How to Plant a Cheap Container Garden
Beautiful, Bountiful Container Gardens on a Budget
In addition to fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetables, gardeners enjoy a relaxing and healthy pastime. A container garden can be squeezed into any available space, bringing the delights of a thriving garden to homes that lack a great space for a traditional garden.
Photo credit: iclipart.com
The wide variety of specialty containers, soils, plants, and tools available for the container garden can give the impression that container gardening is an expensive hobby. It is certainly possible to sink enough money to put a down payment on a farm into a container garden. Big bucks, though, are by no means required.
Like any hobby or project, your container garden will yield rewards in direct proportion to what you put into it. The key to successful container gardening on a budget is to bear in mind that what you put into it doesn't have to be money. A great container garden takes creativity, time, effort, and, yes, money. The more of any one of these you pour into your garden, the less of the others you'll need to achieve the results you want.
Creative container choices, patient cultivation from seed in place of seedlings, a little elbow grease thrown into building your own planters or hauling soil from a bulk supplier... the list goes on. Substitute creativity, time, or effort for money where possible, and carefully consider your options for the purchases you do make, and you can enjoy all the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of gardening in any space on any budget!
Cut Costs with Crazy, Cool Container Choices!
Reused and Upcycled Containers Are Unique, Decorative, and Cheap
When you are still establishing your container garden, the containers themselves will usually be your most significant potential expense. If your budget is a concern, containers from the garden center may be prohibitively expensive. Save your money by developing a scavenger's eye for free or low-cost containers.
A container does not have to be designed with plants in mind! Anything that allows drainage and can hold some soil can be pressed into use in the garden. Garden plants can thrive in old tires, children's toys, sinks, toilets, or plain plastic buckets. The large buckets in which many donut shops receive lard make great containers for flowers, herbs, small bushes, and many vegetables. Just drill or poke some holes for drainage. An old claw foot bathtub makes a truly great planter box, if you have the room, and adds quaint charm to any garden. Small plants look cheerful and stylish in an assortment of old shoes or hats.
If your container provides no exit for water, remember to poke or drill a few holes in it before planting. If it is aesthetically unacceptable, paint it, wrap it in fabric, cover it in wild avalanches of glitter, tuck it behind a more decorative container, or just use it to grow a boisterously vining plant for natural cover.
An old papasan chair makes a great planter!
Photo by Cassandra Gregg
Once you make looking for them a mission, finding unique items to repurpose as garden containers will become a large part of the fun of container gardening, and the treasures you find and make will help your garden become a better reflection of you!
Lining DIY Garden Containers - Coconut Fiber, Landscape Mats, and Old T-Shirts, Oh My!
Every once in a while, you'll stumble across an old or unwanted item that is already a perfect, ready-to-use container. Perhaps the most ubiquitous example of this is the humble kitchen colandar, which is perfectly suited by its nature to hold in dirt while allowing water to drain.
More often, as in the case of the papasan chair planter above, you'll need to either make holes to allow water to drain or line your brilliant new DIY container with something to keep dirt in. Making holes is pretty self-explanatory. Lining containers to keep dirt in seems more complicated, but it's not hard! If you have a little dough to spend on a liner that'll hold up for a few years, it's hard to beat coconut fiber. That's what I used to line my papasan chair, and it's been going strong for a few years now with no signigicant signs of wear. Coconut fiber can be bought in a roll and cut to fit the shape of your container.
If you're on a shoestring budget, a roll of coconut fiber may be out of reach for this year's garden. Landscaping fabric designed for weed control is a great second choice. It's meant to withstand exposure to repeated soaking and drying, and to let water pass through. A container lined with this type of fabric is very similar to a fabric grow bag, offering fantastic drainage. The only drawbacks to using this sort of fabric instead of coconut fiber are strength and durability. Provided you're okay with replacing the liner in a year or two, and are using a container that offers some support, landscape weed control fabric makes a great, inexpensive liner.
Finally, if you're rolling pennies to plant your garden, you can always cut up old clothes to line your containers. Unfortunately, the fabrics that are good for clothing tend to be not-so-good for lining garden containers. They degrade rapidly when exposed to water and sunlight, and the weave tends to become clogged with dirt, causing drainage to be less than ideal. On the bright side, a found container lined with discarded clothes is pretty much free, and seeds are so cheap that you can afford to try different crops in your homemade container till you find something that really flourishes.
A roll of coconut fiber allows you to line any object you'd like to use as a container quickly and with a perfect, custom fit. Coconut fiber is a fantastic liner!
Be an Opportunistic Container Gardener - Wait, Don't Throw that Away!
Fava beans and lettuce in an old dryer drum
Photo by Cassandra Gregg.
Lettuce grows faster than we can eat salads.
Photo by Cassandra Gregg
As fall sped toward winter, I was busy and the chilly remains of my vegetable garden were pretty far down on my list of priorities. As I was clearing out my old dryer drum planter, I took five minutes to grab a bag of fava beans and some lettuce seed, shove a few bean seeds into the dirt with my fingers, scatter lettuce seeds over the top and water.
Rains came soon after my impromptu planting. Lettuce and beans sprouted slowly, hung around being neglected for a bit, then took off, ignited by an unusually mild winter and warm spring.
In February I watered for the first time since planting. Now, in early March, we've been enjoying fresh lettuce for our salads for months, and it's growing faster than we can cut it.
The fava beans are tall and lush, and blooming prettily. More importantly, they're hard at work preparing the container for spring's planting.
Fava beans fix nitrogen in the soil as they grow, making them an excellent choice for off-season planting! Total cost: A cumulative twenty minutes of my time and some loose change in seeds.
