Container gardening makes gardening fun and easy in rental or urban properties. We LOVE container gardening, even with our 3 acres! However, you might notice that a midsized pot of at least 5 gallons will run you $10, $15, maybe even $20 or more. This ends up being an outrageous price tag in the end… Instead, why not find free containers, both large and small? Check out our ideas, and if you have something to add, drop us a comment!
Bakeries & Icing Buckets: Great for Container Potatoes!
One thing a bakery does is ice LOTS of cakes and cupcakes. Have you thought about obtaining some icing buckets?
Most bulk icing containers hold about 5 gallons of icing; the perfect size for growing potatoes in containers.
Icing bucket potatoes will also be protected from sunlight, and the buckets should withstand any heavy pressure from tubers as they grow. Just ensure the spuds are covered with 12″ of soil and a bit of straw on top, and you’re good to go!
Delicatessens: Prepared Deli Salad Jugs for Pea Gardening!
A lot of the salads in busy or grocery store delis are delivered in large plastic buckets. These buckets may range from 1 gallon in size to 5 gallons in size. The smaller deli buckets are great for growing peas in! Growing peas in small containers is more than possible, and you can actually grow 2 plants in a single gallon container. Intensive container gardening will require extra nutrients for the plants, however.
Old Pickle Barrels: Grow Sweet Potatoes!
Most of us are already familiar with pickle barrels, as we tend to use them for feed storage.
While most places will charge for these barrels, you can still find them from large production facilities too, especially those that pack pickles for store distribution.
Farmers who are selling their lands and stock might give them away too. Sweet potatoes grow great in pickle barrels and feed barrels, as there is plenty of space to grow. Sweet potatoes get very, very large, and tubers will become deformed in smaller buckets… not very desirable for eating!
Old Gallon Milk & Water Jugs: Try Growing Spinach!
Try growing spinach in gallon milk and water jugs! In our home, we probably go through 4 to 5 jugs per week. That’s a lot of spinach plants! If you plant a jug with spinach every time you finish one off, you will have a staggered harvest. This is important for maintaining a constant supply of container spinach in your garden. Spinach is a great substitute for lettuce, making it perfect for an urban garden with limited space. Jugs may begin to break down after a few harvests, but you can then recycle them; feeling good about the fact that they’ve already found a second life, and are on the way to a third!
Nurseries & Old Busted Tree Containers
Many nurseries offer delivery and planting services for their stock. After they complete deliveries, they have to have somewhere for all of those pots to go!
Even busted tree containers can be taped and reused as well! Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash, and many other large plants can grow very well in old tree pots, especially when provided with the right soil and nutrition.
Container gardening with large rooted plants is possible, it just requires a 10, 15, 20 or larger gallon container.
Curbside Pickup: Moving, Pots Must Go!
When people move their homes, especially across the country, they tend to let go of the small things. For a hobby gardener, that could mean hundreds of pots over the course of several years. When you see people listing their moving sales, ask if they have any gardening containers, totes, buckets, or baskets they no longer need to support your container gardening project. Many times, people are just happy to let them go to someone who will put them to good use.
Recycling Centers: Jugs, Bottles, Glasses, for Indoor Herb Gardens!
Recycling centers are an absolute GOLD MINE for container gardening. The only catch here is that these centers are hit and miss.
Some employees are happy to let you take what you need, and others look down upon it. Indoor or balcony herb gardens can be planted in these recycled jugs, bottles, and glasses, as many herbs are content in small spaces.
You might be surprised at the size of some of the containers you find, too! Try opting for gallon sized jugs and jars for plants that are bigger than smaller herbs, strawberries, spinach, or other greens.
Friends & Family: Asking for Pot Donations
Between all of your good friends and extended family, someone is sure to have some old plastic nursery trays, pots, and planters that they don’t use.
In the spring, many people refill their fancy pots and planters with purchased flowers, and they find themselves with more cheap plastic planters than they can possibly use.
Asking around is sure to yield you a few dozen pots and planters, at the very least. This doesn’t include valuable pots and large planters from those who no longer have time to enjoy gardening anymore, either! Sometimes, careers and a growing family can interfere with hobbies, so many are forced to give up their beloved gardens in order to spend time on other more important things.
