Container gardening doesn’t have to be a big deal. You don’t have to buy expensive EarthBoxes(TM) (though they work nicely), sink a lot of money into a VertiGro system (though those also work well) or buy expensive pots from your local big box store.
Chances are, you can start container gardening with things you already have laying around your house.
So… why bother with container gardening? There are multiple reasons you might want to go down this path.
In some places, soil pests are outrageous or the native soil is poor. Personally, I’d change the species I grow and fight to use the dirt I have – but I’ve met many gardeners who prefer to bring in good soil and containers and simply skip fighting with the lousy stuff on their property.
I once saw this done to great effect at a little blueberry you-pick a few hours south of me in a hot, white-sand area of Florida. The owner had filled large containers with pine bark for his blueberries and they were thriving in a place where you’d normally have to do some serious soil amendment to make them happy. Beneath the rows of 30-gallon pots he’d put down commercial weed-block sheeting. No dealing with pH issues, no dealing with weeds and no dealing with soil pests like nematodes.
Additionally, if you’re growing tender plants, if they’re potted you can bring them in and outdoors as needed. I use this method to grow pineapples, starfruit, jabuticaba and other plants that get murdered by our frequent winter frosts.
Another reason to garden in containers is if you’re in a temporary living situation. For the wanderer, it’s easy to bring your containerized salad garden and some edible shrubs with you if you move. Containers are especially useful if you’re living in an apartment.
Here’s another example. My (amazing and beautiful) sister called me last year. She lives in an apartment and was interested in adding some fresh produce to her family’s diet. Earlier in the day she had gone to a plant talk and giveaway at her complex, coming home with a few tomato plants and other vegetables… so she asked me how I’d go about planting them.
My answer? 5-gallon buckets.
Drill holes in a bucket about 2″ up from the bottom. Throw some gravel or rough mulch in the bottom of the bucket and you have a water reservoir. Fill the bucket the rest of the way up with some loose potting soil mix and you’re ready to plant.
She followed my advice and it worked wonderfully – here’s some photographic proof:
Sources for free buckets include pizza and sub shops, house painters and bakeries. If you have to buy them, they usually run about $4-6 each. Not bad, really, but not as good as free.
If you get free buckets from a house painter, just make sure they were used for regular old latex house paint. It’s pretty non-toxic stuff and most of it is easy to wash out of a bucket. I’d avoid any buckets used for oil-based solvents or paints, obviously. (The proper term for gardening in containers that previously held toxins is “yuck,” but I’m not going to write “yuck” since it sounds juvenile.)
Bakeries often have 3-gallon buckets for icing. Snag those if you can. Often they have recycling programs, so you might have to talk them into letting YOU be the recycler on a particular batch of buckets.
Beyond buckets, you can also press various common items into service as container gardens. 55-gallon plastic drums can be cut in half and used, either lengthwise or around their waists. They tend to warp, so as soon as you cut them and put in your drainage holes, fill them with soil so they maintain their shape instead of getting weird and curly around the edges.
Another thought, if you’re not afraid of neighbors calling code enforcement – you can garden in old gutted refrigerators, chest freezers and dishwashers.
I know. Tacky as heck. But still… there’s a lot of growing space there.
Bathtubs are another excellent option. Personally, I prefer them for water gardening, but if I had a few extra, I’d probably use them for medicinal herbs or edible cacti/succulents that like fast-draining soil.
Now – if you’re ready to start container gardening, I have a recommendation that will save you a LOT of money on dirt. Ready? Here’s a bold title!
A Container Gardening Method That Saves You a LOT of Money on Dirt
Let’s say you’ve got a big container, like a 100-gallon horse trough, and you want to use it for a kale bed.
If you were to buy potting soil to fill that sucker you’d likely have to take out a loan. So forget that. We’re going to make our own dirt.
Here’s what you do: drill your drainage holes, then start collecting organic biomass. Save cardboard, uncoated paper plates, junk mail, etc. Throw your kitchen scraps in there. Prune your trees and throw in the branches. Collect chunks of wood, bags of leaves and coffee grounds from your local coffee shop. When you’ve filled that container up to about 3/4 full, make sure it’s packed down, water it well, then top it off with your potting soil. Everything else underneath will rot and settle over time, providing long-term food for your plants. I did that in multiple containers and in some of my raised beds – works like a charm: