Due to its subject matter, this series of posts may be too silly and/or offensive for some readers, and some links will definitely be unsafe for many workplaces. Keep reading, and you’re on your own: we take no responsibility for your need for brain bleach.
I freely admit that I risk sudden and terrible death at the hands of my beloved wife with some of my garden ideas. I fully subscribe with the attitude of famed director John Waters that an appreciation of bad taste requires very good taste, because you have to know WHY you’re laughing. This is why I don’t engage in many horticultural and landscaping trends beloved by my ancestors. My paternal grandmother, for instance, would never have considered saving old tractor tires and turning them into planters for the front yard; at least, not until they had at least two good coats of bright pink latex paint before they were loaded with fill dirt and seeded with cosmos. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Unfortunately for her, my ability to go completely deadpan and her natural innocence (she was once told that she should look in the dictionary in her high school library, because the entry for “gullible” had her picture next to it) means that it’s remarkably easy to mess with her. On a trip to Alberta years back, she spotted a gate bracket on the side of a pine tree that looked remarkably like a spigot, and I explained that this was for collecting pine syrup. After all, all we good Canadians used pine syrup on their pancakes, and only kept around maple syrup for Americans who couldn’t handle the good stuff. When she realized I was joshing her, she showed her sexiest trait: that vein in her forehead that pulsed when she was angry. This time, it was pulsing like the lights in a goth club during a God Module show, and I knew then that this was something I wanted to see again and again.
This is how the whole discussion on converting a used toilet into a carnivorous plant pot started: the desperate need for more phlebotic strobing. After a while, it became an in-joke that only made sense to us, much like talk about getting a lathe or my spending the mortgage money on drugs. (I’ll explain later.) Driving through the neighborhood on Large Trash Day and noting neighbors doing extensive house renovations, she’d usually see an abandoned commode three blocks up, and even before I could turn to her to make a suggestion, she’d just yell “NO,” as if I were an English sheepdog looking for a good dry library in which to shake off eight hours of snow and ice. After a while, it became a game to spot it first and then focus on something she’d be more likely to accept putting in the back, such as that wheelbarrow full of black market livers and kidneys that went bad when the power went out. “Say what you want,” she’d sniff, “but at least we can cook and eat those.” I neglected to tell her that my plans for toilet renovation included turning a big metal prison toilet into a barbecue grille, complete with it playing “Ring of Fire” when you started it up.
(As I write this, my beloved is out with friends. I know she’s thinking of me, though, because I can hear that vein, playing “Your True Face“. Nyarlathotep help me if she thought I was serious.)
The reality, though, is that putting together a toilet planter, at least once, teaches many valuable lessons for other, less worrisome gardening projects. The first is understanding how to work with unconventional planters. The second is learning how to roll with punches when these unconventional planters don’t work out for the originally considered purpose. The third is getting an understanding of the difference between a planter and a plant arrangement. The fourth? Exactly how far you can go before spouses, neighbors, landlords, and municipal code authorities say “Okay, we’re done” and put you in a big can until spring. If you’re lucky, they’ll poke holes in the top before sealing you in.
The whole mess started years back, when I got into an online discussion with friends about unconventional planter sources. I’ve seen some beautiful Sarracenia planters made from old clawed-ball bathtubs, and the discussion went rapidly toward conversion of sinks and other fixtures. That’s when I realized that, in many ways, a commode was halfway to perfect for the purpose. It had drainage that could be blocked up, as anyone with an enterprising five-year-old could tell you, it was already water-impermeable, and it’s available in any number of eye-catching colors. This was the conversation where I realized that a spare urinal would make a great planter for Nepenthes pitcher plants, dragonfruit cactus, and other saprophytes, but it’s best not to say anything now. That’s a project for next week.