Always ask at the beginning of gardening season, or during the fall. These are prime times to get the pots before they are thrown away; in addition, those family members will be thinking of you when it comes time to throw away the plastic pots!
Store Valentine Displays: Trash is Your Container Gardening Treasure!
When Valentine’s Day rolls around, nearly every store (from gas stations to small retail stores) offers a selection of roses for quick and easy purchases.
While they might not be the ideal, fresh, expensive bouquets that most receive for Valentine’s Day, those single roses are a quick way to show a partner a bit of appreciation without going out of the way or spending much. Thus, the gas station rose display has flourished.
Once Valentine’s Day comes and goes, try asking the local store managers if you can have their display buckets for planting. If they are not sending them back to the flower supplier, its a great way to gain a container AND keep those buckets out of the landfill.
Grocery Store Stockrooms: Bulk Bucket Packaging
Some grocery items come in bulk sized buckets and pails, which hold several individually packaged items. Local grocery stores tend to throw these away or recycle them, if they are not required to send them back on trucks. One good example is dairy. Most milk and eggs are distributed in milk crates. This makes shipping, distribution, and stocking far easier. Ask stockers and store managers if there are buckets or pails that you might have for container gardening. If they normally throw them away, chances are that they will let you have them.
Local Diners & Fine Restaurants: Grab Condiment Buckets!
For restaurants, condiments don’t come in cute little jars and squeeze bottles. Instead, they come in massive, bulk sized jars, tubs, and buckets!
Otherwise, the companies would have to go through hundreds of containers per week. They will need a good cleaning, but once done, they make brilliant pots!
Some of the containers can be quite large. Pickles tend to come in 1 gallon glass jars; which is pretty handy for the container garden.
I cannot stress the need to clean enough though: vinegar can be lethal to plants, so clean, clean, clean before use!
Yardsale Leftovers: Take Advantage of a Lost Love!
During a yard sale, it’s clear that the owner just wants to get rid of his or her clutter… at any cost. When Monday rolls around and all of the yard sales are done for for the week, try checking with the different households to see if any of them have leftover pots, totes, and large buckets that they are willing to part with. If this feels too bold, look for posts online that contain yard sale left overs. Contact them to find out if they have any of the containers that you are in seek of. You never know what type of gold mine you might strike!
Recycle Halloween: Request Used/Unwanted Candy Pails!
Every single child winds up with a pail of some sort for Halloween. However, when the holiday is over, the pails are nearly useless; especially when all of the candy is gone! Parents don’t enjoy trying to store these bulky pails, especially since many are impossible to stack. They take up far too much room! Try posting ads in search of old Halloween buckets after the kids have trick or treated themselves out! With just a few holes drilled for drainage and perhaps a small bit of paint, you’ll have some pretty cool planters with handles!
Take Free Pots & Pans: Plant Peppers in Large Kitchenware!
Have you ever seen a bell pepper growing in pasta pot, or a cayenne pepper growing in a sauce pan?
Probably not… but wouldn’t they make interesting planters in a pinch???
People commonly give their old, scratched, or broken pots and pans away for free; especially when they move, or receive a new set after getting married. Scour through Craigslist in the free section, and you might be surprised at what you find.
Just keep in mind that pepper plants can widely vary in size. By a ridiculous amount, actually. One of the most space friendly pepper plants that I have found is the Dragon Cayenne Pepper. This pepper can grow with a very small amount of root space, but it may not reach its full potential either. They will actually perform quite well in the amount of space that a cooking pot or pan will offer.
If you intend on growing very large peppers, such as Big Bertha, Chinese Giant, Colossal Sweet Peppers, Giant Aconcagua Sweet Peppers, or Giant Marconis, I definitely recommend using the largest pots that you can! This will help in achieving the largest pepper size at harvest time.
Old Laundry Baskets: Busted Baskets & Bags = Amazing Large Container Beds!
