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-Dirt Cheap Planters for a Small Kitchen Garden

Each week I take about seven gallon milk jugs to the recycling center. This year, a dozen or so will become planters instead. A few have been on my ping pong table for two weeks, and young pepper plants have just started to emerge. The planters won’t win a Garden Beautiful award, but the peppers will be sweeter for the money I’ve saved.

I hate to spend money on my small kitchen garden. Fundamentally, growing food involves burying seeds in soil and beating weeds, insects, and other pests out of the way until produce is ready to harvest. Any expense beyond the cost of seeds seems excessive.

Those who lack space for a traditional garden may feel doomed to spend money on containers, potting soil, and soil additives, and these can inflate the costs of growing produce. My last post, Containers for Your Small Kitchen Garden, explored types of containers available commercially to hold a garden on your patio, deck, porch, windowsill, or small yard. Those ranged in price from under a dollar up to $1,500. This post is about squeezing the most planter you can out of your gardening budget.

Don’t Shop the Garden Department

I did a survey of a local department store’s garden department. They have a wonderful selection of reasonably-priced planters. The price tag on a window box I liked asked for $9. Prices on deck boxes—square 5-gallon planters suitable for large vegetable plants such as tomatoes and squash—started at about $15.

I expect to set peppers in several milk jugs dressed up like this one. They hang perfectly between balusters so I can run them the length of the handrail. Because they hang below the rail, on a horizontal handrail, I can also install rail planters.

In other departments of the store, I found some lower-cost alternatives to planters. For example, plastic shoe boxes with covers cost about $1.75 per box. Two of these provide a bit less planting space than that $9 window box—but $9 of shoe boxes will grow way more vegetables than $9 of window box.

In other departments, I found buckets: wash buckets, paint buckets, and utility buckets. These all were less expensive than planters of corresponding sizes.

The point is, you can find dozens of containers whose prices are lower than those of flower pots and planters. But if you go this route, consider:

1. A storage container probably doesn’t have drainage holes in the bottom. Adding drainage holes is important especially if the containers will sit where they can catch rain. (During a particularly heavy rainstorm one year, soil was flowing over the tops of my deck planters which had filled with water. I braved the downpour to stab the planters with a hole punch so water would drain out the bottoms.)

In early May, this three-liter soda bottle will become an upside-down planter. I’ll cut off the bottle’s bottom, hang the bottle top-down, and insert a plant through the bottle’s neck. The resulting planter will be so small that it will require nearly daily watering and quite a bit of plant food to keep a tomato plant happy.

2. A storage container won’t come with—nor offer the option of buying—a fitted catch-saucer or tray. If your containers will sit outdoors where water spills don’t matter, you don’t need saucers under them. However, if you start plants in containers indoors and then move them out, you might wish you had saucers for them.

3. A plastic planter expects to spend much time in sunlight; a storage container or bucket doesn’t. The plastic of a storage container may be brittle to begin with, and could become more brittle with long-term exposure to sunlight. A $9 window box may significantly outlast a $1.75 plastic shoe box.

Spend Even Less

You probably throw out or recycle dozens of planters every year. Some obvious containers come to mind: yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream containers all will handle small plants; you can grow many types of herbs in them as long as you harvest often to keep the plants under control.

Finding free containers for larger loads requires a smidge of creativity. This year, I’m experimenting with 2- and 3-liter soft drink bottles, and one-gallon plastic milk jugs. I’m not the first to do this; links at the end of this post lead to other web sites with information about using milk jugs and soft drink bottles as planters.

To use these effectively, you need to alter them. Most simply, cut the tapered neck off a two-liter or three-liter soda bottle, poke holes in the bottom, and you have a deep planter that can handle many types of vegetables and herbs. I’ve done the same with gallon milk jugs, leaving the handles mostly intact.

Inspired by the Topsy Turvy upside down tomato planter, I’ve thought about hanging some plants this year. Sadly, a gallon milk jug is too small for most tomato varieties. Still, I’ve found I can hang milk jug planters easily from the handrail on my deck and leave the rail clear to hold a window-box-style planter. I’m going to grow peppers in these milk jugs.

