Introduction: Milk Crate "Air-Pot" Urban Container Gardening

Picture of Milk Crate "Air-Pot" Urban Container Gardening

So, my wife and I moved to a 2nd floor front Chicago greystone with no greenspace but it does have faux balcony over the front entry that can only be accessed by climbing through a window.  We decided that this space must be utilized as urban gardening space.

While looking around for container garden solutions, we came across the not so affordable UK "air-pot" design that encourages better root growth than traditional container gardening. Intrigued and still wanting an affordable solution, milk crates came to mind with some sort of liner. Milk Crates seem to be laying around all over the place until you actually start searching for them. Fortunately, we found an inside connection to "borrow" them from for the growing season.

To stay true to the "air-pot" concept we needed the liner to be breathable; landscaping fabric was the obvious choice.  A  $10 roll of landscaping fabric commonly comes in a 3' x 50' roll which is enough to make 24 milk crate liners. How's that for affordable?

Step 1: Required Tools and Materials

Picture of Required Tools and Materials

24 - milk crates (washed and sanitized)
1 - roll 50' x 3' landscape fabric
1 - spool all-purpose polyester thread

Measuring Device - Tape / Ruler
Sewing Machine or (Needle, Thread and Patience)

Give extra liners to friends so they can grow on their balconies and then share the bounty!

Step 2: Measure Your Milk Crate

Picture of Measure Your Milk Crate

The inside dimensions of a standard crate should be approximately 11" deep by 12" square.

If your crate is a different sized adjust the size of your fabric cuts accordingly. The fabric cut dimensions are 1" greater that width and circumference of the crate.

Step 3: Cut Landscaping Fabric

Picture of Cut Landscaping Fabric

For six milk crates with the least waste.

3 - 13" x 36" pieces vertically from the fabric
2 - 49" x 36 pieces vertically from the fabric

Now cut each:

13" x 36" piece into two 13" x 13" bottoms
49" x 36" piece into three 49" x 12" sides

You should now have an even 6 bottoms and 6 sides ready to be sewn together.

Step 4: Sew Liners

Picture of Sew Liners

- place the bottom 13 x 13" piece on top of the sides 49 x 12" piece
- line up edges and corner.
- sew along the long edge
- stop 3/4" before end of the bottom piece's edge
- lift the pressure foot and rotate
- continue around  remaining three edges
- finally sew the side edge seam


Step 5: Insert Liner

Picture of Insert Liner

Line up seam on side and stretch over edges of the crate.

Step 6: Add Dirt and Plants ... Wait ... Eat!

Picture of Add Dirt and Plants ... Wait ... Eat!


Water transplants well and fertilize regularly.


marcintosh (author)2010-04-26

 GREAT STUFF- I've done container gardening like this for years.  Don't have to live in an apt though.  I've done it in both my apt and now my house.  It keeps "things" under a bit more control (not being a control freak though).  The concern about drying out is a real issue.  I learned to mix a very light soil mix of 50-50 potting soil and mulch.  Yes P/soil already has mulch in it but here, more is better.  When living in a 4th floor walk-up dragging things up those stairs lighter is better.
I also learned that where space is an issue, you can plant like others would never think of.  I've planted root crops (beets and carrots) under my pepper plants.  I've planted Corn to shade my delicate herbs.  Corn only grows just so high in a container- experiment with it.
This is great though-I never thought of landscape fabric.  I've used 5 gal buckets with holes near the bottom.  I've used empty cans and bottles to keep the weight down and promote drainage too.  miracle grow was also a big boost as well.
Happy Harvest! 

AngelaG115 (author)marcintosh2017-03-06


How in the world do you plant root crops UNDER other vegetables? I plant on my deck, small space and would love to know in detail how to make this work!

marcintosh (author)AngelaG1152017-03-20

Same pot. the carrots and beets (for example) grow down while the jalapeño's grow into a bush. the greens mix and they don't really seem to care, the roots grow around or past each other so that's cool too. One new issue is that I've found you can over-winter pepper plants so you don't need to grow the roots and branches again. I've saved ONE pepper plant from last year in a dry cool area and so far it looks good. Just waiting for warmer weather to put it out again. So in this case, you wouldn't want to be pulling beets out of the dirt and ruining the roots of the pepper plant. Remind me to post on the overwintered plant as I go along this summer. I don't do too much with instructables anymore as I became weary of the moron commentaries so if you remind me now and again I'll do it - Deal? 8-D

toothfairyterry (author)2015-05-06

JaredL4 (author)2015-05-05

I like your use of the sewing machine seems like a lot easier than using a hot glue gun, which is what I did. Now, to make life easier what do you think of putting a trash bag in the milk crate underneath, adding some wicks to the bottom of the other milk crate and letting the little buggers water themselves?