After years of joking, nuhdzing, and putting up with her own vagaries, the Czarina finally relented. I could do it, so long as I didn’t work on it in the house, it wasn’t visible from the street or the house, and that it would be temporary unless I wanted to move it into the greenhouse. I agreed: unless someone was paying for a custom assignment, this would have to remain a proof of concept project, because I definitely didn’t have room to set up more than one without building a new greenhouse.
And so it came that a house on my Day Job bicycle commute just finished a renovation job, and the Czarina let me have the car for another errand. I checked it out before snagging it: no obvious byproducts of human metabolism, no black widow spiders nesting inside, and no once-loved toys caught in the U-bend. A quick run with the hose, and then the work could begin.
The biggest problem with the conversion, strangely enough, wasn’t with stopping up the main outflow drain. That could be done with any number of things, and I was tempted to use a cannonball to add to the strobing. (Long before we ever formally met, she had a neighbor in her apartment building nicknamed “Cannonball.” He got the nickname not because he used a Civil War-era cannonball as a sex toy, but that he’d apparently forget he’d left it in until he got up in the morning for his morning constitutional. After the second time he knocked a fist-sized hole through the bowl, he got evicted, and he apparently became a standard by which bad tenants were judged ever since.) The real issue was with all of the gear that made this American Standard such a gleaming example of sanitation science. It couldn’t stay in, both because of the potting mix and said mix’s acidic effects on the components. I once heard that the best way to understand dinosaur anatomy was to dissect a chicken while you were eating it, and if I didn’t already have teeming respect for plumbers, I would have in the process of unscrewing, unbolting, and prying off the apparatus in the tank.
Here’s a good idea of what needs to be removed: the flapper, the float valve, the float, and the seat. You may think that leaving the seat intact is essential, but trust me: it’s not. That seat will yellow and blister in the sun, it’ll get in the way of watering and cleanup, and it will generally make a mess. You could permanently affix it upright with epoxy putty, but “permanently” is a shaky concept in gardening, and would you want your favorite plant crushed because that “permanent” adhesion gave out at the worst possible time?
Looking from the interior of the tank, you’ll notice two big brass bolts, the outlet leading to the bowl, and the hole on the right that was where the float and float valve used to be. The flapper pipe can be removed by unscrewing it, but the float valve is attached to the tank thanks to a big nut, usually plastic, on the underside of the tank. Take the time to unscrew all of this properly: you don’t want to go through all this effort only to crack or shatter the tank because you got impatient and used too much force.
Oh, and about those two big screws. These are brass, which when left in may contaminate the potting mix at the bottom of the tank. However, if you take them out, there’s suddenly nothing keeping the tank planted atop the bowl. You have quite a few possibilities for sealing these up, but I’d recommend covering them with an epoxy putty so as to minimize contact. The two actual holes will be dealt with later.
Now it’s time for the seat. The seat is held onto the bowl with two nylon screws on top and two matching nuts on the underside, with slots just the right size for a Swiss Army knife screwdriver blade. The screws are covered with caps to keep ordure from building up in the slots, and that’s when I discovered new advances in toilet technology. Apparently, kids taking apart their toilets is enough of a problem that these screws had child-safe caps, requiring a hard twist to the left before they could be pried off. All I thought upon seeing this is that I missed out on a great opportunity when I was three or four to make sure the whole family had stories for the next family reunion. You know, the one to which I wasn’t invited because I swiped the toilet seat to go sledding, and shredded the finish after being dragged around an icy parking lot by an 18-wheeler.
Now that the easy stuff is done, it’s time to remove the flushing lever. To keep people from wandering off with the handle, the handle and lever are held in place with a square nut set. That set needs to be removed before the handle can be removed from the tank, and make sure you realize that this set has counterclockwise threads. Forget this and use a stout wrench to remove it, and you’ll probably shred the whole assembly. And don’t think about just leaving it in, either: that whole lever is brass coated with copper, meaning that combining it with the highly acidic potting mix in a carnivorous plant garden will probably kill your plants. Just junk it, or keep it as a novelty backscratcher.