More Creative Ideas for Garden Containers - If It'll Hold Dirt...
Creative container choices are budget friendly, to be sure, but they can also make your garden more original and interesting! Here are some great ideas for creative containers to beautify your outdoor space without breaking the bank.
- Grow Lettuce in a Colander
An old colander makes a great container for lettuce or other plants with shallow root systems.
- Rain Gutter Gardens
Old rain gutters make great indoor or outdoor containers, and can be used to make a vertical garden or garden wall, ideal for small spaces.
- Old Tire Planters
With a coat of brightly colored paint, old tires can make a lovely, cheerful garden container.
- 35 Ideas to Use Old Shoes as Planters
Old shoes make wonderful, whimsical small garden containers. Here are a whopping 35 creative designs for container gardens with old shoes.
- 9 Plant-Preserving Self-Watering Container Gardens You Can DIY or Buy
Self-watering containers are the ultimate worry-free gardening tool, and you can make them yourself with surprisingly little effort or expense.
- DIY Scrap Wood Box Planter
An excellent description of a DIY box planter made with scrap wood. Includes photos for each step.
Offset Garden Expenditures by Growing Food - Many wonderful fruits and vegetables will grow beautifully in containers!
A bowl full of peppers looks good enough to eat!
Photo by Sascha Faber
Container-grown fruits and vegetables benefit from increased protection from soil-dwelling garden pests. In a container, you also have full control over the soil mix and the amount of water you provide to your plants. Even in an apartment with no patio or sunny window, a small and inexpensive grow light or two can allow you to grow one tomato or pepper plant or an entire thriving garden of herbs. Did you know that many peppers will grow as perennials when placed indoors under a light? That's right: fresh, delicious peppers all year long!
In addition to tomatoes, peppers, and assorted herbs, you can grow cucumbers, berries, and eggplant with fabulous results in containers. If you find, make, or buy some very large (20 gallon or larger for ideal results) containers, you can add summer and winter squash, melons, the largest beefsteak tomatoes... essentially, anything you could grow in the ground, with the possible exception of corn. Theoretically, corn would do fine in larger containers, but you'd need a lot of them, as corn needs to be grown in a squarish "patch" for proper pollination. Do you grow corn in containers with great results? Drop me a comment... I want to hear about it!
Start Your Plants from Seed - For a Cheaper Garden and Wider Selection
Most plants can be started from seed with little effort and no special equipment. For a cheap, healthy, and ecologically sound start, sow your seeds with compost and soil or planting mix in old socks or, for very small seedlings, cardboard egg cartons.
When it's time to transplant your seedlings to their permanent homes, simply cut slits in the old socks or poke holes in your egg carton, and you can plant the whole thing, fabric or cardboard and all! This is particularly nice as it minimizes the shock sustained by the plant's roots at transplant time.
For a mini-greenhouse, cut the bottom four inches or so off of a 2-liter plastic bottle, remove the top, and place over your transplanted seedling, pushing the cut edge of the plastic slightly into the soil to anchor. This will protect the seedling from any surprise frosts after transplant time, but should be removed during the warmer hours of the day to avoid overheating your seedlings.
A pot of pretty peppers is perfect for the porch.
Lettuce can be grown in small containers on a patio, or even in a sunny window.
A teeny-tiny eggplant just for container gardeners.
Compost is a Free Lunch
Compost is a cheap source of nutrients for your garden, and a free addition to or replacement for expensive planting mixes or fertile soil. Many communities have implemented various composting programs to encourage local residents to compost their biodegradable waste.Check your city and county government websites for information about such programs. In many areas, compost bins and other equipment are provided free or at a reduced price to residents who attend a brief, free composting class.
Compost not composting? If you started your composting habit too late in the year for finished compost at planting time, use the unfinished compost to plant pumpkins and other winter squash earlier in the spring than would ordinarily be possible. Add a layer of soil to the top of your compost pile, and the heat from the decomposing compost beneath will help your squash sprout even while frost still covers the ground. By the time the roots reach the compost, it should have progressed enough to provide nourishment without burning your plants. Winter squash tossed whole into the compost bin will frequently produce volunteer squash vines when spring arrives.
Compost Without the Mess (or Aroma!)
The All Seasons Indoor Composter brings all the benefits (and none of the hassle!) of composting into the small yard or apartment garden. Composting is an excellent way to provide wonderful food for your garden. Sadly, small yards and apartments make it difficult to use a traditional compost pile or bin. Small compost piles are harder to "cook," as their mass doesn't reach a size that will easily encourage the center to decay and heat. An enclosed composter designed for indoor use offers a faster, cleaner, and altogether more palatable approach for the city gardener.
Save Your Coffee Grounds
Coffee is Compost Superfood
Used coffee grounds are an awesome power food for your garden. They break down quickly in the compost pile, and encourage other foods to do the same. Their pleasant aroma, soil-like appearance, and high nitrogen content also make them an ideal side-dressing supplement for encouraging vegetation.
Pleasantly, coffee grounds are also among the easiest garden treasures to find for free! Almost any coffee shop will cheerfully allow you to cart away as big a bag as you can haul, just for the asking.
Photo by Aaron Logan
If there's no convenient local coffee shop, or your local purveyor of java is bizarrely attached to used coffee grounds, collect them from the coffee pot at work or solicit them from friends. Used coffee cans make great collection bins.
Gardeners are a creative and crafty lot, and each of us has our favorite unique trick, shortcut, or tool to make our gardens more frugal or bountiful. Add yours below, or just say hi!