Do you want to make a quick mini garden? You can grow healthy ‘fast food’ like salad veggies and herbs in a simple box. Best of all, you can make it in about 15 minutes. The bonus is you’ll be eating the rewards in just a few weeks for only a minimal investment of time AND money. Let’s get started!
This is a system I’ve used for years with great success and it’s so easy. Even if you’re a beginner gardener or on a budget and need a thrifty solution, this is it! An easy container garden with just a few ingredients to get started.
DIY Container Garden Materials List
- A table or workbench. I line mine with some newspaper to keep it clean while I’m putting my micro garden together.
- A new or undamaged, clean polystyrene box. Tip: I get mine free from local green grocers, but you can try fish mongers or stores that sell fresh fruit and veggies. You’re doing them a favour by repurposing boxes that would otherwise end up in landfill. Alternatively, choose a container you have easy access to.
The bottom of the box below:
- A suitable quantity of potting mix (I make my own). You can use my easy DIY recipe but I suggest you include suitable soil food like I do, so your plants are off to a healthy start.
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- Paper towel (about 4 sheets) or other suitable liner such as an old clean tea towel or cotton fabric.
- Selection of healthy seedlings (if you choose to grow climbers like peas or beans, you may also need a tepee or support stakes with ties).
- A few handfuls of organic mulch e.g. coir peat, chopped lemon grass or aged lawn clippings/dried leaves.
- Optional: Shade cloth or exclusion netting (depending on your situation and climate)!
DIY Veggie Garden in a Box Instructions
Wearing your gloves and mask, line the poly box with a couple of strips of paper towel to cover the drainage holes in the bottom and prevent the potting mix escaping.
Tip in sufficient potting mix to sit about 1-2cm (1 in) below the lip of the box.
Using the handle of the trowel make a small hole for each seedling. (Tip: How close you plant depends on the variety – skinny chives can be planted ‘up close and personal’ but leave more room for veggies that like extra ‘personal space’ to mature.) See the spacing example below:
Below: Garden in a box a week later.
Pick up the pre-soaked* seedling and gently lower into the hole. (* See Tips below)
Repeat until all seedlings are planted and then water in with seaweed/molasses solution.
Finally top with a few handfuls of mulch (about 2-3cm deep), leaving about 1-2cm (1 in) gap around the stem of each seedling.
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Celebrate your new garden – add your plant labels!
Tips for a Successful Instant Veggie Garden
- Use a Moon Calendar to plant at the optimum time for an abundant, fast growing healthy crop.
- Baby Love: Just like you wouldn’t throw a baby into a cot, you need to handle your ‘baby plants’ with care as they move from one ‘bed’ to another.
- Vertical Veggies: Want to grow climbing veggies like peas, beans, tomatoes or cucumber? Easy – add a tepee (get my free instructions on making yours from bamboo stakes for under $1) or portable A-frame trellis to your Instant Veggie Garden.
- Good Looking: Want to make it prettier? Get creative and give the box a coat of non-toxic eco-friendly paint or choose another container you like better.
- Potting Mix: If you choose to buy a bag of organic potting mix, you’ll probably need around 15-20kg depending on the size of the box you use. Remember to add soil conditioners to feed the plants. I add these to my home made potting mix to save time when I want to start planting my garden.
- Soak or spray your seedlings: To avoid transplant shock, sit your punnet of seedlings in a shallow container for about 15-30 minutes with a strong solution of seaweed (kelp) or add some to a recycled spray bottle and mist the seedling roots before planting (this takes longer though!)
In Part 2, I show you how to grow a variety of plant combinations in these micro gardens for best results.
Related: Micro Gardening; The Benefits of Container Gardening; Getting a Small Kitchen Garden Started; Choose the Healthiest Seedlings; Harvesting Vegetables & Herbs & Tips for Growing a Garden in Pots.
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
I really enjoy your blog, there is so much helpful information. Right now I only grow a few herbs in containers in my backyard, I really like snipping off what I need to add flavor to a meal. I don’t have a vegetable garden in the ground because I will be selling my home soon and are planning on purchasing an RV, living full time in it and traveling around the country visiting and working in various National Parks and other locations. My point of all this is that I would like to try to grow some plants in my RV, if I have enough room and light coming in the windows. Do you have any suggestions as to what plants would do well in these conditions? Can I get much variety in only a few pots.
Thanks for the feedback Carolyn. I have advised lots of people in this situation to grow their favourite fresh ingredients in pots while travelling. Meals on wheels if you like! First suggestion is to grow microgreens (just choose suitable seeds for the season so they germinate and you can pretty much grow what you like to eat – broccoli, kale, cabbage, herbs, beetroot, onion, peas etc). The advantage is they take up a fraction of the space and just so long as you have your own seed raising mix, you can keep succession sowing every few weeks for a continual supply of fresh flavours. You can also grow sprouts in a jar for a variety of different ingredients. Of course if you choose the right containers, you can also grow other vegetables and herbs like shallow rooted lettuces, spinach, leafy greens, garlic etc. The key to success is positioning in good light and regular watering. Hope this helps. Have fun on your travels Carolyn. Cheers Anne
Thanks Louise – look forward to checking it out and discussing some options for you to meet your goals.
I have just arranged a consultation with you to further explore some options.
I have also made a short video showing you my dilemma….
Look forward to finding a solution
It’s not easy finding garden bed solutions that are problem or chemical free – even colorbond (though coated) will corrode when in contact with moist soil in time. Had this happen in my garden.
Hardwood seems a good investment as it’s longer lasting without CCA treated chemicals. There are eco wood sealers that make this a reasonable option.
