A new use for old tires:
Issue #98 • March/April, 2006
There are mountains of old tires out there. Americans keep on rolling and tires keep on wearing out. Every year there is almost one scrap tire created for every man, woman, and child in the United States. In 2001 alone, Americans discarded nearly 281 million tires, weighing some 5.7 million tons. All of those old treads can provide a lot of good growing space, and we’re just the folks to put them to use.
There is no appreciable risk in using recycled tires in the vegetable garden. While it is a fact that rubber tires do contain minute amounts of certain heavy metals, the compounds are tightly bonded within the actual rubber compound and do not leach into the soil. One of the ingredients in the rubber recipe is zinc. Zinc, in fact, is an essential plant element. I also expect that rubber is safer to use than treated lumber that contains copper and arsenic. Tires are durable. The very qualities that make them an environmental headache make them perfect for our uses in the garden. Once they are in place, they won’t rot and will likely be there for your grandchildren to use.
Let’s take a look at some ways to recycle old tires and literally reap the benefits. Gardening with recycled tires has many benefits besides those directly with the garden itself. It puts to use an article that might otherwise end up in a landfill or other disposal site. Those of us who are into “growing our own” are often on the lookout for ways to increase production with a minimum of effort. Gardening with tires presents several good ways to do just that, while at the same time helping to recycle the old treads from our automobiles and other wheeled conveyances. Stop by your local service station, recycle center, or tire retailer and ask them to save some tires for you. Currently, dealers charge $2 or more to dispose of used tires. Since they charge the consumer to take the old tires and have to pay to have them disposed of, they will likely be happy to let you have all you want. Most tire centers will have a stack of old tires out back that they will give you permission to root through.
A rubberized hotbed
As winter’s icy grasp finally begins to slip, the homesteader who has not kept a little something growing all winter is surely thinking about getting a few seeds stuck into the ground. After a long winter of dried, canned, frozen, or store-bought fresh vegetables, a mess of fresh veggies would taste mighty good. One of the easiest and earliest ways to get those first lettuce and spinach salads growing is to use an old method that has been common practice around these parts for generations.
Folks around here often get those first salad greens going in a planter made from an old tire. For my own planter, I utilized the old tread from a log skidder to give me plenty of size and depth. For a project of this type, I’d recommend a fairly large one, such as a rear tire off of a farm tractor or from a log skidder like I used.
After laying the tire at the spot where I wanted it, I used a utility knife to cut the sidewall completely out of the upper side. This was fairly easy to do, and nearly doubled the planting area available. But do it carefully, and consider using some leather gloves as protection against the knife blade.
Once I removed the sidewall, I filled the tire with some good compost on top of a six-inch layer of fresh manure and seeded my lettuce and spinach. The heat generated by the manure’s decomposition helped to heat the seedbed from below. The whole thing was covered with some old storm windows obtained for the purpose by some creative scrounging. The result was a fine durable hot bed and the only cost involved was for the seed.
Raising the roots
One of the best ways to grow vegetables, especially in cool climates, is to grow them in raised beds. Let’s look at some of the benefits of raised bed gardening and how the method is a great way to use old tires:
- When the soil is elevated, it warms faster. Raised bed gardens can increase spring soil temperatures by 8 to 13° F over the adjacent soil temperatures at ground level. The black, heat-absorbing tires compound the warming effect.
- It dries out more quickly. These rubberized raised beds are helpful in improving water drainage in heavy clay soils or in low-lying areas. The soil is more exposed, and sun and wind help to dry and warm the soil more quickly.
- It provides deeper soil for root crops to develop.
- You can plant earlier in the season and get your plants off to a healthier and earlier start. This is especially true in cooler climates where spring rains often keep vegetable garden soil wet and cold. In containers such as our tires, excess moisture tends to drain away more quickly and the soil remains warmer, thus allowing for earlier planting.
- You can harvest later into the fall.
- Because of the longer growing season, you have the possibility of growing a wider range of vegetables.
- Using these beds, you can concentrate a greater number of plants in a smaller area. This will result in less weeding and greater production.
- Finally, and not insignificantly, raised bed gardening puts plants and soil back into the reach of older gardeners or others who cannot do a lot of bending as required with an ordinary garden.
In the greenhouse
Here is one way we have used tires in our own small greenhouse. Along the front wall we placed short stacks of tires and filled them with sand. The dark color of the tires serves to absorb heat, and the sand contained in each stack helps to store it. Atop each stack was placed another tire with the upper sidewall removed as already described.The top tire was then filled with compost and soil
then seeded in lettuce, spinach, or whatever.
