While not wanting to dampen your enthusiasm for gardening in repurposed planters, I encourage you to do your due diligence when choosing that perfect container.
The majority of pre-loved or second-hand goods will be safe to use, but before you reuse a container for planting in, here 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!”
- 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). Is it safe? Is the surface porous? Some materials such as terracotta are extremely porous and can absorb and leach water soluble chemicals through the surface.
- 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 such as old containers coated with lead based paint or building materials that may contain asbestos. Prior to 1970 paints contained high lead concentrations and 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 is when the paint deteriorates (by peeling, chalking or turning into a fine dust).
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 to make sure you avoid paint contaminated with lead.
- 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 (e.g. 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 fine but 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.
- Still not sure? You can find out more about specific materials such as terracotta, concrete and plastic in Choosing A Container – the Pros and Cons or leave a comment and I’ll try and check it out for you.
No matter how appealing the container looks, please consider carefully whether it could leach residues into the soil before planting directly into it.
If you have found the perfect planter and still have concerns, here’s an easy solution:
With a little creative thinking, you may be able to still use it as a cachepot (or outer decorative container) and put your plants into another safe smaller pot inside. Nestle the plant pot down inside the cachepot or outer container and 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 this topic? There’ll be more specific information about the dangers lurking in our gardens in a future post so if you don’t want to miss it, subscribe to my newsletter (and grab your free eBook) or click on the RSS feed below or to the right. Want to learn more? Check out Container Gardening and Growing Your Own Food.
Copyright The Micro Gardener 2011 – http://www.themicrogardener.com