Container Gardens, Vintage Style

vintage container gardening graphicContainer gardens are like a summer stock play. You find inspiration; pull together your cast of plants; assemble the production; rewrite and recast as needed; entertain the viewers and savor the weeks the show is open. And after the first killing frost, you strike the set and store it away for next season.

Personalizing container gardens by incorporating vintage is always a good plan. Well-worn garden tools and bits of crockery and glass are natural statement pieces for a container. But, repurposing a vintage something into the container itself? That is an equal blend of fun and challenge because you’re taking something that was meant for one purpose and using it in an entirely different way.

Never ones to shrink from a challenge, we set ourselves this task: create vintage container gardens that will provide optimal[ish] growing conditions using readily available vintage items that are inexpensive and/or free as the container.

If it will hold more than a couple cups of dirt, you can plant in almost anything. The challenge is to figure out what adaptations and innovations are needed to give your plants a good root-expanding experience. 

Points to consider:

  • Where will this container garden live? A small metal container on a patio that gets blazing sun all day will quick-fry roots to a crackly crunch. A container should provide a hospitable temperature under normal conditions.
  • Is it large enough for roots to spread and heavy enough so that plants that experience awesome growth will not tip it over?
  • Does it provide adequate drainage? If drainage holes exist, well done by you. Add a layer of small stones or what have you and skip to the next bullet point. If they don’t, can they be created using tools at your disposal? Or is the container deep enough that thick layer of something can be added to allow water to collect below root level?
  • Is it a valuable heirloom that ought not be filled with zinnias and plonked on the front doorstep? What are you thinking! Step away from the container. Now.
  • What was its previous occupation? If you are growing edibles, and heaven knows you should, they should not be grown in something from the workshop or garage that might have been used as the drip pan for changing oil or the bucket for washing out brushes in turpentine. If in doubt, go with for the eyes only.

Container plants need a good potting mix and regular feeding. Garden soil may have lots of lovely microbes and nutrients, but put it in a pot and it bakes into a brick. If you’re lazy like me, you get a potting mix that comes with the food already mixed in. The technology exists in both traditional and organic forms.

As far as choosing plants, there are all sorts of design rules about scale and texture, but for most of us, they can pretty much be simplified down to this. Pick things that grow to different sizes and look good together. Play with combos at your local nursery. Design aside, it is important to group plants that are of like minds about the amount of light and the amount of moisture they fancy. Mixing sun-loving dry-toed succulents with water-hogging shade-fanatic impatiens will end with one of them very unhappy.

To reiterate the challenge we set for ourselves: create a container gardens that will flourish using a cheap or free vintage container.  This was a lot more fun than it should have been; we have created five:

Well-worn boots ready for their next act. (photo by Tina @ Girl Pickers)
Well-worn boots ready for their next act. (photo by Tina @ Girl Pickers)

The Boots

Courtesy of Tina: My second cousin came over to borrow my tiller and these were in the back of his pickup.  I asked him what he was going to do with them. He hopped in the truck and threw them down to me. The stitching provides natural drainage. They do need a little more watering than many containers because the boot is pretty narrow, but the petunia and the vinca vine are pretty happy with their home.

Culinary herb garden in a vintage colander
Culinary herb garden in a vintage colander.

The Colander

A snip of herbs is always welcome. The holey-er than thou nature of colanders means you need a lining to keep soil from washing out. Moss, coconut matting or brown paper all work. You can trim your paper, but I let it hang out because it reminded me of bringing a fresh bundle of herbs home from the market. Sticking with herbs that are smaller in stature works best with your average colander. If you are lucky enough to have a humongous industrial colander, bring on the basil plants. 

When dinosaurs ruled the front step; Jurassic Park in a rusty industrial bucket.
When dinosaurs ruled the front step; Jurassic Park in a rusty industrial bucket.

The Jurassic Rusty Industrial Bucket

Rescued from a scrap metal pile, the rusty bucket comes with a hole. A big hole. A couple layers of newspaper, held in place with some small rocks that are held in place by the drainage pebbles will allow enough water to leave but keep the soil from funneling out. Because of it’s uncertain industrial history, this container is filled with looking-at plants, not eating plants. A couple grasses with interesting textures, a couple begonias with oversized blooms and a sad old Christmas mossy plant that was lurking in the living room provide a natural habitat for a flock of plastic dinosaurs.

A Green Acres fan garden with Oliver's crops and Lisa's frills.
A Green Acres fan garden with Oliver’s crops and Lisa’s frills.

The Farm-Living-with-a-Penthouse-View Green Acres Tribute

This was originally intended to be one container, a vintage wicker laundry basket. But when the time came to let the potting mix flow, the basket was too nice to fill with tomatoes. So I went with the alternative plan: a three-part basket/galvanized bucket/terra-cotta pot arrangement with a tatty drying rack as the trellis. Each pot needed it’s own drainage configuration. Paper lining plus space fillers in the basket. Space fillers plus drainage in the bucket. Stones in the terra-cotta. The plastic iced coffee cups used for drainage in the basket and bucket tell two stories: one, that I drink a whole lot of iced coffee and two, that it’s okay to think outside the pebbles and pottery shards when you have something that is so deep it doesn’t need potting mix all the way to the bottom. Plant wise, we gave Oliver: tomatoes, sad thirsty peas (it was really hot), carrots and beets. For Lisa: some seriously uptown frilly petunias, fuchsia, lantana and lovely purple foliage. And yes, that is Arnold Ziffel.

Repurposing a glass punch bowl into a container garden.
Repurposing a glass punch bowl into a container garden.

The Moonlight and/or Cinderella Garden

Punch bowls are as ubiquitous. Per capita, they are in a saturation of 2.37 per American household. And they all have at least a quarter inch layer of protective dust because they get used approximately never. The other containers, those were easy. This one required safety glasses, power tools and the knowledge that if it ended poorly, the world would be short one punch bowl.

I used my Dremel with a diamond glass bit to drill small drainage holes in the base. I’ll spare you the tutorial, it’s easy enough to find elsewhere. The one step they leave out is the part where you go to the hardware store, buy a diamond bit for your drill, put it somewhere safe, two days later you go back to the hardware store to buy a diamond bit for your Dremel because you can’t find the drill or the bit. All I’ll say is keep the bit lubricated with cutting oil and wear safety glasses.

Gray stones were used for drainage to match the color of the dirt. The stones were put in in a bowl shape to give them a chance to be seen through the glass. The plants are all white, as is traditional in a moonlight garden. Having limited experience with plants-with-dirt-in-glass except for a supermarket basil plant that has been growing on the counter in an iced tea glass for eight months, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. My hope is that by seriously overplanting the container, the roots will form a lacy network of potboundness down the sides of the glass like the basil plant did. Updates to follow. 

It’s not quite a Cinderella garden yet. I’m hoping the perfect little Fenton glass slipper will cross my path in the near future…

We know that you have your own creative planters out there, and we would love to see them. Post your containers on Instagram and tag them #vintageunscripted. We can’t wait to see your gardens!


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  1. So many clever and creative ideas for repurposing vintage items into a garden! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this article. Off to find a punch bowl…

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