Gardening 101: Starting A Garden With Repurposed Materials

I was so happy to read through your comments to all of the great posts since the launch of Simple Organic.  Many of you expressed your desire to start a vegetable garden this spring as a way to supplement your family’s purchased organic produce and to decrease your carbon footprint.  And really there is no better way to “eat local” than to walk right outside your back door.

You are in good company!  Increasingly, families, especially mamas, are seeing the benefit of cultivating their own food. This practice isn’t new, but thankfully it is gaining popularity again.  With a few simple tips, you’ll be growing your own food in no time.

So let’s get started!

Tip #1:  Start Your Seeds Indoors Using Repurposed Containers

One way to get a jump on your spring garden is to start seeds indoors while it is still too cold outside.  And it is a great way to remind yourself that spring is on its way.  Nothing beats the winter “blahs” like watching a little seedling poke its head through the soil.

There are many household items you can recycle to hold your little seedlings until they are ready for transplant outdoors.  Some repurposed containers can even be planted right into the soil with your seedling. Other containers will have to be washed and saved for next year or put into the recycle bin.  Below is a list of some household items that can be used to start seeds.

  • Cardboard egg cartons

    Simply fill them with soil, plant your seeds.  When it is planting time, cut the individual “egg cups” apart and plant the whole thing into the prepared hole.  The cardboard will eventually decompose and hold valuable moisture around your plant.

  • Toilet paper/paper towel rolls

    Cut the rolls into rings 3-4 inches tall.  Place them on a cookie sheet, fill them with dirt and plant your seeds.  When you are ready to transplant the seedlings, use a spatula to lift them off the cookie sheet and into the garden.

  • Newspapers

    Make your own small seedling pots out of newspaper using a tin can or glass jar.  Dave’s Garden has a great Youtube tutorial that will show you how.

  • Clear plastic fruit containers

  • These containers act like mini green houses and are my kids’ favorites for starting seeds.  Simply fill the container full of soil and sow your seeds.  No need to poke holes for drainage, most of these containers already have small holes in the bottom.  The smaller, shallow containers can hold around 4 plants and the larger ones can hold 6 or so plants.  When it is time to transplant, gently turn the soil out near the prepared hole and plant.

  • Dixie cups, tin cans and yogurt containers

  • These all work well for single plants with large root systems like tomatoes or peppers.

Photo by Eren Hays San Pedro

Tip #2:  Start Making Your Own Compost

com·post  (kmpst) n. 1. A mixture of decaying organic matter, as from leaves and manure, used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients.

I know decaying matter and manure is not the most glamorous topic to cover. But all good gardeners know that homemade compost is worth its weight in gold. Compost is essential in your garden if you do not want to use chemical fertilizers.  Besides…composting is a great way to recycle organic waste that would otherwise go into the garbage can.

And believe it or not, if you make your compost correctly there is no nasty smell.

There are many container options for compost.  I use a purchased compost bin next to our shed in the backyard.  You can make your own out of recycled wooden pallets or you can use a garbage can.  There are even some attractive counter top versions.

Now, what goes into making compost you ask?

  • Include: leaves, fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, shredded news paper, and wood ashes (if the wood did not contain chemicals)
  • Avoid: meat and fish scraps, weeds, dog or cat waste

Tip #3:  Location, Location, Location

Where will your seedlings go once they are up and growing?

Starting From Scratch

If you are turning part of your lawn into garden area, newspapers and brown paper sacks are your friends for “no-till” garden beds. To create a new planting area without the work of digging, just mow the area as short as you can.  Then spread the area with 6-10 layers of newspaper or brown paper bags.  Top it with enough compost or soil to hold the paper in place.

Over the next few months, the paper will smother the weeds and grass below and decay into the soil. You now have a pristine planting bed ready to receive your veggie seedlings when it is time.

Containers

You can plant almost anything in pots or containers.  And almost any container can be used as a planter (as long as you drill drainage holes in the bottom first). If you will be planting in pots or containers, you can use packing pellets, newspaper, pine cones or other material in the bottom of your pots to save soil and make your pots lighter and easier to move around.

