Dirt Cheap? More like Dirt Expensive! Amirite?
September 1, 2010 10:16 PM   Subscribe

How can I establish a cheap, efficent container garden system for vegetables?

I wish to establish a container garden with which to over-burden myself with veggies, in sunny, sub-tropical Brisbane. Although there are plenty of resources about doing this, most have a north American slant to them, which is less then optimal for me.

My issues are:
  • Containers such as pots are actually quite expensive.
  • Black plastic pots get quite hot and destroy the root systems, causing lesser growth
  • Dirt, potting soil, compost, sand, straw and the like are also quite expensive
So I'm not sure what environment to set up for my plants. I know I need some decent organics to hold onto moisture, but upping compost seems to make my soil soggy. Leaving it out makes fluid run out like crazy. Black pots get hot, straw doesn't keep liquid.

I know it's not magic, it's a matter of finding affordable containers, putting affordable growth material in them and planting, but I'm not sure what any of those parts are.
posted by Quadlex to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Can you do square foot gardening?
posted by deadmessenger at 10:19 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, I should've put more detail in my original question.

I currently rent, so I want something I can take with me if/when I move. My landlords are unlikely to approve of me making a permanent change, and even if they do I don't want to shell out for something I can't take with me.

I've looked at the various "foot" gardens before, and the main concern besides their non-portability, is they're expensive to set up here, because I don't have access to any edging material that's affordable... No railway sleepers, no pavers or bricks or bessa blocks of any kind.
posted by Quadlex at 10:22 PM on September 1, 2010

Why not ask Yates?
posted by malibustacey9999 at 10:23 PM on September 1, 2010

I'm in the states so YMMV, but I've been able to find terra cotta pots for pretty cheap at just about any garden store - for the size you're probably looking at, around $6 a piece, I think. If you don't care about aesthetics, just rummage around and find used buckets, etc. and use those - just make sure you drill some holes for drainage.
posted by sanko at 10:25 PM on September 1, 2010

You can buy plastic pots online for less than $0.25 each. I do a lot of container gardening and just buy potting soil in bulk.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:28 PM on September 1, 2010

Styrofoam vegetable transport boxes ("broccoli boxes") are often available used (for free) from large green-grocers. (pic of one.) With a few holes cut in the bottom, they make a great insulated pot, and can be moved with only a little support from underneath. They're a really good size for herbs or small plantings of vegetables (eg 4-8 lettuces).
posted by Ahab at 10:33 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you go behind a place like Home Depot (or anywhere with a "Garden Center") those guys through out a lot of hanging plants and such around the beginning of winter.
posted by wayland at 10:42 PM on September 1, 2010

Jumping back in to answer another part of this - affordable growth materials.

Potting mix over here in Perth starts at about $3 a bag from Coles. It's not great potting mix but it'll do the trick for most veges.

But you don't have to buy a complete soil. If you have sand (or can get it from someone advertising "clean fill") then you're on your way. Add a mix of peat, compost, and cow/horse manure. Add only enough to give your sand some moisture retention properties, and it really shouldn't cost too much. If it ends up too heavy/dense, add more sand. A ratio along the lines of 4-6 bags of sand, one of peat, one or two of fully composted pea straw (or something similar) and one of manure. You're then looking at about $30-35 for 200 odd litres of V-8 soil.

pH test before use, and be prepared to fertilize.

Also, mulching is always good for moisture retention even on bare sand. When I can afford it I like to use partially composted lupin straw, when I can't (or for large areas) I use eucalyptus chips from my local shire tip (they're free after tree pruning season).
posted by Ahab at 10:59 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Ahab's idea of the styrofoam boxes. Nip down to your local green grocer shop or Fairfield markets for some cast-offs.

For seedlings, go to Northey St City Farm. They also have great classes and it's just a nice place to hang out. They might be able to sell you some compost/good soil as well.
posted by Kerasia at 11:06 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

ABC Gardening Australia site has a really good collection of fact sheets, including ones for "veges in pots" and "container gardens". I haven't looked but I assume they'll also have details about soil building and Brisbane specific vege gardening.
posted by Ahab at 11:26 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: Do some research on self-watering containers and I bet you will find what you are looking for.
posted by Aquaman at 11:58 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Buying any material in small packages tends to be more expensive than buying in bulk. You might be able to find a building / landscape supply company that will let you fill a trash can with topsoil for cheap.

For containers, some white 5-gallon (or equivalent) buckets left over from paint, drywall compound, etc. would be ideal. Thoroughly washed, of course.
posted by jon1270 at 3:48 AM on September 2, 2010

Although I own so don't have the same thoughts about moving on, I've been here.

