Going potty in the garden
Now is the time to start your spring planting – but shop-bought containers can be costly. Sally Cameron Griffiths shows you how to give new life to old tin cans
What recycled items find a new home in your garden? Share your thrifty tips in the comments section below
Traditional terracotta plant pots look great but can be expensive. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian
Traditional terracotta plant pots look great but can be expensive. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian
I t’s that time of the year when it’s no longer dark when you wake up, it’s warm enough to go for a walk on a Sunday morning, and you’ve resolved to plant something in your garden. Again. And this year you really are going to do it.
But if, like me, you only have a small outdoor area – in my case a roof terrace – then you need something to grow your plants in. And if you have been to your local garden centre or DIY store of late, then you will know that most containers don’t come cheap. And, to be honest, most of them are pretty ugly as well.
A pansy in a tin can
So why not get creative? When I was sorting out my recycling, I found that I didn’t want to throw out an empty tin of olive oil I’d bought when visiting a friend in Spain. It had everything I was looking for in a plant container – inexpensive but with a bit of character. Here’s how you can transform a similar container into a rustic plant pot.
What you need
Tin can (can be any shape or size – use your imagination)
Hammer and nail
Plant/flowers/herbs, or whatever takes your fancy
How long will it take?
What to do
1 Collect some old tin cans. If you don’t have any of your own, go to a local restaurant – they will have loads waiting to be recycled. Use a tin opener if the lids haven’t been removed already.
2 Clean out the cans. For ones that held oil, wipe out the grease before you wash them. You can either remove labels from the outside or leave them on to weather down.
3 Use a hammer and nail to make drainage holes in the bottom of the tin.
4 Fill the tin with soil and plant your flowers (or equivalent). Choose a shape, size and colour of tin that complements the plant. Your pot may rust over time, but this is all part of its charm.
What else can be recycled to make a useful garden container? Or is there no place for rubbish in your garden – do you stick to traditional wooden planters and terracotta pots? Let us know in the comments section below
<p>Now is the time to start your spring planting – but shop-bought containers can be costly. <strong>Sally Cameron Griffiths </strong>shows you how to give new life to old tin cans</p>
7 Materials Used for Plant Containers
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Whether you are repurposing old containers for use as planting pots or buying containers designed for that purpose at a garden center, the materials used for container gardening generally fall into seven broad types. Each type has its advantages, drawbacks, and handling tips.
Terracotta or Ceramic Pots
A number of different clay-based materials are used for planting pots. The term terracotta (the term means “baked earth” in Italian) generally refers to an unglazed, somewhat porous ceramic made from clay. These are the familiar reddish-brown clay pots that are very popular as planting containers. Some terracotta has a glazed surface on the inside.
Traditional ceramic containers are also used as plant pots. Ceramic pots tend to be made of denser, less porous earthen materials, and they are always glazed, both inside and out. All these types of ceramics have similar properties when used as planting containers.
- Terracotta pots are classic planting pots, with a neutral and warm color that makes almost any plant look great.
- The range of quality and cost of terracotta pots is huge—from super cheap to phenomenally expensive. There is a line of Italian terracotta that is exquisite, durable and frost proof.
- High-end ceramic pots are very durable. Glazed ceramics can last for decades.
- Ceramic and terracotta pots are quite heavy, especially when filled with soil. Large pots can be lightened by filling the bottoms with empty, sealed plastic bottles before filling with potting soil.
- Terracotta and ceramic pots are brittle, and will almost always break if you drop them.
- The inexpensive forms of terracotta are delicate and will not survive repeated freezing and thawing. Under the impact of weather, the clay may begin to flake and slough away.
- Another disadvantage is that terracotta that is not lined or sealed on the inside can dry out quickly once it is filled with soil, as the clay is a porous material that breathes and allows moisture to easily escape. Glazed ceramic pots, or terracotta that has been glazed on the inside so that the inside surface is shiny, are less prone to drying out and also more durable.
- Lining inexpensive terracotta pots with heavy plastic and cutting a drainage hole in the bottom will protect the clay and prolong the life of the pot. Or, you can use the terracotta pot as an outer container, inserting an inexpensive plastic pot to hold the soil. If it’s not a perfect fit, you can hide the plastic edge of the inner pot with moss or cascading plants.
