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Monday, April 8, 2024

Tote, Bin, and Bucket Gardens

For those who can't grow a garden in the ground, here are a bunch of unusual and thrifty containers to use for gardening. 

last year's container garden

Perhaps you recall that last year I grew our salad greens in containers on outdoor shelves. I used the bottom halves of gallon milk jugs for my containers. This worked pretty well, but I had wished my plants could have had deeper soil than the 4-inch milk jug pots provided.

This year I decided to buy some plastic bins/tubs to use for our salad green growing containers. I bought 6 of these 16-gallon bins at Fred Meyer, for $3.99 each less a 30% discount that week. So they were under $3 each. I was hesitant to drill holes in them (and make them useless as future airtight storage containers), so I delayed getting these started for a couple of weeks. 

However, 10 days ago I finally got out the drill, filled them with soil, and planted 4 of the 6. I drilled 8 holes on the bottom of each and 4 holes on the lower sides of each for drainage. I used the soil from last year's milk jug containers boosted with a dose of granular fertilizer. This year's containers are about 7 inches deep, so they used considerably more soil than last year's. 

4 of my 6 bins filled and planted

I had enough of last year's soil in the milk jug containers to fill 4 of the 6 of these large bins.

spinach and watercress on the outdoor shelf

Our nights are still quite cool, so I have only put the two most cold-hardy containers (spinach and watercress seedlings) on the shelves on the deck and move the other two in and outdoors for daytime hours. I hope those will be ready to move outdoors in a week.

My hope is that because these containers hold more soil, they will allow greater root growth and will also hold moisture for the plants later in the season when things warm up. Also, because there will be fewer of these containers, I should be able to move them into partial shade off of the shelves for salad greens even on hot summer days.

I first got the idea to use storage containers from watching a YouTube video a couple of years ago of a family growing some vegetables in larger totes. They recommended those extra large totes that you might store items in in a garage or attic. Since I wanted mine to be a little portable (for moving later in the summer), I chose a smaller bin. 

What I love about this idea is you can set up a temporary vegetable garden any place on your property that meets sun requirements. At the end of the season, you can clean that space up and us it for it's regular purpose. Or for renters, you can have a vegetable garden without disturbing the owner's landscaping. My husband and I had a container garden on the balcony of one apartment where we lived. In two other homes we rented, we got permission from the landlords to dig in the yard. The downside for us was that we had to then return the landscaping back to its original state when we moved out, which meant replacing lawn in both homes' yards. A tote garden would have been simpler for us.

For beginner gardeners, a tote garden allows a cheap entry into the world of vegetable gardens. One wouldn't need to have a dozen bins, but instead could begin with one or two. I find large bins and tubs at Value Village and Goodwill all season long. A large, albeit dirty, secondhand tub costs about $4 in my area at thrift stores. 

The fill for a tote garden can be a mix of organic material from your yard and bagged soil. One video I watched suggested filling the bottom few inches of the tote with partially to fully decomposed homemade compost before adding commercial potting soil. One of my daughters used a large plastic pot to grow her own kale a couple of years ago. I suggested she dig into one of our compost heaps and fill the bottom half of the pot with our compost before topping off with bagged soil. Her plants did marvelously well. 

Some folks get very creative up-cyling items that were destined for the garbage or recycle bin. These are a bunch of 2 liter bottles with bottoms cut off, hanging from a fence. Each bottle holds one plant. Very thrifty and very Econ-friendly.

5-gallon buckets can be repurposed as planters, also. Here's someone's bucket garden supported and corralled with a 2 X 4 frame.

The above buckets look like the size that we used to get dishwashing detergent in. I don't know if the owner of this garden painted used buckets or bought them already in a colorful state. In our house, we use containers similar to these (but white or blue) for our laundry "hampers". But I can see that you can grow decent-sized plants in this type of bucket.

Not handy with 2 X 4 building? Or you want something truly temporary? Here's a gardener's simple rack for their tote garden made with 4 X 4s and cement blocks.

Tote gardens can also be turned into self-watering planters with the help of some PVC pipe or even a length of bamboo. The Seattle Times ran an article about 14 years ago showing how this would work.

I also wanted to share the following article from Farm and Dairy. It has a lot of good tips for successful container gardening, including information for size of containers needed to grow specific vegetables.

We had our first salad of the season the day I planted my seedlings into the 4 bins. I thinned as I planted, giving us enough baby greens for a large family salad.

I still have two more bins to plant later this week. My seedlings for those are just about ready for transplant. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my family can harvest salad greens all summer long from my bin garden. I'll follow up with you later in the season to let you know how it's going and growing.


  1. The colorful containers look similar to the size and shape of cat litter containers. That would be another option, if you had cats or knew someone who had them and wanted to get rid of the containers.

    I bet your first salad tasted good! We will probably have some salad that over-wintered in our cold frame this week (it was, overall, a very mild winter).

    1. Hi Kris,
      cat litter buckets would be another good source of container for gardening, especially since most cat owners will end of with quite a few of these buckets in a year or two. The last time we bought cat litter, it came in bags.

      Enjoy your garden salad. This time of year, fresh garden greens are so delicious after a winter of whatever was available in the grocery store.

  2. That's a nice review on container gardening possibilities. While not as extensive as yours, I have some containers every year. I usually have some buckets and have made self-watering tubs before. We made one last year for my son to grow things on his apartment balcony. We still have some spinach that overwintered because we too had a mild winter, overall.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      That's so nice that you could make a self-watering garden container for your son to garden on his balcony. I'm sure he appreciated that.

      Fresh spinach -- sounds yummy!

  3. We use old laundry utility tubs, and constructed a tall raised bed from old corrugated PVC. Instead of neem oil and other methods of keeping insects away, we are using insect meshes, bought online from TEMU, over the beds and containers. This has been a game changer for us, no more spending hours dealing with insects. The plants seem to thrive better under the mesh which seems to prevent moisture evaporation. Also adding coconut coir, sold at Home Depot and Lowes, helps retain moisture as well. We live on the hot, dry side of the island.

    Have a wonderful day,

    1. Hi Laura,
      I've used insect mesh before and I agree it does work really well at keeping pests off produce. I may have to buy some more to use this year. Thanks for the suggestion. We get lots of tiny aphids all over the cabbage family vegetables. I'd like to not have to deal with those again.

      I never thought there would be a hot and dry side of your island. That goes to show just how little I know. But it makes sense. Just like where I live, go over the mountains and the climate is totally different from here.

      Enjoy the rest of your day, too, Laura!

  4. I use large totes to grow potatoes. Last year I only planted 2 of my totes, and I got about 15 lbs of potatoes. I was pretty happy with that. I bought a greenstalk a couple years ago, but last year it wouldn’t stop raining so I didn’t get it planted.I hope the weather cooperates this year. It’s really hard to garden here because of the weather. I told Dh I’m about ready to give up.


    1. Hi Diane,
      That's a lot of potatoes for only planting 2 totes. I was thinking about trying some potatoes in a container this year along with the ned potatoes. That will depend if I can get down to the produce stand before they sell out of seed potatoes. I plant all of our reserved ones in the beds a week ago. My thought is perhaps the ones grown in a tote or other above ground container would mature sooner, so we could have fresh potatoes a little earlier.

      I hope your weather does indeed cooperate for you to use your green stalk this year. I'm waiting for warmer and drier days so I can work the beds that will have kale and chard. It's been so wet and cold here this month. Maybe next week.


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