I built my own containers using gravel board (the treated board that goes where a high wooden fence meets the ground – UK link here for the back & sides & decking for the front so that it looked nicer. Used a dark stain to do the bits that would be seen.

The board comes in 2.4m lengths so I ended up building two containers that length, two boards high & about 24 cm deep. 5 lengths of the board, 4 decking boards for the fronts, some 5cm square lengths for the corners & 5 x 1 lengths to attach the long boards together. I got the equivalent of 6 containers for the price of 1. Easy to make smaller versions. I've got some construction pix somewhere so MeMail me if you want some more details.

However, I didn't make a base which may be something you want if you want to move them. That said, even fairly small containers full of earth are bloody heavy so moving might be best done out of season when you can empty them.

I filled the bottom of the containers with pea shingle (small pebbles the size of...peas) which is available very cheaply (UK link) a few cm deep and lifted the containers slightly so they were resting on about 1cm of shingle which makes for great drainage.

As for compost, sod the garden centre stuff. Unless you are growing specialist plants that need certain types of soil try what I did although it depends on your local availability:

Buy some bags of top soil – I ended up getting mine free from a gardener that had just dug up a load to lay a patio but a local search should find sellers.

Manure – your local farm, stables etc. is full of the stuff and many sell it cheap or give it away. I got lucky (again) as the first stables I tried had a farm next door and the farmer let me have free reign on his 4-year-old pile. I could have probably used nothing but this as it was beautifully broken down.

After lots of lugging, dumping it all on the balcony & then mixing up, the containers were filled and planting was off. Had a great first crop this year – tomatoes, cos lettuce, rocket, carrots, radishes, courgettes, basil, parsley & chillis – using the same soil for all.

I did use some black pots but being in the UK probably don't have the heat problems you will. How about wrapping them in aluminium foil?

I also used buckets (including an old mop bucket) with holes drilled in the bottom. You might be able to get some old ones from builders or the like. They don't need to be in great condition, just clean of any building crap.

Plasterers buckets are popular for containers over here too and might be more up your street in terms of portability.

As I say, MeMail me if you need any more details.
posted by i_cola at 4:16 AM on September 2, 2010

To make pots lighter to move around you can use broken up polystrene (styrofoam?) for drainage, rather than gravel.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:59 AM on September 2, 2010

I made some self-watering containers out of 5-gallon buckets this year. They have worked well for (roma) tomatoes and peppers. I got the buckets from a local restaurant for 50 cents a piece (some places will let you have them for free). Using food-grade buckets (from restaurants) should preclude leaching of any non-desirable things into your plants.

For fill, I used compost from the local municipal compost pile (also free). I also got the seeds for my peppers for free, because I saved some seed from some peppers a coworker brought in last summer.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:00 AM on September 2, 2010

I stumbled upon some foam (styrofoam, I think?) pots at a "factory seconds" store and they're fantastic. They're huge, but very light. They look decent. They hold moisture well (we use them in a very hot/dry part of our yard, sitting on baking pavement). I ran into them again (less-decent looking ones) at the supermarket when they were doing "summer planting randomness." I'm not entirely sure where you'd buy them on purpose (I certainly have no idea in Australia), but they're out there! Well-stocked garden centers?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:20 AM on September 2, 2010

Oh, plus, the foam pots were dead cheap. Because they're just foam.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:20 AM on September 2, 2010

Perhaps look into building some EarthTainers.
posted by mbarryf at 5:39 AM on September 2, 2010

Maybe take a look at Windowfarms?

Instead of building it in the window though, perhaps it can be adapted to your location. It seems to hit all the points: low cost, local materials, portable, and hydroponic (sans dirt).
posted by teabag at 5:48 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: I did self-watering containers last year myself, using this design from Mother Earth News.
posted by heatvision at 6:04 AM on September 2, 2010

Another type of bucket you can get for free are the 5 gallon buckets used by grocery store bakeries to hold dough. Ask the folks behind the counter.... and then be sure to drill some good holes in the bottom.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:11 AM on September 2, 2010

There's often very cheap pottery available at yard sales or in the "free" section of craigslist. Check those out, especially at the beginning of the month, and you might find a lot of nice stuff.
posted by kdar at 8:32 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: Don't cheap out on soil, because you'll end up with crap plants. Soil and compost will be your biggest expense.
As far as containers go, do consider 5 gallon buckets. Did you know that hamburger joints go through them regularly, and they're not allowed to reuse them? Chat them up, and they'll probably agree to set some aside for you. Personally, I acquired some plastic soda cartons from outside a convenience store to make into small portable beds. I've lined them with newspaper, the bottom of cardboard boxes, and black plastic bags. So far, the bags have worked best (punch holes in them for drainage).
As a last resort, you could always just buy a big bag of soil and plant directly in it. Cut a hole in it, and ta-da! instant bed.
posted by Gilbert at 8:35 AM on September 2, 2010

