Cheap Gardening Containers: How to Find and Use Them

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Swiss chard shows off its pretty leaves. 
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Beans and peas planted directly in the dishpans quickly germinate and start climbing. 
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Al Sprague drills holes in several plastic dishpans at a time. 
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Tomato plants, up close and personal. 
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Food-grade buckets, grower’s pots, and plastic dishpans are all good to use as cheap gardening containers for growing plants. Just remember to add drainage holes. 
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Containers can often be found at yard sales, thrift stores, and other secondhand vendors. I go scouting for what you need before buying anything.
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“Stand Up and Garden” by Master Gardener Mary Moss-Sprague is a great reference for inspiration and instruction on sustainable and economical gardening practices. Find basic planting and growing information for a wide range of vegetables and herbs in small vertical spaces. Also, learn how to repurpose old tubs and buckets as cheap gardening containers for growing happy vegetables.  

Stand Up and Garden (The Countryman Press, 2012) by Master Gardener Mary Moss-Sprague is a complete how-to guide for raised-bed gardening that allows anyone to grow robust fruits and vegetables in any climate. Change the way you garden with this excerpt from Chapter 3, “Containers – Your Chance to Get Creative on the Cheap!” and learn how to repurpose tubs and troughs of all shapes and sizes for use as cheap gardening containers.  

Should you be brand new to the gardening scene, be assured that there is no one shape of container that’s more “correct” for garden use than another. Long, short, wide, square, round—all are perfectly good. This also applies to materials from which the containers are made. Wood, ceramic, pottery, fiberglass, plastic/resin/polyethylene—it’s wide open to personal choice and economical considerations. If you already have a container collection, make certain that it is suited to the plants you want to grow before you charge gung-ho into planting. Reading the rest of this chapter will help you decide if you need anything different. Remember one very important thing: Your containers must all have drainage holes or be able to withstand having holes drilled in them without breaking apart. Without proper drainage, your plants are doomed to fail.

Finding Cheap Gardening Containers

Certainly, there are many very attractive (and expensive) pots and planters available in stores. The more utilitarian choices usually cost far less. Containers can often be found at yard sales, thrift stores, and other secondhand vendors, and I encourage you to go scouting for what you need before buying anything. Five-gallon food-grade service buckets can often be had for free at supermarkets or restaurants. Whiskey barrels cut in half work well; even large old truck tires will serve, when placed flat on the ground and the hollow filled with soil, although they’re not very aesthetically pleasing. Plant nurseries and garden centers sometimes sell off unneeded inventory, too, and you may be able to find some great containers at these places.

This is especially true if you’re in the market for larger, molded plastic tubs, also known as grower’s pots. If you don’t find these big fellas locally, the Internet is a great place to buy them at inexpensive prices. Just set your search engine for something like “plastic grower’s pots,” and you should find plenty of vendors who will be happy to ship to you. Three-, 4-, and 5-gallon pots can cost as little as a dollar apiece, maybe even less. The only catch is that there is usually a minimum order of 50 or 100. But that shouldn’t be a problem if you have friends or relatives who also want these containers. Simply share the cost of a shipment, and you’re in business!

Here’s an innovative idea: One of the thriftiest choices I’ve found are thick, black, rectangular polyethylene dishpans sold in dollar stores for—yes!—just one dollar. Thin, brittle plastic pans won’t work, though; the material must be a bit resilient and flexible. Polyethylene is the same material used for making livestock watering tubs, so it’s safe for this application.

See what some of the choices are and decide what you want. Then start looking. While the shape of containers and the material they’re made of aren’t important, we do need containers of different sizes. But why? It’s necessary because it’s not a one-size-fits-all world. A thriving Roma or beefsteak tomato plant bearing heavy fruit must reside in a container that can withstand the plant’s weight and bulk, such as a 5-gallon grower’s pot or food-grade bucket. This container must also be large and deep enough for heavy wire or wooden support stakes that will be added as the plant grows. All plants requiring soil 6 or more inches deep belong in the largest grower’s pots.

Of course, if you have or can find animal watering tubs or troughs that can have holes drilled in them, they also make excellent planters. They can even be cut down if either the top or bottom has been crushed or cracked. Old bathtubs already have a drain, so they, too, can be used. All of these are ideal for root vegetables, including potatoes, beets, parsnips, carrots, and so on. Tubs and troughs can also be used in conjunction with a vertical trellis, which means that beans, peas, and other climbers could call them home.

Create Drainage Holes

Let’s say that you’ve found the black polyethylene dishpans—what to do now? Drill five holes in the bottom of each dishpan, one in each corner and one in the center (see Image Gallery). Fill the pan with soil and put in the seeds, inserting and covering them as directed on the seed packets. Then watch them climb up onto trellises: Peas, beans, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, large sweet and chili peppers, and other edibles are perfectly happy getting their starts in these pans. And they will oblige nicely by clinging to trellis netting as they make their way up toward the sun. With a ground weed barrier already in place, there will be no weeds to deal with, and watering these containers appropriately is easy. It’s really child’s play, of course, if you install a micro-drip irrigation system.

The Right Plant for the Right Container

As noted earlier, most noncherry varieties of tomatoes need the solidity, depth, and breadth of a large container. If beets, turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, celery, leeks, spinach, carrots, eggplant, Swiss chard, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, and other large or root vegetables are on your “must” list, they, too, should be planted in the big, deep pots. On the other hand, a smaller pot can easily accommodate herb plants such as parsley and basil, as long as you plan to keep the plant well trimmed at a size that can be managed. The smaller 2- and 3- gallon pots are generally fine for other easily contained herbs, salad greens, scallions, shallots, radishes, smaller chili peppers that aren’t destined for a trellis, and so forth. For growing strawberries, however, I recommend the straw-based raised bed.

Most of the ideas in this book lean toward thrift and saving money. And it all boils down to personal choice; there are no “rights” and “wrongs” when it comes to containers, other than the size, drainage, and depth issues previously mentioned. You must select the ones that are going to work best for you. Some experimentation will help; when in doubt, I suggest you err on the side of choosing containers that are too large rather than too small. Successfully repotting a vegetable plant midseason because it has outgrown its container is virtually impossible due to severe plant shock that will occur when its roots are disturbed.

The last thing to consider when choosing the sizes and shapes of the containers you’ll be using is where you’re going to set them out on the weed barrier. How much space do you have for gardening? Will some of them be used for large, individual plants, such as tomatoes? Is there room for one or more trellises?

Scope out the space situation and know about how much square footage you have for your gardening efforts. Have you sketched it all out on paper to eliminate some of the guesswork? If not, be sure to do that now, before you start building trellises and raised beds, and filling containers with soil!

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Stand Up and Garden: The No-Digging; No-Tilling; No-Stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs published by The Countryman Press, 2012. 

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