We’ve also found that, in the greenhouse, they make a fine planter for an extra-early or late tomato plant. Since our greenhouse is attached to my garage and shop, I utilized an existing window opening, the woodstove in the garage, a window fan, and a timer to add heat to it. Between our tire planter, keeping a fire going in the garage—which I often do anyway—and timing the fan to turn on as the day begins to cool, we have been able to pick the last tomato off of the vine on Christmas Eve.
Jump start your tomatoes
By the same token, you can get a jump on the spring growing season by creating a mini-greenhouse, of sorts, for a few tomato plants. Once you have a stack or two of tires in place, set your tomato plants in each stack. Next, place a wire hoop or tomato cage in place around the plant. Cover the cage with clear plastic and secure it with duct tape, twine, etc. If you have them available, you can place an old windowpane over the top of this tomato tower. The combination of the black rubber tires and the clear plastic “greenhouse” will cause the plant to grow quickly.
You will need to monitor the heat and health of the young plants carefully to make sure they aren’t getting too much of a good thing. Once the plant is really growing and the chance of frost is past, simply remove the plastic and allow the plant to use the wire cage to support its branches, which will soon be laden with fruit.
You can add months to your growing season using this method alone.
Tire compost bin
Used tires can also be made into a good compost bin. Begin with a half dozen or so tires as large as you can handle. Large truck tires work well. Cut the sidewalls out of both sides using the sharp utility knife. You will end up with rubber rings of tire treads. After you have several of the hoops made, place one on the spot where you want your bin to be located. Be sure to turn the soil on the spot where you place the bin. This better exposes the composting material to the bacteria, earthworms, and other compost builders. As you fill the first tire hoop, merely place another atop it and fill it. Repeat the process until you have them stacked five or six high. You can keep filling tires with garden and kitchen scraps and other compost fixin’s or just start another pile.
After the compost has worked for several weeks, remove the top hoop and place it on the ground beside the original bin. Fork the top layer of composting material into this hoop. Remove the next hoop and place it atop the one on the ground and move the plant material into it. Repeat until you have the whole compost heap turned and transferred into the restacked hoops, one at a time. Note that in the process you have completely turned the working compost pile from top to bottom, perfect for producing good compost in record time. After several more weeks, the compost should be getting that good earthy smell and will be ready to use.
When I was a youngster, I used a hoe to ridge up rows and rows of potatoes, pulling the soil up around the plants to help increase their yield. I have since learned of an easier way to grow potatoes that doesn’t require any hoeing—just plant a vertical potato patch. If you are limited in space, then this method is especially beneficial. You can grow a nice crop of spuds in just a few tires. Here’s how:
Generally, a stack of four or five tires that are progressively filled with some good compost and a couple of pounds of seed potatoes will produce around 25 pounds of potatoes. A few of these stacks can provide your winter’s supply of potatoes with no problem.
To begin, pick a spot that is out of the way and perhaps out of sight where you can stack your tires. Loosen the soil just enough to allow for some drainage and place the first tire. Fill it with soil, being sure to fill the inside of the tire casing as well. Take your seed potatoes and cut them into pieces that have at least two “eyes,” or sprout buds in each piece. It doesn’t hurt to let each piece dry for a day or two before planting it. Plant three or four cut potato sets into the soil in the tire center. Cover the sets with enough soil to bring it level with the top of the opening.
Once the new potato plants get to be about eight inches tall, add another tire and add soil around the plants until just a couple of inches of the tops are above the soil. Repeat this process for the third and subsequent tires. As you add tires and soil to the ‘tater stack, the plant stalk is covered with soil. As you do this, the existing stalk will send off roots as well as grow upward to once again find the sunlight it needs. Since you are gradually raising the soil level eight inches or so at a time, the plant is able to keep growing without suffocating. At the same time, you are creating a 24- to 36-inch tap root off of which many lateral roots will develop. Each of the lateral roots can produce additional potatoes at three or four levels instead of only one. When you water the plant, be sure that the soil is thoroughly moistened all the way down to the base of the pile.
Since the tires also act as an insulator and heat sink for your potatoes, the added warmth will stimulate the lateral roots to multiply more quickly, giving you more potatoes. To harvest your crop, wait until the top dries up and begin to remove the tires, working your way down the stack and harvesting the potatoes as you go.
Great walls of tires
Tires can even be used to create retaining walls to stabilize an earth bank. When using them for this purpose, begin by laying a level course of tires. Fill these tires completely with sand, soil, or gravel. Try to eliminate any holes or pockets in the tires that might provide a haven to vermin like mice or rats. Atop the first course of filled tires, add another row, positioning them one-quarter to one-third of the way back on the first course. This will give the wall some slope and add stability. Also, place the tires with staggered joints, that is, in bricklayer-fashion. That will add a lot of stability as well. Once several courses of these rubber building blocks are in place, the wall should be very solid and immovable.
