Start a Garden with Recyclables

A painted aluminum can with blue flowers inside hanging on a fence.

Whether you're looking for a way to be frugal or trying to be good to the planet, starting a garden with recyclable materials is a win for both. Ready for some more good news in using recycling to start a garden? It's easy! All you have to do is keep in mind the "3 Rs"—recycle, reduce, reuse—as you take a walk around your home inside and out, and start gathering the items you need. You will be surprised at just how many reusable things you will find that you can use to start your new garden.

Seedling Starter Containers

Seedling starter containers.

To start finding recyclable materials for your garden, begin with a home walkthrough looking for any small plastic, cloth, or cardboard containers that drainage holes can easily be added to for starting seeds. Here's some examples of some of the best items to use for starting your seeds and how to prepare them:

Cardboard or Clear Plastic Egg Cartons: Pierce the bottoms with one or two holes in each egg unit. Keep the cover intact since the carton will work as a greenhouse with the lid on, but be sure to pierce the top as well for ventilation.

Toilet Paper and Paper Towel Tubes: Using scissors, cut four slits on one end of the toilet paper tube so that you can fold them into one another, creating one end of the tube that is closed off. Paper towel tubes can be used by cutting them into several smaller tubes.

Plastic Juice, Soda, or Milk Jugs: Carefully cut these in half so that the top half can be replaced later. Pierce the bottoms and tops 4 or 5 times for drainage. You can use a knife, Dremel tool, or a hammer and nail for piercing.

Plastic Food Containers (Yogurt, Sour Cream, and K-cups): Poke holes into the bottom with a knife or scissor so that they will drain well.

Meat Packaging Trays, Plastic Storage Containers, or Cardboard Boxes: Since all of your recyclable containers will have drainage holes, you will need a tray to hold these seedling starters so water will not run over your table or floor.

For some seeds, an indoor start or greenhouse is not necessary and they can be planted directly in their recyclable pot or container. For these plants, you can use larger, more permanent recycling materials as listed below.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Toilet paper tubes with seeds planted in them and a lettuce seed packet.

For seeds that need to be started indoors where it's warm, use the smaller containers listed above that you've located and fill each with a seedling mix—not regular soil. Spritz the soil with water from a spray bottle. The seedling mix should be slightly wet, but not soaking. Next, add your seeds according to the seed package directions. Gently spritz the seeds once planted, but be very careful. This should be just a light couple of sprays and should not wash the seeds further down into the soil mix or cause them to mold and not grow.

Depending on the container, they can now each be covered with the top that they came with, or if you're using toilet paper cardboard tubes, you can stretch some plastic wrap over the top of the tray to seal them in. Make sure there's ventilation with whichever cover type you choose. (If using plastic wrap, punch a couple holes into the plastic.)

Mist your seeds daily with water. Once you begin to see sprouts, you can put your grow light up or put the seedlings where they can get natural light until they're ready to begin the "hardening off" process.

Transplanting to Larger Recyclables

Blue flowers planted in a rustic wood crate outside.

Once hardened off, your seedlings will need to be transplanted to a larger container. You can use just about any recyclable item to grow your garden in, just as you did for starting your seeds. As long as the container can hold soil, drain well, is large enough to allow the plant to grow properly, and is environmentally safe, you can use it.

Here are a few ideas of reusable containers for your larger plants to grow in:

  • old shoes or boots
  • wood crates or pallets that can be made into garden beds
  • canvas shopping bags or containers
  • two-liter plastic bottles
  • old dresser drawers
  • aluminum cans that once contained food

To make your garden of recycled materials more attractive, you can get creative with how and where you place them, such as hanging them from trees, adding them to a fence or joining them together using other recycled materials. Grab your paint and other crafting materials, such as twine or decorative paper, to cover up any unsightly labels or surfaces.