13 June 2011

An easy way to get started with container gardening

One practical way to increase your self-reliance is to grow your own food. If you want to be truly self-reliant, you can plant and maintain a full-size vegetable garden, assuming you have the time, space, and temperament.

However, a big garden's not for everyone. For the beginner, the apartment dweller, or those who have very busy schedules, container gardening is a great way to start.

Finding a container

There's tons of information on the Web about container gardening, but I've found the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) approach to be very easy and practical (both plusses in my book). The SFG method is described in Mel Bartholomew's book All New Square Foot Gardening. I highly recommend the book, and you can read my review here.

A key feature of SFG is the idea of working with gardens areas that are in measured in square feet. Doing so makes it easy to figure out how many plants you can grow in a given area. You can use a variety of pots or planters for your vegetable garden, but it's helpful to use boxy containers that are one or two square feet in dimension.

For example, our city provided new large-capacity containers for their community recycling program, leaving the old bins to each household for them to use as they see fit. Since it measures about a foot wide by two feet long, I decided it would be only fitting to recycle my recycle bin into a planter.

My approach to converting the bin is laid out below. These steps would also work for similar containers you have on hand, such as plastic storage totes, etc. (Just be sure that your bin hasn't held anything toxic, since you don't want anything to leach into your garden soil, and then into your food!)

If you're not worried about the look of your container, there's really not much preparation. Make sure you have drainage holes, and proceed to filling the container with your soil.

Me? I wanted something that better matched our house, so I decided to paint the bin first.

Getting started

If you're recycling your container, first rinse it out to get rid of any dirt, etc. (You'll actually wash it better later on.)

Check the bottom of your container for drain holes. Mine had four, but I drilled four more 3/8" diameter holes toward the corners. If you add holes, use a 3/8" or 1/2" drill bit to ensure adequate drainage.

Preparing the surfaces

Next, use 120- or 150-grit sandpaper to lightly roughen up the surface of the plastic. Once the plastic surface's shine is replaced with a dull, matte finish, you're set. (While sanding, you can also smooth out any embossed imprints or remove any screened logos on the sides of the container.)

When sanding my bin, I skipped the bottom because no one will see it. I also prepped only a few inches down on the inside, since I didn't want to paint the soil area.

After sanding, thoroughly wash the container inside and out. Make sure it is thoroughly dry all over before proceeding.


Place the bin on old piece of cardboard or spread some newspaper to protect the surface from overspray. Since I wasn't worried about painting the bottom, I just set the bin down as normal.

Use a good spray paint, one that's designed for outdoor use, and is also meant for plastic surfaces. I used Krylon's Fusion paint, which went on nicely and has lasted well so far. It also dries quickly, which means that you can easily finish your bin in an afternoon, even if you apply multiple coats.

Once the paint is dry and fully hardened (after a day), you're ready to go!

Filling your container

According to the SFG method, your soil really only needs to be 6" deep, so you could fill the bottom portion of the container with sand. I will eventually want to plant some "root" plants (for example, carrots), so I filled my bin with 12" of soil.

The SFG book calls for a soil made by mixing equal parts of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost, but I used Miracle Grow organic garden soil in place of the compost. The result is a nice, loose soil that plants thrive in.

Be creative!

Of course, rectangular bins are practical, but you can use a similar method to convert other containers for planting.

Another great example of container creativity is the Rain Gutter Garden shown by Kathryn at The Dragon's Fairy Tail blog. This container garden allows her to grow rows of lettuce in an out-of-the way and easy to maintain location.

As you can see, it's easy to find and use containers for planting. What innovative containers have you used for your gardens? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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