If you choose to, remove the upper sidewall of each tire before you put it in place, and fill it with soil. Not only will it make filling the tires easier, but it will also make space available to place some ground cover plants that can grow and cover the wall. You may consider even setting strawberry plants in the spaces.
Try using old tires from riding mowers and all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) for planters. They can be used right on the deck, porch, or patio and can hold plants such as cherry tomatoes, peppers, flowers, herbs, and other compact plants. They are smaller and therefore more portable than large tires and can fit in most any out-of-the-way spot.
Check out a tire dealer, lawn tractor dealer, or ATV dealer to locate some of the used low-pressure tires. Take one of the tires and cut the sidewall as described for the hotbed. Using a drill, bore three holes around the open end of the “bowl.” Space the holes equally around the rim and drill them about a half-inch from the top edge.
You may wish to place your planters around on a low wall or rail, but you can also attach a hanger from which to suspend the planter. Using three pieces of workable wire about 26 to 28 inches long, attach one wire in each of the three holes. Bring the wires together at the top and twist about 2 to 3 inches together into a hook. That will serve as the planter hanger.
Now, cut a piece of hardware cloth to fit in the bottom of the planter. Place a thick layer of grass, moss, or even a chunk of old carpet into the bottom, on top of the hardware cloth. Fill to the top with soil, and you are ready to set your plants. These are especially handy for growing cherry tomatoes or the attractive Thai pepper plants.
Tiers of tires
Another nifty planter for small spaces can be made by stacking four tires of different sizes into a sort of pyramid. Begin with one each of the following sized tires: A farm tractor tire; a tire from a large truck; an automobile tire; and an ATV tire. Cut the sidewall out of each. Place the tractor tire where you want it and fill it with soil. Position the next largest tire, the truck tire, evenly atop the tractor tire. Fill it, too, with soil. Next, put the automobile tire in place and fill it. Finally, place the ATV tire atop the pile and fill it with soil. You will end up with a multi-layered vertical garden that is useful for strawberries, bush cucumbers, varieties of low flowers, and many other types of plants. With some imagination, you can have plants cascading down the sides of this planter.
On a larger scale
If your place is a bit larger than just a plot and garden, you may find more uses for old tires. Here are just a couple of ideas:
Over in the neighboring Amish settlement, I see many horse feeders made by cutting the sidewall out of a tire off of a large payloader or other machine with wide, heavy tires. They are deep enough to hold a lot of hay, and even the largest Belgian horse cannot damage them. They would make an equally large and roomy planting bed for flowers or vegetables.
You can make a really good pasture drag by bolting some tires together and connecting them to a single beam to be pulled behind the tractor, team, or even the pickup truck or ATV. The handy homemade drag will make it much easier to break up and distribute the cowflops that accumulate in the pasture. Scattering the cowpies spreads the fertilizer they contain and prevents hot spots and clumps of pasture grass.
More uses for old tires
- Use single rows of tires and use mulch or gravel between rows. You will have easy access to all sides of your plants and will keep weeding to a minimum.
- When doing any of these projects, it’s okay to use tires of different sizes. Exposed spaces can be used to tuck a plant into.
- Set blackberries, raspberries, and other brambles out in rows of tires—one plant to a tire. They will benefit from the same “raised bed” principle and will be easier to prune back and to mulch.
- If you can place a few tires in a row along a wall or garden edge, try adding a heavy wire cattle panel or simply a length of woven fence wire as a trellis for vining plants to climb. You can save a lot of space by growing beans, cucumbers, squash, gourds, and other climbers this way.
- When arranging three or four tires in a square or triangle, make use of the space between the tires instead of just mulching it. Just fill it with compost and add another plant or two. You will gain another square foot or so of good growing space.
- Go commercial. With a serious rubberized garden, it would be possible to supply every restaurant and grocery store for miles around. Organically grown fresh garden vegetables are always in demand. If you go big and create a growing patch of 50 to 100 tires, you can produce hundreds of pounds of vegetables and some good income. For example, with tomatoes selling for 50 cents a pound or more, you can make good money from your “tired” tomato patch. Starting them in the tires will help you to get them to marketable size earlier than other locally grown competition.
Using old tires is a great way to recycle. It’s also a wonderful way to make the most of a small garden plot and generally increase your garden yield. Try some of these ideas, and I’m certain you’ll see good results.