Do you want to grow food in safe container gardens? Whilst not wanting to dampen your enthusiasm for using repurposed planters, I encourage you to do your due diligence when choosing that perfect container.

Choose Safe Containers for Growing Food Gardens

The majority of pre-loved or second-hand goods may well be safe to use. However, before you reuse a container for planting in, there are some considerations, other than whether it can hold some dirt and leafy greens!


My philosophy is “to err on the side of caution – it’s better to be safe than sorry!”


Tips to Help you Choose Safe Containers for Growing Food

  • Check the Skin it’s In!  What is the container is made of? If you can, find out what material the container or item is made from (especially on the surface). Can you find out more from the manufacturer? Is the surface porous? Some materials such as terracotta or unfired clay are extremely porous. They can absorb and leach water-soluble chemicals through the surface into the soil. 
  • Avoid Materials contaminated with Lead or Asbestos: Lead is a naturally occurring metal, but it is also a very toxic poison to all forms of life.  Soil can become contaminated with lead if it comes in contact with lead based paint.  Try to avoid choosing items to repurpose into a planter, that may contain lead and asbestos. Examples include old containers coated with lead based paint or building materials that may contain asbestos.  Prior to 1970, paints contained high lead concentrations. Prior to 1950, some paints had as much as 50% lead in them. However, today the maximum recommended amount allowed in domestic paints is 0.1%.  The danger with leaded paints occurs when the paint deteriorates (by peeling, chalking or turning into a fine dust).


When reusing a container, it's wise to check whether the surface contains harmful substances like lead. Photo by Kevin Rosseel.

Peeling or cracking lead-based paint on an old container is a hazard to watch out for.

The most common areas lead based paint was used in homes is on interior and exterior walls, cupboards, skirting boards, window frames and doors, gutters, fascias, metal surfaces and areas with enamel paint.  If you want to reuse an item such as an old window frame, it’s important to check the age of the house it came from. Make sure you avoid paint contaminated with lead.

Check the age of the recycled material you may be using as a planter especially if it's sourced from a house demolition.

If you are renovating or sourcing materials from a salvage shop, recycling centre or second-hand building supplier, it is wise to find out the age of the materials first. Be cautious about reusing painted materials for a garden planter if you can’t determine they’re safe – reuse them in a potting bench instead!


  • Past life:  Do you know the history of the item?  If you are salvaging it from a farm or garage sale, has it had contact with agricultural chemicals like herbicides, fungicides and pesticides?  Or has it held other toxic chemicals or dangerous substances? For example, from medical or industrial sources, drugs or poisons.  If so, it would likely not be safe to plant into and especially not for food.  Many people reuse plastic buckets as containers to grow food gardens. If they’ve come from the food industry (and are food grade plastic) this is likely fine. However, if they have come from a factory manufacturing polymers or other chemicals, perhaps it would be wise to find another planter! Pay particular attention to the recycle numbers on the plastic container. Avoid plastics numbered 3, 6 and 7.


Look out for a small triangular recycling symbol usually on the base of plastic materials.

You can check whether a plastic container is safe for use in your garden by looking for the recycling symbol. It’s usually on the base.


  • Still not sure? Read the comments on this page or use the search box for further discussions on a wide range of materials. You can also look for the relevant MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) relating to the product or item you are reusing. This site provides free MSDS information and is one source you can check. You can find out more about specific materials such as terracotta, concrete and plastic in Choosing A Container – the Pros and Cons.


Containers suitable for use as planters are made from all sorts of materials - each with pros and cons!

Containers suitable for use as planters are made from all sorts of materials – each with pros and cons!


No matter how appealing the container looks, please consider carefully whether it could leach residues into the soil before planting directly into it.

Once a computer terminal relegated to the scrap heap when some fancy, flat-screen newcomer came on the scene. Now, it’s been transformed into a funky planter.

Recognise this? It was once a computer terminal relegated to the scrap heap when some fancy, flat-screen newcomer came on the scene. Now, it’s been transformed by an innovative gardener into a funky ornamental planter.

A Safe Alternative – Use a Cachepot

If you have found the perfect planter but still have concerns over whether it’s safe to plant in, here’s an easy solution.

With a little creative thinking, you may be able to still use it as a ‘Cachepot.’ This is an outer decorative or ornamental container used to conceal a smaller pot plant. Cachepot comes from the French word cacher, to hide + pot, pot.

This technique is also known as double potting.  You simply put your plant into a safer small pot inside your cachepot. Cachepots allow you to use containers that are visually appealing, without worrying about whether they are leaching toxic chemicals into your food.


A timber barrel treated with a preservative stain looks attractive on the outside, with a plastic pot of edibles inside.

A timber barrel treated with a preservative stain looks attractive on the OUTSIDE. Edibles are planted in a less attractive, but safer plastic pot INSIDE.


Nestle the plant pot down inside the cachepot or outer container. If you want to, cover the top of both containers with mulch so you can’t see the inner pot.  No one will ever know!

Interested in Safe Gardening?

There are lots of tips and information on how to grow food with safe gardening practices in my ‘Container Gardening Tips Guide.’

Want to learn more?  Check out Container Gardening and Growing Your Own Food.

© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2010-2013 – All rights reserved.