Toilet Bowl Tomatoes and Bathtub Basil

Before heading out to the local garden center for garden design ideas, look around your own home for new garden containers. Repurpose unique or common containers — bathtubs and toilet planters, for instance.

By Deborah Stephenson


Spring 2016

Bathtub as planter

The home garden is the ultimate painter’s canvas. Free from creative constraints, there is no limit, aside from the gardener’s own imagination.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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In big agriculture’s fields, where house-sized tractors plow long rows and machine-harvesting rules, diversity is as unlikely in planting style as it is in crop selection. However, in our home gardens we are the final arbitrators of design — no matter how frivolous our preferences may seem to others, and we can choose what we like.

As extensions of living space, gardens are as personal as the choice of home furnishings or a favorite t-shirt. Obviously, they provide food when thoughtfully designed, but they are really at their best when they offer relaxation, interest, usefulness, and beauty, as well. This means not only throwing in a few well-placed lounge chairs or even a sittin’ stump or two, but filling the garden with fun, repurposed containers that might otherwise take up valuable space in landfills, to make a garden that is both unique and kind to our planet at the same time.

Alas any container will hold something — even a teacup can be home to a tiny violet, a succulent or a bit of moss. That may be something to remember when you find you can’t bear to throw out one of Grandma’s best china cups that you accidentally cracked so that it no longer holds liquid. Of course, some containers seem made for gardens right from the start — take an old bathtub for example.

Bathtubs are no-brainer container choices for the garden because they make instant raised beds with built-in drainage. They offer comfortable seating for weeding along with extreme durability, especially vintage cast-iron and porcelain models, but they appear less dubious as garden décor than other furnishings from the bathroom, such as toilets. Any bathtub holds an enormous amount of soil for that extra-deep growing space so perfect for root crops like carrots, turnips or sweet potatoes, but a vintage claw-foot tub makes an especially pretty mixed planter for herbs, flowers and vines, too. If it shows the “patina of time” in too many spots, planting a ground cover like thyme, sweet woodruff or a low flower border around the base will help to blend it softly into the garden, and no one will think it less lovely than any other raised bed.

And as long as you’re redoing the bathroom and taking advantage of that old tub, you may as well go whole-hog and use the sink and toilet too.

Putting a toilet in the garden may sound a bit quirky, but when you think about how perfectly a toilet is designed for planting, it suddenly makes all the sense in the world. The entire toilet is made of durable, non-toxic, earth-based material that may last for centuries. Certainly no plastic or metal container can say that. The bowl is a large porcelain pot capable of holding as much as 5 gallons of soil. The tank also holds 3.5 to 5 gallons of water to release as needed for watering your plants, or you can use it as an upper tier for a second planting. You can even remove the tank and make it a stand-alone planter, or line several up together for a narrow planter wall. If it still seems a bit seedy for your taste, dress it up with mosaic tiles or porcelain paints as one-of-a-kind garden art.

A sink is a logical accompaniment to the tub and toilet, plus it has all the advantages of drainage, durability and environmentally-friendly features of its bathroom brethren without the awkward size or dubious shape. Perch one directly on the ground for a low bed or prop it up on rocks, blocks or a stump to make a small raised bed.

Of course, there are many other useful containers besides bathroom fixtures. Nearly any kitchen cast-off can be pressed into service as a container for planting. Look around for old pots, cracked or chipped crocks, seldom-used bowls, empty coffee containers, tea and coffee pots, large canisters and the like. Even a colander can be pressed into service if lined with absorbent moss or coco-fiber before filling it with soil. In fact, colanders are especially good for plants that hate wet feet since they are designed to drain freely.

Indoors or out, almost anything that holds, or can be made to hold, soil may work in the garden for one plant or another.

A few of the more peculiar examples of planters I’ve seen in gardens include washing machine tubs — or in the case of one ancient wringer washer, the entire machine made into a large, but picturesque planter in a cottage garden — printers (without the insides or electrical parts), bicycle baskets, wheelbarrows, dressers and even old rowboats and grand pianos!

Less exotic, but no less utilitarian, are galvanized wash tubs, half-barrels, 5-gallon buckets and smaller plastic food containers; often free for the asking from grocery stores, delis, fast-food places and restaurants. Shallow trays, hub caps and old cake pans can serve as temporary containers for seedlings or permanently house succulents that require little soil for their shallow root systems.

And lest we forget Mother Nature, consider the leftover debris next time you need to trim an ancient tree in your yard. Split hollow limbs lengthwise or cut them into short pieces. When stood on end and filled with soil, they make wonderful, rustic planters that gracefully decompose to enrich the soil of your garden even as they serve as planters.

Before heading out to the local garden center to purchase a brand new pot or planter, look around your own home and yard for inspiration; then charge forth and re-purpose with a will! The garden and our planet will thank you. 

Tips for selecting containers

Select containers of adequate size to accommodate mature plants, rather than seedlings; containers with drainage holes are preferable. You can even drill them yourself — using a ceramic drill bit for glass and porcelain or a metal bit for metals. If you do, please wear safety glasses! The best containers are made of sturdy, safe materials like pottery, heavy glass, steel or enameled-steel and food-grade plastic.

Please avoid selecting very small containers for all but the smallest of mature plants or seedlings that will have to be transplanted. They have insufficient water-holding capacity and inadequate space for root development. Aluminum containers are also not advisable; they inhibit plant growth — especially in seeds and seedlings. Many plastic containers can leach BPA or bisphenol-A and phthalates into the soil. Plastic containers marked with 1 or 7 are to be avoided; 2, 4, or 5 are safest. Additionally, plastics quickly break down in direct sunlight. Also avoid containers that previously held toxic substances like chemicals — especially herbicides, pesticides or fungicides; lead paints, and so forth.