Creative containers you can use to garden anywhere

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'Parsley in the eggshell', CC 2.0 by Gardener_24

‘Parsley in the eggshell’, CC 2.0 by Gardener_24

If you live in a small space without a garden plot, you can still grow vegetables in the space you do have — be it a balcony or patio. You’ll just have to get creative. Many vegetables are easy to grow in containers.

Container gardening welcomes innovation. There are some clearly definable requirements that, once met, will free you to experiment with the types of containers you use. The result can crystallize what we love most about gardening: the beauty and bounty of plant life and the potential for expressive play, all suitably framed.

The requirements: first and foremost, drainage holes. I always drill lots of holes — say, 26 for a 16-inch pot — one in the center and the rest in circular patterns of five around it at the bottom. Containers should also be opaque, so that roots can grow freely without being inhibited by light.

Camouflage your containers

Some of most creative uses of containers involve simple paint jobs or some type of wrapping. As mentioned in a previous post, plastic can be an asset in container gardening, but sometimes the faux terra cotta look just isn’t what you’re going for.

Paint: One of my favorite projects was painting window boxes to resemble copper. I wanted to create a slight patina, so I mixed my own color from metallic copper craft paint and black acrylic (go easy; just a dab or so). Once this base coat is complete, splatter it with some watered-down black paint. The result is a formal planter — for a fraction of the cost — that retains the benefits of plastic: light weight and protective of water loss.

Texture: Wrapping a small container with birch bark can be another way to mask an otherwise un-lovely receptacle. I once grew strawberries in a tubular grow-bag, strategically covering the utilitarian, dark-green plastic with bark I’d found on a walk with my daughter. Birch bark, with its striations of dark and light and its irresistible texture, makes for a gorgeous addition to even the smallest garden.

Burlap pot

Cover plain containers with fabric for an inexpensive, natural look. Photo: Kate Oden

Fabric: Once you think of bringing texture into a garden display, the possibilities open up. To grow peas and tomatoes on my balcony economically, I’m using 5-gallon buckets dressed up in burlap. I came by the buckets thanks to my partner’s job at a brewery, and bought empty burlap sacks from a local feed store for $2 each. They cover a food-grade, 5-gallon bucket nicely, and when tied with some twine add an appealing rough texture against the soft greenery. I’ve also successfully grown plants in small burlap rice sacks.

Vary shapes, sizes and colors: Think about form, too, when seeking containers. Once when my partner was home-brewing I nabbed the aluminum malt containers before they hit the recycling bin. About 10 inches tall and cylindrical, they make elegant containers that set off plants with a trailing habit very well. I drilled holes in the bottom and painted mine light blue.

Complementary colors are fun to play with: consider painting a container yellow to set off purple foliage or burgundy-colored lettuce, or orange to set off the blue tinge of a succulent plant.

Start seedlings in reused materials

A fun way to incorporate unexpected containers is to starting seedlings in them. The recycling bin offers up countless possibilities, from egg cartons to those little domed cherry tomato packages. Food packaging like this that also has a lid can be great for retaining moisture, a real plus when sprouting plants.

Use coffee sleeves and toilet paper rolls as containers; 'Recycle!', CC 2.0 by briannaorg

Use coffee sleeves and toilet paper rolls as containers; ‘Recycle!’, CC 2.0 by briannaorg

Or go with newspaper or craft paper bags. For the past several years I have been using an origami method to fold my own 2-inch-square pots from newspaper instead of buying plastic or peat pots. If you’ve got it, craft paper is probably even better suited to this use, because it’s slightly thicker. This year, I’ve added some nice wooden trays to hold all the newspaper pots. They’re simple to construct — I just used plywood and trim scraps from a building project — sturdier than plastic, and miles better looking.

Container gardening presents an opportunity to work from a blank canvas — a set of parameters that encourages innovation— and an opportunity that begins afresh with each growing season.

Now that you’ve got the tools you need to explore your own ideas, let me know what you come up with!

Kate Oden

Kate Oden is a writing professional from central New Hampshire who is also working to reclaim a half-acre yard from the deer and bears.

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