first garden: set up

first container garden done.jpg

2015: i’d had the itch for my own garden for years, but my work situation and desire to like in biking distance from my office lead us to a suburban townhome with an HOA and no garden space to speak of. what we did have was a large concrete pad outback meant for parking our cars, that received full sun, and was accessible to water. the wheels started turning and i decided to install a container garden that could be removed when our lease was up.


the concrete pad measured 12′ x 16′, so i put my geometry skills to work and drew up a plan for arrangement of planters. at first i considered building planters out of pavers, which was cheap but would require me to rent power tools, had the potential to fall apart, and were difficult to drain. i saw a bit in a magazine where someone was using a plastic kids pool to grow lettuce. our neighborhood was a haven for dumping (what’s up with that, athens?), so funny enough we were able to secure a plastic pool for free – our first container.

i did a lot of research on the internet and saw ideas for making planters out of everything from floppy disks to filing cabinets. five gallon buckets seemed promising, but when i called around town, none of the restaurants seemed to want to give them away for free. plastic was definitely the right answer though, and eventually i realized 30-50 gallon rubbermaids would be ideal. i scoured thrift stores and actually found tons for $3-5 each at goodwill, and a buck a piece at habitat restore. i even scored free 50 gal trash cans from habitat because they had holes in them, which did not matter since i would need to drill drainage holes anyways.

drilling drainage holes

after i collected the bins, i had a new problem which was figuring out how to fill them. here was the volume i was working with:

  • (1) 42″ x 18″ x 22″ bin = 9.5 cubic feet = .35 cubic yards
  • (4) 30″ x 16″ x 16″ bins = 18.5 cubic feet = .68 cubic yards
  • (4) 22″ x 16″ x 16″ bins = 13 cubic feet = .48 cubic yards
  • (1) 10″ x 12″ x 12″ bin = 1> cubic foot = .03 cubic yards
  • (1) 32″ diameter baby pool = 4 cubic feet = .15 cubic yards
  • TOTAL: 46 cubic feet/ 1.7 cubic yards

the issue was that engineered potting soil in 2 cf bags was going to be way too expensive, but i couldn’t just fill the containers with dirt because it would compact. more internet research produced some good results for DIY potting soil. i settled on a mix of native soil, compost, perlite, and sand. i found vendors for each and we set out to procure.

another challenge arose, which was how were going to transport these materials to our home, where to store them, and how to mix them. we had just sold the jeep and only had our two sedans. i was green and had no idea how much a cubic yard of material would be, so i naively planned to simply throw the empty bins in our cars, fill them up, and haul them home.

when we showed up at the landscape company to pick up dirt and sand with 7 rubbermaid bins in the backseat of our sedans, i thought the employees were going to shit themselves. they were incredulous. in the end they humored me, and we collectively struggled to get the heavy as hell bins full of dirt in the cars. it took 3-4 people to lift each full bin. the reward: 22 cubic feet of topsoil and 7 cubic feet of sand only cost $24.

the only way to get the bins back out of the cars was to take shovel fulls of material out of the bins until they were light enough for the two of us to lift. once all the dirt and sand was out, we took the same bins over to the landfill to pick up a yard of compost (which i scored for free). last, i bought two huge bags of perlite from our garden center at $19 each – the biggest expense of the project.


mixing the soil without a wheelbarrow was slow and back breaking labor. after i drilled drainage holes in the bottom of each container, i lined them with lava rocks then newspaper. then i mixed a batch at a time of all my ingredients in a 5 gal mixing container, poured that in a bin, and repeated until the bin was full. i think the whole process took about 16 hours of man power. here’s the ratio i mixed at:

  • 45% compost (4.5 parts)
  • 30% dirt (3 parts)
  • 10% sand (1 parts)
  • 15% perlite (1.5 parts)

all said and done, this project set me back:

  • $14 containers
  • $24 top soil and sand
  • free compost
  • $16 lava rocks
  • $38 perlite
  • TOTAL: $92 for 35 sq ft of planting area, capable of dense planting

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