uncleric (author)2015-04-26

For those who need these milk crates, you can find them here:

EricM11 (author)2015-04-01

What soil mixture do you use?

SophiesFoodieFiles (author)2015-02-14

This is such a fantastic great idea! Cool too!

markgrogan (author)2014-09-24

Nice idea and excellent to recycle milk cartons as planters instead of letting that balcony storage space go to clutter and junk!

bogdan.b (author)2014-04-22

Such a great idea! I was thinking what to use on my balcony to have a small garden and this is perfect! I have a place where i can collect a lot of this boxes. Ah, this came to me in the perfect timing!

Thank you!!!

mikeasaurus (author)2013-08-26

As seen on HGTV's blog "5 Creative Milk Crate Crafts"

drixnot (author)2013-04-13

Run a soaker hose straight through the middle of them ... like a string of beads.

dia (author)2011-05-17

Great idea with the liners! I skipped the garden liner and used some old fabric instead. Though I believe it's cotton and probably won't last too many seasons. Sure, cream lacy fabric and dirt and not a good combination, but I'm amused.

NerdSquad (author)2010-05-10

 Nice! I love building with Milk Crates!

night creature (author)2010-04-23

Very nice ible! Very well thought out and presented, especially for those with limited sewing abilities! 
 How do you catch water, though? The set up looked great, but, ease of watering is key! 

Just using a watering can right now but I have some ideas and I have been looking around on here for solutions. Thanks for the support.

janetdw (author)jeremytubbs2010-04-26

How about using some "spaghetti tubing" and, optionally, diffusers (ya know, the old drip watering stuff) and then hooking them up to that "adapter" that connects 6 or 8 tubes to a housing that lets you attach them to a hose.  You would need 3 or four of these. 

Cut up an old hose, attach a mail end to each and screw into the adapters.  Then find a bucket you can lift above the  crates for watering.  Cut some holes into the bucket to insert the other end of the hose into (toward the bottom obviously), seal with silicone and fill with water. 

When you have the bucket above the planters, gravity should take care of it.  You may need to refill the bucket but the drip diffusers take a while, so you may want to leave them off and just let the water flow.

We used to do something similar with a large funnel and rubber tubing to water the Christmas tree.  Left the end of the tube in the water reservoir and hid the dry funnel behind a big gift box.

sparkleponytx (author)2010-04-26

I like your  creative use of household items for diy container gardening. I have been container gardening for years and I can tell you one flaw to this design is that your plants will dry out very quickly. They will need lots of water, which will in turn require lots of fertilizing. I live in TX and we struggle with keeping our plants watered, especially container plants, in the summer.

You might consider lining your crates with black plastic trash bags (poke holes for drainage) or recycle some empty potting soil bags, etc. instead of the landscape fabric. They won't look as nice but will function better for water retention.

I have found that a much less work intensive container garden is the "Earth box" type of container. You can easily make them yourself out of plastic boxes, buckets, etc. There are plans for them here on Instructables and all over the web. These type of containers hold the water well, are easy to maintain and easy to reuse. Good Instructable tho.

joyalove (author)2010-04-25

 Great idea, we used to have so many milk boxes that we had no idea what to do with them. Now we have no milk boxes and this great idea for gardening. What are the odds?

mooster (author)2010-04-25

For people who are asking about where to get milk crates, I've seen some similar things in dollar stores, and at a somewhat higher price, in big box stores.  Also, a little larger and harder to find in square shape, would be plastic laundry baskets.  Holes could be drilled in plastic containers such as trash cans or large water jugs.  