I’m very excited about reusable grocery bags as planters. For 99 cents, you get a durable, semi-rigid bag with handles. I’ll put a hole in the bottom of the bag, plant a tomato pointing down, and hang the bag on the kids’ play set. With a 5-gallon capacity, the bag is big enough to handle beefsteak varieties of tomato plants.

I also found several schemes for converting a two- or three-liter soda bottle into an upside-down hanging planter, and I’m going to set some plants out this way in early May. The last link at the end of this post is to a web site that describes the scheme I plan to use (once at that site, find the topic IPlanter Modified in the left margin, and click to view the instructions). I believe it was a comment on that web site where I stumbled across a great suggestion for holding down costs on planters: Get a green (reusable) grocery bag.

Where I shop, a reusable bag costs 99 cents. This bag is durable and flexible—and will hold nearly five gallons of stuff. Filled with soil, a reusable shopping bag will hold its shape and handle even the largest annual vegetable plants. But these should also make great upside-down planters: Cut a hole in the bottom of the bag, push the root ball of a young tomato plant through, add soil and water, and hang the bag by its handles. I’ll be trying this in early May, and will document it in Your Small Kitchen Garden blog. If you’re short on space and strapped for cash, pick up some reusable shopping bags and hang them where the sun shines.

Please enjoy these other articles about low-cost planters:

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12 Responses to “-Dirt Cheap Planters for a Small Kitchen Garden”

  • jay:

    Thanks for mentioning my blog. Really appreciate it.

    I liked your tomato planters from milk jugs. They are really cool. I will try to make some in this season.

  • Elizabeth:

    I have been surfing for info on container gardening with recycled products and found this blog. It was so helpful, I loved the idea of the re-useable grocery bag! I am looking to put together a container gardening night for a church group. There are a lot of low income families in our congregation, mostly apartment dwellers. I want to show them that they can grow a few simple things for their family without spending a ton of money. I was hoping you could recommend some editable plants you could grow to full size in a milk jug or other everyday container. I found lots of info about seed starts in milk jugs, but not a lot about what you can keep in a container like that. Any suggestions?

  • admin:

    Elizabeth: The answer to your question will take about twenty blog posts just to scrape the surface. I have a few specific ideas, but I must start with a caveat:

    Few traditionally-gardened edible plants will grow to maturity without angst in a one-gallon planter. Popular plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, egg plant, and peppers are very large plants and would overwhelm even a three-gallon container… I mentioned in this post or the one before it that container gardeners consider a five-gallon planter to be appropriate for a tomato plant. It will handle many other vegetables as well. (I love those shopping bags as the ideal size for container gardening most vegetables.)

    That said, you can grow a whole bunch of produce in gallon-sized containers if you’re willing to eat it young. And why not? Lettuces and spinach are tasty at any size until they put out flowers. Herbs may want to grow huge, but many tolerate aggressive pruning & harvesting, and they keep sending out new growth as you cut off the tops to use in your cooking. As long as you accept that your plants will outgrow the containers and probably fail, you can harvest from them happily until that happens.

    Also: plants will tolerate crowding way beyond what the seed packages tell you. I encourage people to plant tight and thin as appropriate. This strategy will let you grow a lot of food in a small pot… again, until it chokes itself or you transplant to a larger container.

    Finally, you can trick more growth out of crowded plants by feeding them. They won’t be able to draw enough nutrition from the soil once they’re root bound, so they’ll benefit considerably from regular feeding of plant food.

    A few I’d try in a milk jug: Leaf lettuce and spinach. Beans… especially climbing beans – two or three (well, I’d try nine, but I haven’t yet) per jug with something to climb. To get enough to eat in a single meal, you’ll probably need to have four or five jugs of beans going at once. Short varieties of carrots – try to distribute them to have one carrot per square inch of surface. You might harvest 20-30 carrots from a single jug… but take some when they’re young, and let others mature. Onions from sets… maybe three or four per milk jug (unless you plant Spanish onions). Basil – perhaps the most popular container herb. Just about any herb will work-even perennials. I had a thyme plant last about six years in a container that was smaller than a gallon.

