If you’re researching container gardens, you know there are loads of options for sale — terra cotta pots, plastic troughs, Rubbermaid storage containers — and plenty more DIY instructions for redwood boxes, raised beds, and converting any “container” known to man into gardening space (did you see my computer garden post last week??).
Here in Oakland, I was looking for the cheapest possible option — but also something easily mobile, symmetrically attractive, deep enough for carrots, and wide enough to row some veggies.
I needed squares — cubes at least a foot deep.
Milk crates come in a variety of sizes (we have 12” cubes and 13”x15” boxes, and I’ve seen ones that are double wide), they’re really easy to move, they’re almost always free, and they can easily be arranged side by side in “beds.” I found most of my crates on Craigslist — I brought 28 of them home one day in my little Ford Escort when I discovered that a gelato shop in San Francisco looking to get rid of more than 100! Now I see them all over the place (I’m still hoping to score some of those double wides…).
While you can’t put soil directly into milk crates (huge gaping holes aren’t exactly conducive to holding dirt), they’re really easy to line. But what to line them with? I considered burlap, for economy’s sake and easy drainage, but I didn’t think it would last long. Instead, I settled on synthetic landscaping fabric. It’s about $25 for a 3×100-foot roll at my local Home Depot –I think I Iined about 15 crates with my first roll.
1. Cut the landscaping fabric to fit your boxes. You’ll need two identical strips for each box — the width must be 4 to 6 inches wider than the box width (if you bought 3- to 4-foot wide fabric, just cut it in half for most milk crates), and the length must be long enough to fit down both sides and across the bottom, plus a few inches leeway on each side. An easy way to measure is to wrap the fabric around the outside of the crate.
2. Put one strip across the inside of the box to cover two opposite sides. Make sure the fabric fits down into each corner so you don’t end up with a rounded bottom (likely to stretch and tear) when it’s filled with soil. Stitch in the handles on each — or wherever is convenient based on the placement of holes on your crate — to keep the fabric in place.
4. Fill it with soil! I used a mix that was about one half top soil, one quarter compost, one quarter chicken manure, plus a few tablespoons of dry organic fertilizer. I also added a few worms — we inherited a large family of earthworms when we got dirt from someone else’s yard, and I try to keep a few in each box, since they help keep the soil and plants healthy.
5. Plant! I’ve found that carrots, beans, and lettuces can be rowed in these containers, but that plants like eggplant and squash need a full container to themselves. I have peppers planted diagonally — 2 in one box — and they seem to do well that way. I found a really good resource on companion planting that I use to help determine what to plant with what and which boxes to put next to each other for pest control, flavor, shading, etc.