Plant pots can be expensive. If you don’t have the budget for a lot of pots but you want to plant something now, what else can you use as a planter?
The good news is you have lots of options!
It’s easier to figure out what you and can’t use to grow plants by looking at the characteristics of the container.
Here’s what you need to know to narrow it down.
Safe Materials for Planters
The first thing to look at is what a container is made of. Most solid materials are suitable for plants, but some will work better than others. What you intend to grow and where you intend to grow it will dictate what you should use.
Planters have to withstand constant exposure to water, sunlight, soil, and growing roots. While none of these things are particularly harsh, they do put some limits on what you can use.
Some of the best materials for planters include:
- Sturdy plastic
- Thick fabric
These materials can all withstand the wear and tear of regular plant care to varying degrees. The main idea is to look for something that can support the weight of the soil and plants, plus withstand the conditions wherever you’re placing it.
How long do you want to use your creative plant pot?
Is it a new forever home for your plant or a temporary residence?
Not all items have the same longevity. For example, while most metal can hold up well for some time, it will often begin to rust as you water. You may need a pot liner if you intend to use it for more than a few months.
Plastic is also tricky for long-term use. Some plastic holds up really well for years, but others start to break down quickly with regular exposure to the UV rays in sunlight.
While clay, porcelain, terracotta, and other earthenware tend to hold up well for years, metal, plastic, wood, and fabric may need more attention to remain as permanent parts of your garden.
As materials break down over time, the loose pieces go into the soil. Some of these materials can contain chemicals that will leach into the soil, so you have to be careful about what you’re planting in your makeshift plant pots.
Lead and bisphenol A (BPA) are commonly used materials that are at risk of leaching out into the soil. These are harmful chemicals that you really don’t want in your food, so it’s best to avoid the risk.
The rule of thumb I go by is that when you’re growing anything edible, use only food-safe materials.
Examples of food-safe containers:
- Plastic food containers/packaging
- Plastic water bottles
- Metal dishes
- Untreated wood
- Woven baskets
- Polypropylene bags and containers
- HDPE and LDPE plastic containers
- Concrete containers
Most containers that were originally intended to store food or food-related items are safe for repurposing to grow edible plants. Since they’re built not to release harmful chemicals into the foods stored within, they should be safe for use in your container garden.
One important distinction to make is that plastic containers should be food-safe, not food-grade. Food-grade means it’s only safe for specific uses, while food-safe means it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals that will leach out.
Examples of containers that shouldn’t be used to grow edible plants include:
- Paint cans
- Plastic bottles used to store any toxic chemicals (cleaning products, engine oil, paint thinner, etc.)
- Plastics containing BPA
All these containers and others can be used for decorative plants without any issues, but you need to play it safe with edible plants.
Planter Size vs. Your Plants
The biggest concern for growing in any kind of container is giving space for the plant’s roots. Make sure the container can handle whatever you’re growing in it, planning ahead to accommodate the plant as it grows larger.
The 2 areas I look at are soil space and the constraints of my garden area itself.
Usable soil space
Roots grow deep and spread out. Whatever is happening above the ground, you can bet there’s at least as much happening underground.
Choose containers that have plenty of space for roots to spread out and grow. Healthy roots are necessary for healthy plants, so make a point of getting a container where they can thrive!
I call this the usable soil space because some things we use as planters don’t have wide open space your plants can access with their roots. Even if they’re large, that doesn’t necessarily mean the roots can access all that interior space for growth. Look for things with a large enough cavity you can fill with soil for your plants.
“Garden” is a very flexible word. It doesn’t have to involve any outside space, and technically it doesn’t even have to involve soil if you’re growing hydroponically!
You need to consider the size of your growing container in relation to the space you have available for your garden. It wouldn’t be practical to use an old farmhouse sink as a planter if your only available space is a small windowsill by your desk. It also wouldn’t make sense to choose a planter that’s too small for your plant if you have room for a larger one.
Choose growing containers that are appropriate for the space you have available. If your garden is in a tight space, work with what you have to make your garden as functional as possible.
Allowing for Drainage
Most plants grown in containers benefit from having drainage. Without drainage holes, water can pool up in the soil near the bottom of the pot, causing root rot and poor root growth.
Plant pots are built with drainage holes on the bottom. It’s a good idea to mimic this with your own planters, either by choosing containers that already have drainage holes or containers where you can add your own drainage.
Some common items you might pick up to use as a planter already have drainage holes around the sides or on the bottom that you can use.
Examples of containers that already have drainage:
- Old sinks
- Wooden crates
- Burlap sacks
- Cinder blocks
- Reusable shopping bags
- Hanging shoe racks
- Laundry peg baskets
These are just a few examples to get your creative juices flowing. Anything with an opening at the bottom can be used as an effective planter with drainage. You may want to put mesh inside if the openings are wide, but just having them there makes it much quicker and easier to start planting.
Using a container made from breathable material also works. It acts in the same way as a grow bag, which is just another type of container you can use to grow anything in your garden!
Creating drainage holes
Your other option is to take existing items and make your own drainage holes. This usually just involves poking a few holes in the bottom where water can drain out.
A few simple examples of what you can use include:
- Plastic bottles/jars
- Food tins (for short-term use)
- Old boots
- Old toys
- Water/food troughs
- Baking pans
- Plastic bins/basins
Anything that’s made with soft enough material to poke a few holes in will likely work as a planter, at least for a short time.
I’d still focus on choosing items that are food-safe and durable, but it’s up to you to find planters that will fit into the garden you want.
Planters without Drainage
Depending on what you’re growing, you may not need planters with drainage holes. As long as you’re careful with watering, some plants might be able to live for a while in a planter without drainage.
The best way to make this work is to repot your plants every 6 months or so, to allow for roots to “reset” and to put fresh, non-compacted soil into the planter.
If the planter is large enough, like a watering trough or a large metal bucket, you may be able to get away with growing shallow-rooted plants like lettuce without drainage. This would work in a similar way to a raised bed planter, and you could even put some filler material at the bottom to help with root growth.
Here are a few items that work well as planters if you don’t need drainage holes:
- Glass jars/bottles
- Galvanized steel bucket
- Old kitchen crockery
- Dresser drawers
These things aren’t one-size-fits-all, nor do they represent absolutely everything you can use. Look around you and see what you can get your hands on.
The joy of gardening should be accessible to everyone, even if you don’t have money to buy growing containers. Using what you already have access to, you can start building up a brand-new container garden by making your own planters from everyday items.
There are tons of things you can use as planters. The only limit is your imagination!