    OK, this could have been a really inadequate blog post, so I’ll stop. I’ll talk more about some of this throughout the growing season, so please stay tuned. Also, there are other bloggers who focus exclusively on container gardening, and you’ll find some great stuff on their sites. One I just met is: Kerry’s Container Gardening Blog. I’ve only glanced at it, but it has some topics appropriate to kitchen gardening.

  • Ellen:

    I have been experimenting with the shopping bag except right side up with sunflower, tomatoes, egg plant, zucchini, squash. Works great!. It seems to be much healthier for the plants. I guess it could be argued, but hydroponics, reusing the rocks with yogurt containers in soda bottles for herbs and such. For larger plants like cherry tomatoes, amaranth, peppers, you can use cheap net pots into vinegar containers. I haven’t tried the upside down jugs, I love that idea of hanging them the way you do. I have critters, so everyihing has to be up. Thank you for your website.

  • [...] Growing Tamarillos | GrowingGroceries.comNow We’re Cookin’! And Growing. And Putting Up. | MamaStories2009 Heirloom Tomato Plant Sale « I Wet My PlantsUpside-Down Hanging Tomatoes | Triage From HomeA cat in the kitchen » Blog Archive » A report from the kitchen garden-Dirt Cheap Planters for a Small Kitchen Garden | Your Small Kitchen Garden [...]

  • [...] posted here:  -Dirt Cheap Planters for a Small Kitchen Garden | Your Small … Share and [...]

  • What a wonderful miracle to discover your site ~ I thought I discovered using plastic milk jugs and was so hyped because buying containers is expensive ~ just between me you and the fence post the National Census is giving away for free the recycled shopping bags, usually at Public Libraries ~ Container growing solves a multitude of problems ~ So thankful for your info ~ In Solidarity ~ Peyote ~

  • admin:

    Peyote Sky: Thanks for you kind comments. I also wondered about UV challenges for milk jugs, so I left last year’s milk jug planters hanging through the winter. They show no sign of deterioration. Other items I’ve planted in have broken down in the sunlight… but at least for on season, I’m very happy with the durability of milk jugs. This season, I’m using cut up milk jugs to start seeds and to catch overflow from peat pots and peat pellets in which I’m starting seeds indoors.

    So, I’ll continue to use plastic milk jugs as planters… but I’ll also limit my expectations for them: some plants simply require more soil than you can put in a milk jug. For those, I’ve been considering the plastic “nursery pot” bags that at so inexpensive from garden suppliers… though I still like the shopping bags. Some of my gardening friends have found reusable grocery bags that don’t deteriorate in sunshine.


  • Milk jugs make excellent planters! They’re large enough for almost anything you’d want to plant in your home, and the flexibility of the material makes it easy to work with. Thanks for the article!

  • Good Morning Daniel, I can’t believe your site is not getting far more in-put ~ Harvest time has arrived and i wanted to report that everything you said was very true about over-crowding and that tomatoes especially but most other veggies do demand a much larger container ~ However my Cayenne peppers have produced pretty good though much more plentiful in the larger containers ~ problem for us all is that apartment dwellers have to smuggle large amounts of dirt up stairs or to roof tops ~ (lots of friends in New York City are doing this on roof tops) ~Each year Lowes and Walmart sell cheap bags of cow pooh compost &/or top soil for about about $1.33 for 40lb bags ~ If ya got a yard a suggest you check out the HUMANURE HANDBOOK by Joespeh Jenkins ~ You can build a thermophylic compost bin useing 4 pallets and a self composting toilet for about $10 ~ Recycle your grey water onto fruit trees ~ Catch rainwater from your roof ~ create your own solar water heater systems ~ EPA in most states are young educated people who know about all this and encourage it ~ Your local code enforcement man may need educating ~ Septic tanks are nasty and water toilets are wastful ~ Get off the power grid and as much as you can, away from the money systems ~ Work for yourself and not for the man ~ Tax man doesn’t mess with people who grow food just for subsistance farming ~ Throw out your news paper, ‘Blow up ya TV’ and this durn computer, buy some #2 pencils “Eat a lot of peaches, try to find Jesus on your own” John Prine ~ Love & Respect, In Solidarity ~ Peyote ~

  • These can be good in garden but for the apartments they would look very messy.
    Although a good use of waste.

  • […] Dirt Cheap Planters for a Small Kitchen Garden Your Small source […]

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