Introduction: Start a Garden From Scratch From Scraps
Going green, growing local, these are the calls of environmentalists and penny pinchers alike, but setting up a garden can be a rather costly business. Between the seeds, soil, pots, fertiliser, supports, even the most advantageous gumtree or freecycle user will struggle not to accumulate costs of £50-100+. This guide hopes to provide readers at the start of their gardening journey with free alternatives, all from recycled and repurposed everyday kitchen and household waste.
You will learn
- How to make hanging plant pots from tin cans
- How to find and regenerate soil
- How to collect and activate seeds from food scraps
- How to build a germination chamber
- Tin cans
- Nail / Small Screwdriver
- Rope/Thread (optional)
- Acryllic Paint (optional)
- Smashed Cultery/rocks (optional)
- 3 Transparent Grapes Containers or similar
- Plastic Egg Cartons
Seed Cultivation and Collection
- Little plastic bag (reuse from lunch/electronics components)
- Selection food scraps (carrot tops, peach pits, avocado seeds, peppers, tomatoes)
- Toothpicks/Sharp Twigs
Step 1: Plant Pots - Cleaning
- Collect a selection of tin cans, 3 - 5 is a good starting point, ensuring that the lids rip cleanly from the outer cases. Tins with sharp inner edges should be discarded, you will cut your hands putting the soil in.
- Soak the cans in warm soapy water to help remove the outer labels, they should peel away easily. You may use a knife to scratch off the worst of the glue.
Step 2: Plant Pots - Construction
A plant pot requires drainage holes to ensure moist, but not waterlogged soil. A good spread of holes being preferable. Turn the cans upside down and mark the hole positions, I chose nine regularly spaced holes to ensure good drainage while not comprising the containers integrity. These holes were created by hammering a small screwdriver into the cans, but a single nail can also be used.
Two holes were then nailed into the rim of the can on opposing sides, it is through these that ropes can be knotted to hang the pot. Holding the can against a corner helps prevent slipping when you hammer against the curved surface.
Creating these holes can leave sharp points of metal on the inside of the tin. This doesn't matter at the bottom of the can, as the soil will cover these, but those along the rim should be flattened using a screwdriver or optionally trimmed using cutters.
A common problem with plant containers is that the drainage holes become blocked with wedged soil. To prevent this drainage stones are often added, but if you ever smash cutlery in the kitchen, this can also make great brokerage at the bottom of your pots.
Disclaimer: No ceramics were hurt as a means to produce this Instructable, I'm just clumsy.
Step 3: Plant Pots - Hanging & Decoration
String/rope can be threaded and knotted through each side of the can. These knots can be largely covered by keeping a higher soil level in the container for a cleaner finish. However I recommend ensuring a gap at the top of the can, this allows room for watering, reduces soil loss and allows more efficient plant cuttings.
While they can be left plain, I chose to custom decorate my plant pots in a variety of pride flag colours (LGBT, Trans, Asexual, Bisexual and Lesbian). They also benefited from the fact that the straight ridges in the can made easy lines to follow to mark the flags.
Cheap starter acrylic paint kits can be bought from as little as £10 online, and acrylic while water based, is water resistant. These photos were taken 2 months after first hanging and despite heavy rainful and hitting the balcony side many times in winds, the paint has held up very well.
Step 4: Getting & Restoring Soil
From the Garden
If you have access to a garden, this is the most promising option . However in the absence of quality top soil found in flower beds and cabbage patches there are some good rules of thumbs to identify whether soil is ideal for growing
- Soil when clumped in the hand and released, should crumble out of the grasp. Hard, or clay like soil that sticks together is unsuitable for growing.
Soil can sometimes be found on sites like freecycle, where large quantities of soil have been dug out of someones garden, though the quality can vary, and minimum pickup quantities can apply.
Equally on free sharing apps like Olio, people often give away free pots/plant seedlings .These as well as being useful to setup a garden can often come containing free soil. Free seedlings are most likely to be offered in the summer months May-July when growers find themselves with excess plantlings they started germinating in Spring.
It is often not someones first try at getting their hands green. Dried out, powdery soil filled pots can be restored by placing the pots in a shallow basin of water, this allows the water to slowly be soaked into the soil.
Dried out, crumbled (using a grinder/food processor/mortar and pestle) egg shell can be useful as a natural fertiliser, improving the nutrient quality of a soil and moderating acidity.
Step 5: Collect and Germinate Seeds From Scraps
Sincerely this section could be an Instructable by itself, but will serve as an introduction to seed collection and germination.
Collecting Seeds & Growing
There are a number of seeds suitable for collection and growing from food scraps:
- Sweet Peppers
Seeds from Tomatoes, Sweet Peppers should be collected and dried, placed on paper towels/plates for several weeks in a cool, dark place if they are not to be immediately planted. When dry, I use old sprinkles/cake decorations bottles to store my seeds for future use, drawing their respective plants on their lids. This also means that when it comes to planting, I can easily sprinkle my seeds onto the soil.
Avocado seeds can be washed and germinated in a similar manner to carrot heads (see below), using 3-4 spaced toothpicks to suspend them half submerged in water, pointy side up. The water should be changed daily, and after 4-6 weeks the head should split open and roots/stem start to develop. Once ~20-30cm tall the plant should be transferred to a ~30cm diameter container.
