big proponent of Montessori philosophy. “Help me do it by myself,” is a central Montessori theme, and this project is an example of one way that we integrate Montessori  philosophy into our day-to-day activities.

Electra always works on a mat to define the space, and chooses one puzzle at a time. When she’s done she has to put one puzzle away before she gets  another one out.

Sometimes I pull all of the trays out for her to choose from and sometimes just a few, it kind of depends on the mood of the day and what she’s currently interested in.

I have to say, with this system, she really does clean up after herself. There’s something about that whole order begets order thing.

Now if I can just get it to spread to the rest of my house a little faster.

More on Montessori:

Basics of Montessori Philosophy

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, by Angelina S. Lillard, PhD (If you don’t have time to read this excellent book, listen to the NPR podcast while you’re folding laundry!)