- If you live in a cold climate, unless they are rated as frostproof (most are not), store your terracotta indoors, out of the weather. You can leave them outside if you empty them and protect them from moisture.
- Stack terracotta pots in graduated sizes for a great looking planter and to maximize vertical growing space.
Wood is a natural building material that is gorgeous when used in planting pots and containers. Styles can range from super modern to very traditional, and sizes are equally varied. If you need a custom-size container to fit a specific area or need it to match a color, wood may be the least expensive and easiest choice. Made from the right type of wood, properly constructed, and well maintained, a wooden planting pot can last for many years. Cedar is a long-lasting but relatively expensive wood commonly used in planting containers. Redwood has similar properties but is somewhat more expensive, and teak will also last when subject to outdoor environments. Pine is inexpensive but generally will not last as long unless it has been pressure-treated with preservation chemicals. Screws, nails, and other fasteners used to construct wooden planting containers should be made of stainless steel or another corrosion-resistant metal.
- Constructing wooden planting containers is a relatively easy DIY project, requiring ordinary tools and materials.
- Wooden containers can be considerably less expensive than high-end terracotta or ceramic pots, especially if you build them yourself.
- Many ordinary wooden containers, such as wine boxes and small storage boxes can be repurposed as planting containers.
- If not cared for properly, a wooden container may decay in just a year or two. To avoid decay, the soil should be removed when storing the pot for the winter.
- Wooden containers are somewhat high maintenance, as the wood needs to be resealed periodically in order to prolong the life of the pot.
- Consider using wooden dresser drawers as planting containers. Either use the drawers separately or keep them in the dresser and pull them out in a graduated pattern (the lowest drawer out the farthest, the top drawer out pulled out the least) to make a large vertical garden.
- Line wooden containers with heavy plastic to make them last longer. Use heavy-duty plastic bags with holes cut in the bottom for drainage to line the container, then fill it up with planting soil and plant the specimens. Cut off the top of the plastic bag and tuck in the edges under the soil.
- Painting wooden containers bright colors is a great way to add color or a focal point to your patio, yard, or garden.
- Buy old wooden crates at yard sales or flea markets to use as planting pots. But be cautious of old painted wood, as the paint may contain lead, which is dangerous and very hard to get rid of.
- To help your wooden container last longer, use pot feet to elevate it, so it’s not sitting right on the ground or patio.
- Empty the container out at the end of each growing season, clean and reseal the wood (especially the inside), and store it in a dry location over the winter.
Metal containers can look fabulous. From giant feed troughs and brushed modern steel boxes to tin cans, there is any number of looks and styles of metal containers. A re-purposed file cabinet can even become a good planting container. Painted, brushed, or shiny metal surfaces can all work.
- Metal planting containers are unusual choices that create a unique look in the garden and often serve as accent pieces.
- Many old metal items are available that can be repurposed as planting containers.
- Metal containers often develop a wonderful worn patina as they sit out in the weather. A copper pot, for example, may develop an attractive green finish over time.
- Although they gradually rust or corrode, metal containers often last for many, many years.
- Metal can get searingly hot in the sun, which can burn your plants and dry out the soil very quickly. There are a couple of ways to get around this problem. You can use metal containers only in shady locations, which both reduces heat and eliminates the glare that can be tough on plants. Or, line your metal containers with bubble wrap to insulate the soil and roots from the hot metal. In very hot climates, however, the metal may get hot enough to melt the bubble wrap. Finally, make sure to choose plants that are well-suited for hot conditions, such desert succulents and others that like dry, hot soil.
- Use metal containers as cachepots, using either fiber or plastic containers and setting them inside the metal container.
- Use a can opener, or pound in holes in the bottom of the pot using an awl or large nail to assist drainage. The more holes, the better
- Go to a hardware or feed and farm store to find large and relatively inexpensive large containers.
- Collect plant colanders, old barbecue grills, pretty metal cans, and other found or inexpensive metal containers to use for planting.
- If you have a metal mesh container, you can use either plastic or moss to line it. If using plastic, make sure to cut some drainage holes.