Some plants are more difficult to cultivate than others, for the fruit trees and avocado plants I recommend due to the lower success rate attempting to germinate several simultaneously.
Transplanting a plant is a very traumatic process, never pull the plant by the stem out of its original container, and take extra care to keep the soil moist in the first week following a transplant.
Step 6: Grow Seeds and Fruit From Scraps
Cold Stratification - Indoor Fruit Trees
Typically fruit trees are grown from cuttings of existing trees, this prevents mutation and ensures product quality. However buying cuttings/saplings can prove fairly expensive, and it can be fun to be your own Johnny AppleSeed! Miniature versions of these trees can be grown indoors in pots, but first the experience of winter has to be simulated for the seeds to trigger germination when later placed in moist soil indoors. This process is known as cold stratification.
- (If applicable) First cut the seeds from their outer enclosures. To cut open tougher pits like peach and plum seeds, I recommend using tough wire cutters or nut crackers over knives that are prone to slipping.
- Place these seeds individually in a section of moist paper towel, these can each then be placed in a separate small plastic bag, I reused some resealable packets my electronics components came in. Leave a little gap in the packets opening and place in the fridge for 1-2 months.
- Take out the seeds and plant one each to a small pot in moist soil indoors. If they germinate they can later be transplanted to a larger pot.
Carrots grow their tubular roots only once during their first growing period, this means that it is not possible to regrow a carrot from their carrot top. However the plants that sprout from these tops will flower and produce the carrot seeds for the following season.
When cutting the tops from the carrots, leave a slightly wider ridge than usual ~1cm at least, this gives it a better chance of taking.The carrot heads should be parially submerged, suspended in water, and the water changed every couple of days. Plastic egg cartons prove ideally sized for this task, and the heads can be held in place using 3 inserted, reused wooden toothpicks/skewers.
Step 7: Germination Container - the Benefits
Now you have those illusive seeds, how best can you stimulate growth? If you begin planting in the late spring/ summer months, when the threat of frost has passed, a lot of plants can be planted directly into the soil, however an alternative is the germination container. Essentially a collection of mini-pods/pots of soil, in which are placed 1-3 seeds each covered by a light sprinkling of soil, covered by an overarching plastic cover. This cover acts as a mini greenhouse keeping the soil warm and moist.
- Start seedlings earlier; depending on your climate, the hot months can be short, by starting the plants indoors and transplanting them outside later as the weather warms, extra growth cycles can be fitted into the season
- Protection from the elements; heavy rainfall can wash away seeds or drown emerging seedlings, germination containers protect these plants.
- Moisture containment; germination containers act like small greenhouses, trapping moisture keeping the soil warm and wet.
A simple germination container can be built from nothing more than egg cartons, and transparent fruit cartons (peaches, grapes). Though there is nothing to stop you from extending this, more complex models have custom irrigation and UV lighting to promote growth.
Keep spray bottles from cleaning products used in the kitchen, spray bottles are useful as gentle waterers for seedlings at their early stages of growth, to keep the soil moist, while minimising seed displacement.
Step 8: Germination Container - Construction
- Collect three plastic fruit containers and clean with warm soapy water. They should ideally be of equal length, though width does not matter. The two outer containers must be equal height.
- Remove both of the longer sides of the middle container, and one longer side from each of the side containers.
- If (as in my case) the middle container is shorter, use some of the offcuts to slide into the bottom to fill this gap.
- All the pieces can be superglued together, and all gaps/wholes covered by tape (ideally clear cellotape),
- I used tape on the bottom of the germination container to smooth the joins and make it less likely to scratch my work surfaces.
This is as simple as collecting the base of (preferably plastic) egg cartons, cardboard ones can only be used for only a short time due to the moisture deteriorating their structure. Also they cannot be cleaned & removed of contaminants so are more likely to lead to unwanted fungi growth.
The moist conditions of a germination container can lead to unwanted growth of fungi. On sight remove the contaminated soil pod from the container to stop the rapid spread.
I recommend saving empty spray bottles from cleaning products, they are useful for keeping soil moist during a seedlings early germination. It is at this stage gentle watering is essential to not wash the seeds too deep into the soil.
Step 9: Next Steps & Tips
Long Term vs Short Term
While it is fun to attempt cold stratification and growing your own fruit trees and avocado trees, these can take anywhere form 3-8 years to mature and bear edible food, whose quality cannot be ensured. Similarly a lot of flowers when grown from seeds will not flower their first summer, but spring from their grown buds the following summer. As such it's important to explore a mix of long term and quick return options for your garden.
Good plants to see quick returns with rapid growth cycles
Reuse vs Recycle
Both reusing and recycling are environmental and economic options, buying pots and other gardening equipment second hand off gumtree, and collecting items for from free sharing sites/apps such as Olio/freecycling can be explored.
Truly any container, with sufficient drainage can prove a useful plant holder, I have converted several boxes that used to contain my childhood toys into larger soil holders. An important consideration here is ensuring they are constructed from non-shattering type plastic, so the box is not damaged when you make the drainage holes.
Have Fun and Keep Learning
There are many wonderful communities of gardeners all over the internet to help you in your gardening journey, and can be some of the friendliest people. If you have a question, chances are it has already been answered, but I do hope this guide has filled you with ideas of how you can kickstart your garden with zero cost. :)
Participated in the
Recycled Speed Challenge