Now that the lever is gone, you’ll have to consider what to do about the hole left in the side of the tank. Unless you plant below its level, every watering and every rain is going to lead to excess water, with lots of dissolved tannins from the peat, dribbling out of it. As disgusting as excess leakage of the usual sort may appear, the jokes after about three years worth of peat staining will just write themselves.
Well, time to get back that novelty backscratcher, and grab a hacksaw with a metal-cutting blade while you’re at it. Before you do anything, though, remove the nut and bolt arrangement and put it back in place in their old location. Just make sure to face the outfacing bolt in the right direction, for reasons explained momentarily.
Meanwhile, get to work with that hacksaw, and cut the flush handle from the flush lever. Leave a stub, and pitch the rest of the lever. Run the stub through the bolt hole, make sure that the flush lever is pressed as close to the tank wall as possible, and secure the other end with either silicone sealer or epoxy putty. Whatever you do, make sure that everyone understands that this is for show, not for go, and that as much as they want to sing Gwar’s “Jiggle the Handle” (Link not even remotely safe for work or sanity), doing so would be a very bad idea.
And while we’re at it, don’t forget the bottom. That disgusting-looking mess on the bottom isn’t what you’d expect: this is the remnant of the wax seal used between the toilet and the sewer pipe. Scrape it off or don’t: it really doesn’t matter, as you won’t see this end of the final arrangement. If you’re planning to move it somewhere after you’re done, though, I recommend cleaning it off, or else you’re going to get toilet wax all over you the first time you move it on a warm day.
Now, directly underneath the bowl is a hollow, left there both to prevent cracking or explosions in the kiln with a solid piece, and to cut down on weight for transportation. It’s completely up to you if you want to put a weight, such as poured cement, into this space, but considering how top-heavy a toilet can be, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
After all of this is done, it’s time for a good stout cleanup. Don’t be afraid to use a scrubbing brush and bleach, but try not to use anything metal as the metal can mar the finish. If the toilet is particularly encrusted with lime, rust, or calcium deposits, you may have to go for something stronger than elbow grease. I very highly recommend CLR, but if it isn’t available in your area, any analogue should work. Whatever you use, even if it’s just ammonia and vinegar, rinse out the toilet very well when you’re done. And then do it again. And a third time. Yes, it seems excessive, but do you really want chemical residue in among your Sarracenia or Heliamphora?
One of the good things about cleaning porcelain is that thanks to bathroom fixtures, we have lots of possibilities for cleanup. I personally found a very low-grade brand of liquid dishwasher detergent that does wonders on porcelain with the help of a scrub brush, and its low-suds tendencies make dedicated scrubbing very easy. The bottle on the left is of a now-discontinued brand of Dawn dish soap that advertised itself as a “bleach alternative”, and it works so well on paint smears and rust stains that I bought every bottle I could in anticipation of the day I couldn’t get any more. All four of them, and no, you can’t have one.
Finally, and this seems to surprise many gardeners, but big top-heavy planters tend to be a bit ungainly when they’re moved or the ground shifts underneath them. Combine the weight of the original container, roughly double that with the weight of potting mix and water, and add a slew of plants that you just might not want to macerate while righting your falling and failing pot, and you might want to keep the phone number and Google Map of a good doctor on hand. When used for their stated purpose, toilets are bolted to the floor because it’s effectively riding atop the sewer line. The particularly unlucky might have had experiences with using commodes in restrooms with rotting or otherwise failing floors, and they’ll all sympathize with Shipwreck Kelly after a few minutes.
Barring the urge to bolt your bog garden to a concrete porch, which can be done if you really love the whole idea, a stable base is essential. For this one, I used thin cinder blocks left over from another project, but you can go with stone, wood, thick ceramic, or even plastic slabs such as plastic shipping pallets. What matters is that the base is at least as long and wide as the toilet itself, to spread the weight, and that it’s not made of anything that can separate as it settles. If you don’t, expect to find your creation lying on its side, or possibly smashed to bits, after the next storm.