I love the modular design of this.  Even though we have a yard where a garden can go in the ground, there might be some real advantages to this.  A few could be set on a cart of some sort and moved around to get better sunlight, and they can be put on a frame or table where it would eliminate all the stoop labor.  

tashi_lewis (author)2010-04-25

i think a way to achieve the airpot kind of method would be to sew the fabric around the boxes, if you put the fabric in the outside of the box there would be little squares that i think will work like the cones, i will try it that way soon and will post the result, thanks for the idea and for the airpot, i hadnt heard about that technique

jeremytubbs (author)tashi_lewis2010-04-25

sounds interesting...

HollyHarken (author)2010-04-25

How did you sanitize your milk crates?  The only way I can think to do it is to wash them in the tub with a bleach solution.  You should add your method to your Instructable.  Other wise it's a very good Instructable.  I never thought to use landscape fabric in my garden pots.  I've always used newspaper for my hanging plants to keep the dirt in the pot. 

Many eons ago my dad used to shred newspaper in his chipper/shredder and then till it into the soil to enrich it.  Hmm, maybe I should try his trick in my garden, or in my compost bin.

jeremytubbs (author)HollyHarken2010-04-25

I just wiped them down after spraying them with bleach cleaning solution.

mooster (author)2010-04-25

The plan looks great, but if there's a wall around your balcony the sunlight that reaches your plants is restricted to only a few hours a day.  They might grow better if you stacked crates or something under them to get them level with the wall.  Probably they will just get taller trying to reach more light.  

Also, anyone who might want to put a lot of dirt and water on a balcony should consider whether the balcony can take the added weight.  Since yours has no door, it may be that the structure wasn't planned to bear any load.   Construction codes are a lot more strict in some parts of the world than in others.   

jeremytubbs (author)mooster2010-04-25

We also live in the "windy city" so that little wall helps protect the plants at this

The building is 100+ year old greystone hopefully this porch is over engineered since it is made out of stone and weighs probably a 1/2 ton already. So a few more stationary pounds shouldn't matter...

Ironious (author)2010-04-25

Where can you find milk crates with out stealing them?

Remag1234 (author)2010-04-25

All the measuring and sewing is IMO, Overkill. I do what 18Nite does. Quick and simple.

tagyerit (author)2010-04-25

Hmmm, I have several crates laying around with nothing to do. For an even cheaper way to go than landscape fabric - head over to your local glass / window repair store and ask for fiberglass screen discards.

urbanwoodswalker (author)2010-04-25

I would think one would have to water much more then usual. I live in Chicago land too....and even with regular closed sided pots, i would need to water my veggies at least once or twice a day in July and August.  So, I am curious as to the water evaperation rates with this method.

lil jon168 (author)2010-04-23

air pot lol

l8nite (author)2010-04-22

Ive used milkcrate planters for several yrs, more because I needed extra containers than any other reason, I also use the landscape fabric but I just lay a piece over the crate and fill with dirt then cut off the excess. The main difference between the milkcrate and a 5gallon bucket is the crate needs more watering.. nicely done "ible"

atombomb1945 (author)2010-04-22

Very clever.  By having the soil up and able to get more air, you have a plant that will not only grow faster, but will also yield better and get better results.

This would be cool combined with the "upside down" planting idea.

lemonshark10 (author)2010-04-21

 What is the benefit of your planter, from what i understand the way the airpot works is that the roots poke out the holes and then since there is no soil don't grow any more. What they call "air pruning" and since the roots end as opposed to hitting a wall and changing direction which is what causes root balls to choke themselves out. Even if your system doesn't have the benefits of the airpot it is still a good way to save money. It would be cool to figure out a way to actually replicate the airpot, i could see some type of egg carton with the bottoms cut out. idk i'm just brainstorming lol

jeremytubbs (author)lemonshark102010-04-21

We don't know yet if this will function like an "air-pot" it was really just an "inspiration" that lead to the use of milk crates for container gardening. The true benefit is affordability, modularity and its ease of construction. 

I look forward to seeing more air-pot inspiration...

SamyIsh (author)2010-04-21

This seems like it would benefit the plants by allowing more aerobic bacteria to populate the soil.  Have you done regular potted or in-ground gardens to be able to compare the results?  Were they noticeable?

jeremytubbs (author)SamyIsh2010-04-21

Open to suggestions, I haven't truly gardened in the ground since I was much younger with my parents and grandparents back in Indiana. This is a return to the land... albeit constructed land.

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