Plastic Plant Pots
Plastic as a material for planting containers is uniquely diverse. Some plastic pots are extremely attractive and high-end, while other plastic containers are admittedly cheap and ugly. But whether you obtain a premium decorative foam plastic pot from a top-end garden center, or just repurposing a five-gallon pail that once held bird seed, plastic planting containers are always practical.
Purchased plastic pots are lightweight and can be any shape and style. Ranging from modern to the traditional, they can even mimic stone, concrete, and terracotta. They can have patterns, use finishes ranging from matter to high-gloss, and be any color you want.
- Plastic pots are extremely lightweight.
- These are among the least expensive of plant pot materials.
- No material is more diverse than plastic; you can find literally hundreds of options when choosing plastic pots.
- Plastic pots are fairly resilient to damage. They may resist cracking, even when dropped.
- Cheap plastic pots can fade and turn brittle in the sun; they may crack when they get old.
- Unless they are very high-end, plastic pots look like plastic, which means they can have a cheap feel.
- Use caution if growing edibles in plastic pots. There are some studies that show that some plastics can leach chemicals into the soil, particularly if left in the sun. Look for food-grade plastics for growing edibles. Many planters designed for edibles are made of stable plastic that won’t leach, such as Earthboxes and Grow Boxes.
- Old, faded plastic pots can be painted with an outdoor spray enamel to renew them.
- Old plastic pots can become liners for use in terracotta and metal planting containers.
- Plastic polish can be used to restore the gloss on plastic pots that have dulled in the sun.
Often mistaken for plastic because they are equally lightweight, fiberglass planting pots are also synthetic, but rather than being made of molded plastic, they are formed from fiberglass fibers mixed with resins that are formed into various shapes. At first glance, fiberglass containers may even be mistaken for concrete, terra cotta or even wood, since the versatility of this material is incredible.
- These can be very elegant planting containers, suitable for designer gardens.
- Fiberglass is a much lighter material than clay or ceramics.
- These pots are very durable. Unlike clay, which gradually breaks down under weather, fiberglass pots can last almost indefinitely.
- There are not inexpensive containers. Costs can be nearly that of high-end ceramic pots.
- The fiberglass fibers can wear and fray over time, giving the pots a ragged appearance. Harsh power washing can also damage them.
- Clean out, hand-wash, and store your fiberglass pots at the end of each garden season. While they can survive the winters outdoors, they will last longer if protected for the winter.
- With large containers, position them in their final location before filling with soil. If the pot will be moved around, fill the bottom with a layer of empty sealed plastic bottles to lighten the weight.
- Elevate the bottom of the container on pot feet to allow for drainage.
Concrete and Hypertufa Planters
Some of the most beautiful containers are made of concrete. The colors and shapes can be elegant and nuanced. The only drawback is weight—they can be ridiculously heavy. Hypertufa has some of the looks of concrete but is lighter.
Hypertufa is a lightweight concrete that is often done as a DIY project. Hypertufa containers are made by using a mixture of concrete, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite, which is then cast into molds or simply shaped by hand. You can make textured pots by using a basket, leaves, shells, or other decorative items to stamp patterns in the finished pots. Hypertufa takes a few weeks to cure, so it is a good springtime project.
Concrete and hypertufa are both incredibly durable and the containers can be left outside even in the harshest climates. However, it is best to cover them for winter, as even the toughest pots can be cracked with repeated thawing and freezing of water inside.
While planting in fabric pots may seem counterintuitive, plants seem to love them, and there are more and more on the market. One excellent choice is the Smart Pot—breathable fabric pots that “air prune” plants so they don’t become rootbound. They are lightweight, incredibly durable and at the end of the season, you simply hose them off, fold them up and put them away. They also come in multiple sizes. To jazz them up, you can put them in colorful, inexpensive laundry baskets.
Reusable grocery bags can also be used to grow plants. Better choices include the bags that are a blend of plastic and textile fibers; plants thrive in these, as those made entirely of fabric often don’t hold up for the entire growing season.
Your options for plant containers is limitless. From hand-crafted, Italian terracotta to a tin can—whatever your budget, there is a container for you.