Just wanted to share a trick: in a five gallon bucket, annual vegs are using only the top ten or twelve inches of soil. You can significantly reduce the amoutnt of growing medium you have to buy/create by filling the bucket up to halfway with packing "peanuts" - you can buy a huge bag of them at an office supply place for about US$10. They're great for drainage and have the added benefit of weighing (almost literally!) nothing, so your pots will be much easier to move around.

Also, with all due respect to the gardeners above, remember that custom growing mixutures are wonderful but your plants will grow in simple peat moss if you feed them - which is a WHOLE lot easier than mixing up huge quantities of growing medium, whether soil or soil-less. I saw a demonstration garden earlier this summer that was made from large bags of peat moss laid flat on stacks of plastic milk crates, with holes punched in the "bottom" side and slits cut in the top of the peat bags to make "rows." A quite impressive crop of cherry tomatoes was happily growing away in the rows, fed with Miracle-Gro Veg food.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 9:29 AM on September 2, 2010

For everyone suggesting polystyrene/Styrofoam as a soil amendment, or packing peanuts at the bottoms of pots, please reconsider. Polystyrene is much lighter than soil components, so it inevitably "floats to the top" of a soil mixture and blows away. Since it's buoyant, it winds up in the water, where it takes hundreds of years to degrade in a weathering process that produces compounds that are toxic to marine life. It won't kill you or your vegetables, true; but it'll kill plenty of other things over the next several centuries.

One day soon, putting this stuff into soil will seem as crazy as putting DDT in children's wallpaper. I know we're not there yet, but please consider joining the vanguard of not putting plastic pollution into your garden.
posted by gum at 12:13 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I couldn't favorite gum's comment enough times. Try not to build gardens out of trash. Raised beds will drain if there is a place for water to go. You don't need fillers because saturated soil just drains. In fact, water from soil won't move into a layer of gravel (or anything with larger pores between particles) until the saturation point is reached, because otherwise water that normally moves via capillary action is stopped at the gravel or styrofoam layer. Build shallow boxes if you don't want to use as much soil. Or don't fill them all the way.

You can paint or shade black plastic pots if you've got a cheap source and are afraid of roots getting too hot. But now I'm curious- what color pots do Australian nurseries grow their stock in? Whatever that is, is fine for vegetables. I grew tomatoes in 15 gallon black nursery pots on my warehouse roof, and they were fine. My whole veggie garden is in black plastic pots right now, and while it may not get as hot here as where you are, you just cram them together and shade the south and west side, if need be.

Do not cheap out on bagged potting soil. Better to use soil you dug out of your yard than the composted sawdust they pass off as potting soil. Either splurge for the good stuff, or amend some local top soil.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:18 PM on September 2, 2010

Back again... I forgot the most basic thing. If you're going to start with the existing soil in your garden, either for direct planting or to transfer into pots, you need to know what it is. This site has a suburb by suburb breakdown of Brisbane soil types.

Your strategy for improving the soil will depend on which you've got. I'm guessing gravelly sand from the fact that water runs straight through it before improvement. In that case, adding organic material really is your best bet. Getting it to a point where it's neither too light nor too heavy is just a matter of trial and error. Experiment with small amounts first to get your proportions right.

Also had another couple of thoughts about materials. If your local shire tip has a shop, or public access recycling section, it'll often have a tonne of stuff suitable for gardening. Pots, sleepers, bricks, old fence posts and pickets, shadecloth, and so on. If it doesn't, verge side pick-ups are a similar gold mine. I get a lot of pots from these.

The best of my pot finds have come from out the front of houses that have just had wholesale re-landscaping done. And I'm talking big pots here. So it might be worth calling big landscaping companies and asking whether they ever have to dump pots. They may be happy to have you pick them up rather than have to pay tip fees or rely on the client for disposal.

You might also try salvage yards. They often have materials that would let you revisit the idea of square foot gardening for very little cost indeed.

Good luck!
posted by Ahab at 9:48 PM on September 2, 2010

While I appreciate your passion, gum, I have been using polystyrene material and more recently biodegradable "peanuts" for many years, and I have never had it "float to the top" of my planting medium. A reasonable amount of care in working with your materials is all that's required.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 10:44 PM on September 2, 2010

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