Raised Beds

If your soil is poor (like mine) or you need more space than containers will provide, raised beds are for you. By building your garden up instead of down, you are able to control weeds, prevent soil compaction, and provide good drainage.

You can use almost any repurposed material for the sides of your raised bed.  My first year gardening at our current home, I even used repurposed bi-fold doors.  Wanna see?

If you need more information on when to begin your seeds and when to transplant them, You Grow Girl has a great Seed Start Chart to download.  You simply put in your area’s last frost date and the spreadsheet calculates the dates to sow seeds indoors and the date to transplant them out into your garden.

Get Growing!

Many of the contributors to Simple Organic are accomplished gardeners. So if you have questions, please ask!  We would love to hear about your plans.

Resources For Further Reading:
You Grow Girl
Square Foot Garden

What are you planning to grow this year? Maybe it will be your first garden? Are you looking forward to trying some new heirloom tomato varieties?

53 Comments

  1. Katie

    Eren, this is a great post! I will refer to it often as we start to plan our spring garden! Thanks!

    • Eren

      What will you be planting Katie…you should be able to have one heck of a Spring garden in TX.
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

      • Katie

        Oh, we’re not sure yet…. still trying to figure it out. I am really a novice gardener – we’ve been growing for 2-3 years and have had more failures than successes. 🙂 But learning all the time!

        • Eren

          Such is gardening, eh? Im still looking for a good natural pesticide for the squash bugs that invade us every year. Maybe this will be the year of squash!!!
          .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  2. Aimee

    I can’t wait to get my nails dirty!! Thank you Eren, for this helpful and inspiring post!
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: A Guidemap for Finding Real Salt =-.

    • Eren

      Anytime Aimee…I often go to pick my boys up from school or run to the store only to look down and see dirt still under may nails. Happy Spring to you!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

    • Eren

      Sarah, what are you going to plant this year? I always love hearing about what is in other peoples gardens.
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  3. Stefani

    Well hey hey there mama! This is an amazing and wonderful list! It’s just been added to my bookmarks, and I have a feeling that I’m going to refer back to it often.
    I have always been so intimidated by the idea of composting. You might just push me over the edge.
    We used newspapers in Granny’s garden between the rows. We wet them well and then put pine needles over the tops of them. Works great as mulch!

    • Eren

      Hello my friend…good idea on using newspaper b/w the rows. Im sure our neighbors just laughed when they saw us speading newspaper all along the side of our house last Spring, but now that we have a beautiful herb garden, they just might be jealous. And you know your boys would be ALL over composting! What’s not to love about food waste and nightcrawlers. A science experiment for sure!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  4. Crystal

    The thought of digging up the soil the first year to get a garden started has been holding me back. I love your newspaper/paper bag idea to prepare the garden. Thanks for the great tip.

    • Eren

      Oh Crystal, the thought of digging up all of those weeds and grass can be daunting. But we used the newspaper idea to make our herb garden last year and it worked beautifully. Good luck!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  5. farmama

    Great post full of many great tips. How nice of you to take the time to offer your gardening knowledge to others. We’ve been farming sustainably for 13 years, but we’re definitely still learning. That’s one of the fun parts about farming….learning!
    sending love,
    sara
    .-= farmama’s last blog: fiber friday =-.

    • Eren

      Sara…if you have other ideas, please, please share. You are a wealth of information and you SO could have written this post and more here!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  6. Beth Dawson

    Thank you so MUCH! My daughters and I really wanted to plant a veggie garden this year and your website has been so much help! yay! 🙂

    • Eren

      Great Beth! Good luck with your veggies. Nothing like gardening with kiddos.
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  7. RaisingZ

    Thank you so much for posting this! We were just talking last night about expanding our garden. Last year we did herbs and tomatoes in containers and carrots (thanks to Curious George) and green beans in a raised bed. We bought seedlings for our containers and put the seeds in the ground for our bed. This year I think we will start the seeds inside. Thanks again for the tips!!!

    • Eren

      I love that you were able to tie a garden to a book…wonderful! Good luck with your expansion.
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  8. Heather@WoolandFlax

    Eren,

    Okay, I had just decided not to garden again this year, after a near failure last year, but now you have me wanting to try again! Thanks for the tips, especially the newspaper method. I’m inspired!