Laundry baskets make exceptional container gardening pots for potatoes, corn, zucchini, sweet potatoes, winter squash, okra, brussel sprouts, and much more! Their large size offers generous amounts of room for roots to grow. Just be mindful of the fact that these are open containers. They will loose moisture very easily during the summer, and wandering roots or tubers might dry out if exposed. You can line the inside of the baskets with dull, non-glossy newspaper, and line the interior with straw. The newspaper alone does an EXCELLENT job of maintaining moisture within the basket. In drier climates, the straw will help even more.
Gardening Stores & Nurseries: Asking for Dead Plant Pots
It’s inevitable: plants will die under the best of care sometimes, even at nurseries and garden centers. Most of these plants are simply thrown away, container and all.
You can call ahead and speak with the owner of the garden center to see if it’s possible to collect these containers.
It is even worth asking if you could do a regular pickup; you might even gain some free potting mix if you are picking up entire dead plants, as well. Just be wary of potential communicable infections that the dirt might bring home, especially if you have sensitive, young plants that you want to protect.
Farmers & Ranchers: Nutrition Supplement Buckets for Melons!
With every animal having different nutritional needs throughout life, farmers have to keep particular supplements on hand. For example, a mare might have issues holding her weight, so the farmer must buy a weight gain supplement for her to hold weight throughout cold winter months.
There are many types of supplements that might be used, especially for working animals. Try asking local farmers for these buckets! Some are quite large, over 5 gallons in size. You could grow larger plants in the biggest ones: try planting some zucchini, watermelons, crookneck squash, okra, cucumbers, pumpkins, corn, or cabbage in these large containers.
Jewelry Craftsmen: Bead Buckets & Pails
For those who produce large amounts of jewelry as their main source of income, beads are simply a way of life. The best, and cheapest, way to buy beads is in bulk.
Beads can be expensive, so it’s necessary for the jeweler or craftsman to get them in the cheapest way possible. Many of those bulk packages tend to be squared containers. While they might not be incredibly large, they are still perfect for personal salad greens, herbs, turnips, or celery.
Water Bottle Trash: Herbs, Strawberries, and Greens!
Did you know you can save all of your water bottles, and turn them into cute herb gardens and micro strawberry beds? Greens such as leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, and turnip greens will all grow to a harvest size as well!
Try allowing greens to grow for 30 days or less, then harvest. My favorite way to use water bottles is to cut off the top, just as it begins to taper to a smaller size. Then, flip this piece upside down, take the cap off, and put it into the bottom of the bottle. When finished, it will look like a funnel is sitting in the bottom half of the bottle. Pack dirt inside, and add water.
When the soil begins to dry, the empty space will no longer have visible water as it wicks it up. Plus, the roots will never be water logged; this is an amazing micro system!
Local Cake Decorators: Fondant Containers are Great for Lettuce!
Professional cake decorators use so much fondant that it is insane! From wedding cakes with multiple tiers for a hundred or more people, to extravagant princess cakes for the “big 5”, fondant is a hot item. For decorators who are booked up, fondant containers come and go fast!
Those fondant containers, especially the smaller ones, are perfect for planting your standard lettuces. The larger ones might even work for cabbage! These food safe containers are usually made of a thick plastic, much like the icing buckets.
They might be stained from food dyes, so be prepared to soak them a bit. Setting them out in the sunlight can help to bleach out some of the color as well, if you have plenty of time to spare before planting.
Dumpster Diving: Taking It to Extremes
To polish off our list, I now recommend dumpster diving! I do not recommend diving in just ANY dumpster. I would only opt for department or plain retail stores. Not grocery stores, not restaurants, not office buildings… and definitely not in places where it might be illegal.
But for the remaining dumpsters, they can be an absolute gold mine for container gardening. Now, before you think “EWWW!”, most of the dumpsters I am referring to are mostly strictly merchandise. Old seasonal items, damaged clothes, broken totes, and more.
These dumpsters tend to be rather clean. You can find tons of items that are useful for container gardening, and you might even find VERY handy hardware or merchandise while you’re at it. Please check your local laws regarding dumpster diving (many times, it’s a free for all for the brave), and NEVER break into a dumpster. If it’s locked, it’s not legal to break in.