1. By: Elisabeth Ginsburg

    A pair of old boots make campy and unusual strawberry planters.

    If gardening is the great equalizer, enabling people of all ages and conditions to grow food, flowers, herbs and other plants; then container gardening is a super equalizer.  Making a “portable garden” means that you don’t need to own land, large tools or even significant space.  And, you don’t have to buy fancy containers to make your plants happy; just “upcycle” something you already have.  The only limits are your imagination and foraging abilities.

    An old shoe makes a fun, unexpected container for New Guinea Impatiens.

    Upcycled planting containers make gardening more fun, and they cost nothing. All you need, in fact, is something that holds soil, good potting mix, seeds or plants, sunshine, water, and you have an instant container.  Plant some zinnias in an old dishpan or grow a mess of tomatoes in a repurposed bathtub.  One restaurant reuses commercial-size olive oil cans to house billowing basil plants whose leaves are ultimately harvested and used in various dishes.  Irish gardener/garden writer Helen Dillon uses dustbins—trash cans—to hold plants in her Dublin garden.  Spackle buckets work well, and more than one gardener has pressed an old pair of boots into service as a sturdy container.  The list of recycling opportunities is endless.  In fact, almost anything that will hold soil can be converted to a planter.  People have been recycling old tires and wine barrels to make planters/raised beds for decades.

    Upcycled Container Rules

    An old sink gets painted and planted into a fun container garden.

    There are only a few rules when it comes to recycled containers.  The first is fitting the container to the plant.  A large hibiscus might need the ample space provided by an old wicker laundry basket, while a small herb plant or a succulent can grow well in a cut-off plastic detergent bottle.  When choosing a container to recycle, think about the amount of space the chosen plant might take up if it were in a garden bed.  Make sure the container is deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system and as wide as the plant’s mature diameter.  Plant tags should provide you with this information.

    The recycled container should be clean, since residue from its original contents might be harmful to plants.  A thorough cleaning with a 10% (1:10) solution of household bleach and water, plus a good rinse should be fine for most would-be planters.

    Container Care

    A weathered trough gets a face lift when filled with beautiful mixed bedding plants.

    Container-grown plants also have some specialized nutritional, water, and drainage needs.  Make sure your repurposed containers have drainage holes at the bottom.  If making holes is impossible, fill the bottom quarter of the container with coarse pebbles topped by a layer of charcoal (available in garden centers).  Provide good nutrition from the beginning by investing in high-quality potting media, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

    Pay attention to your chosen plants’ light requirements and position the containers accordingly.  Remember that “full sun” means six or more hours per day of direct sunlight, and even plants labeled as “good for shade” need a continuous supply of indirect or filtered light.

    Mixed petunias and bright lavender paint add charm to an old claw foot tub. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Overwatering is the number one cause of container-grown plant death.  Check plant tags or internet resources for water requirements.  Many plants only need water when the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface, but some, like primroses or hydrangeas, prefer evenly moist soil at all times, especially when weather is hot and dry.  Plants that are outdoors during drought periods may need water every day and should be checked frequently.

    Check Recycling Day

    Clever gardener/recyclers are always on the lookout for potential planters.  If your town has a “bulk pick-up day”, when larger discarded items are picked up for disposal, the perfect plant container may be waiting on a curb in your neighborhood.  Check your garage and attic.  A forgotten corner may harbor a perfect plant container.  The supermarket is also full of future plant pots, especially if you buy items like oil, condiments or canned goods in large sizes.  Look for promising shapes and sizes first, as many recyclable containers can be painted or embellished to suit your indoor or outdoor décor.

    Most of all, have fun.  The perfect recycled planter is probably closer than you think!

    An out-of-service toilet can make a humorous but effective planting “pot”. (image by Jessie Keith)

    About Elisabeth Ginsburg


    Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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