    • Eren

      Oh, Heather…I hope you give it another try. What happened last year? Start small…and remember its a learning process, even for accomplished gardeners. Just when we think we have it figured out, the weather changes, or bugs invade 😉
      .-= Eren’s last blog: Here, There and Everywhere =-.

  9. Beth - Total Mom Haircut

    This is a great post – I hadn’t thought of several of those ideas for seedling containers! Egg cartons! Of course. And I have them all sitting around holding the egg shells for my tomatoes too:) I’m doing a few heirlooms this year (crossing my fingers). Not doing them from seed though. I found out I could get transplants from seedsaversexchange and wanted to be able to try lots of different varieties (lots being six, since that’s really all I can manage).

    And isn’t that chart from You Grow Girl amazing? There’s one in the back of her new book and when I saw it I was thrilled. I’ll definitely link to this post on my blog some time this week.
    .-= Beth – Total Mom Haircut’s last blog: Beautiful Boy =-.

    • Eren

      Heirloom seedlings….awesome!!!

      I dont have Gayla’s new book, but I have it on my list as soon as it gets to my library.

      So fun!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  10. Nicole

    Thanks for the inspiration, Eren. I can’t wait to get started even though I only have a small area to garden in. I’m definitely going to try laying out newspaper and new soil over my yucky planter area to start fresh. How long should I do that before I want to plant?

    • Eren

      You can plant right on top of the newly placed newspaper if you are going to use mulch or more dirt on top. Or if you need to go down further, just pierce a hole (like an x) in the newspaper with a shovel, fold the corners back, dig down a bit with a trowel, and plant right in the hole. If you are trying to kill many weeds or grass, I’d let it sit a few months. When we started our new herb bed last summer, we let the newspaper sit for several months and didnt plant until fall. But we were going from lawn to garden, so there was lots to discourage from growing.

      Happy planting Nicole!!!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  11. Stacie@HobbitDoor

    Thanks for all the tips! Just wanted to let you know the link you put in to show how you used bi-fold doors sends us right back to this page. Maybe I’ll actually start a garden this year!
    .-= Stacie@HobbitDoor’s last blog: Homemad Bagels =-.

  12. My First Kitchen

    Such a great post!! I love the simplicity of these ideas. And now I realize how ironic that sounds considering this blog is called Simple Organic. Well, you’ve done your job. Great great ideas.
    .-= My First Kitchen’s last blog: Food Inc. Winners =-.

    • Eren

      Kendra…As a mama of three little boys, I dont do much that isn’t easy. Thanks so much for the encouragement.
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  13. Rebekah

    What wonderful inspiration! I am excited to get started gardening. It is great to have some ideas of how to very inexpensively start a garden.

    • Eren

      Rebekah, So glad you found some ideas here…good luck!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  14. Kim

    Thank you for this post! I have been wondering when and how to get started with my seeds. We moved into this home a year ago, and had the arduous task of landscaping from scratch – never again, I say! We didn’t have a garden last year, but I got my compost heap started and hope to get some veggies growing this summer. I’m so looking forward to teaching my kids about how things grow, and for them to have the joy of eating fresh veggies straight from the garden like I did as a kid!
    Ours is a very small garden area, but I like to think of it as “manageable” instead 🙂 I’m hoping to plant a few carrots, peas, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes.
    .-= Kim’s last blog: 90: GOLD! =-.

    • Eren

      Oh your garden sounds great Kim! We started from “scratch” here in this house too. We are on year 3 and the backyard is just now starting to look like I had envisioned. Happy gardening to you and your kiddos!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  15. BethS

    Thanks for this, Eren. I’m so ready for spring here in N. CO, winter got me this year in a big way. I think you may have talked me into attempting to start seeds again this year. Last year was a bust but it just might be what we need around hear to get us to April/May.

    Also, thanks for the composting tips. This is something we’ve talked about and just haven’t gotten done.

    • Eren

      Like I said, nothing beats watching those little seeds emerge. You can even grow some greens inside in containers, cutting as you go along, and never even transplant them out of doors.

      Good luck.

