7 Everyday Items You Can Upcycle Into Planters

Perfect for your windowsill and countertop gardening projects.

March 22, 2022
Photo by Ina Peters

You might think choosing pots would be the easiest part of an apartment garden, but interestingly, it is not. Containers and pots come in many sizes and shapes and seemingly just as many materials. You can look at your planting vessel in one of two ways—you can choose the pot first and then pick the best-suited plant, or buy the plant and then choose the best-suited pot.

I find myself consistently drawn to cute little pots with bright colors, but they end up being fairly useless for growing food. Most plants need legroom to stretch their roots. Try to plant in a pot that’s a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls.

Every year, I email a local restaurant and ask them to set aside some asparagus crates for me. Asparagus is one of the first vegetables available in the Pacific Northwest in spring. That means the crates are available right about the time I start planting my springtime containers. The crates tend to be of pretty simple construction—compressed wood planks held together by loosely twisted wire. You need only to fill the space between the planks to make a planter box for cheap! Fill the gaps with Spanish moss or coconut fiber lining, and voilà!—you have a deep container for your plants. There are lots of everyday items that can act as planters. Here are just a few to inspire you.

Photo by Olga Romankova

Coffe or Olive oil cans

Some people still buy their coffee in metal cans; these make awesome containers for lettuces. Be sure to punch holes in the bottom of the can with a thick nail to allow for drainage. And plant just one lettuce per can! Olive oil cans follow the same guidelines. While these are not readily available to home cooks, ask at your local restaurant; they often buy olive oil in bulk, which comes in vibrant-colored tins.

Five-gallon plastic pots

These are the sturdy plastic pots that shrubs and other large nursery plants often come in. Granted, they’re not the most attractive pots you can find to grow food in, but they are free, and most retailers simply dispose of them. Check with your local plant nursery to see whether they have extras, and put a call out to gardening friends come spring. Chances are someone will have extra for you. Spray paint the exteriors a color that pops, and soon enough you’ll have a patio full of eye-catching pots.


Found on nearly every building and home, gutters are easy to come by. Their long, shallow shape is perfect for planting small lettuces. Be sure to drill drainage holes along the length of the gutter before filling with potting soil and planting. Because gutter material is light (stainless steel, aluminum, or plastic), this is an ideal planter for hanging off a railing, and it uses the small space of a patio efficiently. You can pick up any length at a salvaged materials depot or a local construction site. Look for those made of stainless steel—they are the best looking.

Plastic milk crates

Much like the asparagus crates, plastic milk crates make easy planters. You will need to fill in the gaps with either a liner (like a gently used plastic shower liner with drain holes), Spanish moss, or some sort of fiber—coconut fiber or even hay. I like to spray paint my milk crates white—this gives them a very clean, modern look.

Wine boxes

If you live in or near wine country, wooden wine boxes shouldn’t be too difficult to find. These shallow boxes are good for lettuces, seed starting, and microgreens. The best way to get your hands on them is by calling around to wineries and asking if they have extra. The thin wood on these boxes will last longer if you apply a coat of oil before planting; this helps give them a tough and slightly waterproof finish. Choose a Danish oil or orange oil from your local hardware store.

Burlap, potting soil bags, and other sacks

It is quite the hack, but you can grow plants directly in a bag of potting soil. This process will work, but it does not make the most attractive container. If you are dying to give it a try, go for it. You need only to steady the bag and split a hole in the top, then add your starts or seeds.

For a plant-in-a-bag project, I prefer a better-looking bag. Burlap sacks and plastic woven feed bags are a bit more shabby-chic. If you live in an area with local coffee-roasting companies, you should be able to find used burlap bags for free. Check in with your local roaster early in the season or during winter for a guaranteed source. Country feed stores are a good source for old feed bags. These often have the added benefit of vintage-looking logos—a great way to add character to your urban garden. Of course, fabric grow-bags made of synthetic woven fabrics are now widely available. These make for great, mobile containers—you can empty them in autumn and fold them up, storing them until next spring.

To plant in bags, simply fill with potting soil. Plant starts or seeds directly on the soil surface and be sure the edges of the bag don’t come up around the plant to block out sunlight. This is a great way to plant potatoes, as you can add soil depth as they grow. Soil kept in burlap will dry out quickly, so be sure to monitor water needs closely. The plastic feed bags will hang onto water as a plastic pot would, so be certain not to overwater these.

A final note—soil bags, burlap bags, and even the stronger feed bags break down over time, so they are probably a single-year kind of container. Be careful they don’t get too threadbare, or the soil will spill out the bottom.

Excerpted from Tiny Space Gardening by permission of Sasquatch Books. ©2022 by Amy Pennington.

What common household items have you upcycled into containers? Share your ideas with us.

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I am a cook and food writer, author & gardener who is passionate about the environment, using sustainable resources, reducing my impact on the earth and making conscious food choices that are both smart for the planet and taste fantastic. When I'm not knee deep in dirt growing food, you can find me in the kitchen where I'm likely standing over a canning pot or staring up in to my pantry deciding what to make. In the gardens, I have a business gogo green garden, wherein I build, plant & tend edible gardens for folks in their urban backyards. I also launched a garden-sharing website in 2009 that connects urban gardeners to unused garden space across the country - Check it out!