      P.S. N. CO is one of my most favorite places in the world!!!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  16. Camaron

    I loved your post and I really want to get into gardening, but I don’t have a patio or a balcony. My neighborhood has a community garden, but being pregnant–I’m shying away from that and the stray cat issue. I can put some SMALL things on my kitchen window sill, but since I can’t take them outside after they get bigger what would you recommend that won’t get too big and take over my limited space, but still be useful at home?

    • Eren

      Camaron, I think a community garden is a great option, so maybe someone else could help you out while you are pregnant. Or you could wear gardening gloves? I know there are others who grow indoors. Here is a great link…

      http://gardengal.net/page44.html

      And You Grow Girl also has some great options.

      Good luck!
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  17. TwoBloggers

    Clear plastic fruit containers! My “ah-ha” moment of the day. I have 6 of them in my re-purposing stash just knowing that they had a second life…. Thanks for the tips!

    • Eren

      I love it when that happens 😉
      .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  18. Melissa

    Excellent post! There are so many great tips here. I have it bookmarked for reference as I am getting ready to plant my first garden.

    I am doing a raised bed (or two) and I am trying to figure out what would be best to plant there. Do you have any suggestions? My family loves all varieties of squash, and I’m am really hoping that I can grow some!
    .-= Melissa’s last blog: Just a Boring Update! =-.

  19. Hannah

    Thank you for this article! I am really looking forward to starting my garden this year.
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: a desire to {grow} =-.

  20. Tina

    We try gardening every year… in the ground… in containers… starting with seeds… starting with plants… and always with the same results: 3 or four minuscule tomatoes and/or bell peppers that we’re so very excited about (nothing else ever produces for us, though we plant it all) for WAY too much $ (by the time you break it down, we probably end up spending over $100/tiny tomato or poorly pepper!). BUT… we’re going to try AGAIN!!! Thanks for this post! You’ve inspired me and given me confidence! Now if only that will materialize into produce! 😉

  21. Gina

    I love the idea of using newspaper topped with compost as a mulch to keep down the weeds. I’m going to try it this weekend – totally fed up with stinging nettles at the moment!

  22. Dawn

    Great ideas for helping people get started gardening.

    I’ve used your ‘starting from scratch’ method and it really does work. If you put enough goodness on top you can actually plant things straight away.

    And to the lady above me who has problems with nettles – cut them first. Once they’ve been cut then they lose their sting and are much easier to tackle. Any bit still rooted in the ground will still sting though. If they’re small plants, rake them out and leave them in the sun for a day – sting all gone!

  23. Ashley

    I just started working on my garden. and i love your post, it really answered allot of my questions.
    Thanks

  24. Stan Horst

    This is a fun and informative article. Isn’t gardening really about doing a lot with a little? Learning to improvise, repurpose and reuse things that we already have? What a wonderful way to contribute to the health of the environment not only by growing some of our own food, but by making use of things that most folks would normally just throw away.

  25. josh

    This was a wonderful post, it really helped me out with setting up my garden. Thank you

  26. Open Pollinated Seeds

    Good article. Be careful adding things with ink to your garden. I was doing that until I found out what is in it…

  27. Bill Brikiatis

    I succession plant my seedlings to take the risk out of process. It might be a little more involved, but it gives me some insurance that I’ll have good seedlings to plant when the time is right.

  28. heirloom seeds

    Now this is a very unique post. Great info and thank you for providing some very useful info. If more people would plant seeds instead of just throwing them away, we might actually be able to help restore some of the damage we’re doing to our planet. We have dandelions every year here! I am going to grow some herbs, mint, lemon balm for the bugs, and I am going to try catnip.

  29. Jamie

    Thank you so much for your gardening tips when summer comes along I want to garden to save money and eat organic. I’ve learned a ton thank you so much.

  30. Aprille

    Ah, this blog is simply amazing! A food for the soul. A must-visit for every gardener, especially to those who are just starting up their own gardens. I’m really impressed at all the stay-at-home moms who really do their best to cater to the needs of their family in the most effective yet healthiest and eco-friendliest ways possible. You have a beautiful family Eren. I wish you all the best. 🙂

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