Good luck with your research. Glad to help.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed response! Lots of food for thought….
I actually drilled holes through my polystyrene boxes, which sit on PVC pipes:), to get the net cups (wrapped in geotextile and located in the bottom of the boxes) into the water, as it is these that wick up the water into the soil aka an adaptation of Larry Halls rain gutter grow system……
Scary how you can do everything wrong when you think you are doing everything right;(
I am in the process of deciding what to do next but have decided to start again and move away from coating the polystyrene boxes, and either make my planter boxes from colorbond or hardwood.
Hopefully this will give me organic, and not carcinogenic, veggies.
I will let you know what Plan B is after continuing to read/research more!
Thanks again Anne for sharing your knowledge so freely, and if I have any more questions I will be sure to request a consultation with you.
Thanks for a wonderfully informative site….
I have just spent months building a self wicking vegetable garden out of polystyrene containers. My driver is to grow healthy, organic vegetables. I have a small garden and the containers fitted in perfectly up the side of my drive, and I thought I had found the perfect solution. The veggie garden is progressing beautifully, I’m harvesting lots of veggies and I thought all was well:)
Today I went on an organic gardening course at the Kimbriki reuse centre and showed the tutor a pic of my garden. Her comment was that there was no way she would grow veggies in polystyrene as it leaches out styrene and benzene!
I’m quite devastated and am trying to understand the risks….
Your article talks about veggies in polystyrene containers though elsewhere on your site you mention to avoid containers made from polystyrene, or recycle number 6.
I would be most grateful if you could please could you let me have your thoughts on what seems to be a contradiction… I’m now wondering if I can paint the inside of the polystyrene boxes with a pond sealer (supposedly safe for plants and fish from Bunnings) or if I should abandon them and make wooden planters or use grow bags instead!
Thanks so much
Thanks for your feedback about the site and your questions. It’s great you are thinking deeper about your food gardens. Congratulations on making the effort to get them going! I’m not sure where you’re located but polystyrene wicking beds have become popular since they were promoted them on Gardening Australia. My goal is to provide useful, practical and sustainable solutions, and well-researched articles. This requires a balanced, thoughtful approach! There are some materials that are definitely off the list to use as far as I’m concerned and others, that when used correctly, may be reused as containers or used in your organic garden.
I have done a lot of research into various materials used for both new and upcycled container gardens, the environmental effects and issues, toxic chemicals, hidden dangers lurking in our gardens, growing safe food, etc and have a huge library of research material/studies/academic papers on file. I try to find research papers or credible sources that provide insight into the likely safety or risks, so I can make an informed decision. Obviously this takes a lot of time and dedication and the average home gardener doesn’t usually go to these lengths. They just want to get a garden organised and grow a few veggies! I feel obliged to do my due diligence and whilst I’m not an authority on the subject, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in the hope of helping others make their own decisions.
Based on the research I’ve done to date, polystyrene boxes (when new and undamaged) don’t appear to be prone to leaching styrene as the mould is intact. However, it’s when you start punching holes in the box (such as to insert PVC tubing for wicking beds) that the beads become separated from the mould and my understanding is that this is how the leaching can occur. I believe the integrity of the original polystyrene mould can also become compromised if the surface is painted with some sealers (these are another subject altogether!) or if they become damaged (e.g. like my enthusiastic hubby with the whipper snipper). I’ve seen TV presenters and gardening speakers demonstrate punching holes in polystyrene boxes and I know this is not a safe practice. The styrene can be inhaled and then it is in direct contact with the soil, water, plant roots and microorganisms. Sadly, they never wear a mask when demonstrating this either, so home gardeners have no idea they could be innocently creating a health hazard.
If painting your boxes, I suggest investigating zero VOC, eco-friendly paints/sealing products. Boxes can be lined, but if lining with plastic, then you’re back to square one again! Natural materials are an alternative such as landscape fabric (can be expensive) or you can reuse natural fibres like potato sacks and hessian bags etc. There’s an excellent website where you can learn more about textiles and toxic issues called OEcotextiles. I also suggest you read the comments on my article Choose Safe Containers for Growing Food – there are many questions already answered in the comments section.
The polystyrene boxes used in my demo as outlined on this site are clean, new and undamaged. The holes in the base are already there as part of the original mould made during manufacturing. During my research, I found studies that showed acids (such as from lemon, orange and other citrus food waste) could detrimentally affect the integrity of the polystyrene mould. i.e. cause styrene and possibly other chemicals to leach. I personally DO NOT recommend making either worm farms or wicking beds out of polystyrene boxes for this reason, especially if feeding food scraps to your worms.
I know some presenters have advocated this on Gardening Australia, but I don’t know what research they’ve done into the safety of such practices. Personally, I would prefer to err on the side of caution i.e. apply the Precautionary Principle!
I’m assuming in your wicking beds, you may have used PVC pipes. If not, great! PVC is another toxic product that in my humble opinion has no place in an organic garden. And yet, it’s widely promoted on Gardening Australia segments by various presenters as the bee’s knees solution for worm towers, wicking beds and vertical gardens. I cringe. I hate seeing this because I believe celebrity gardeners who should know better, shouldn’t be encouraging people to use these materials. Problem is, PVC is cheap, widely available and an easy solution.
It takes creative thinking and a bit more effort to find safer solutions, but I believe it’s still possible. I’m not a fanatic. I reuse all sorts of materials around my garden to be sustainable, prevent them from ending up in landfill and to tread lighter on the planet. However, over the years as I’ve learned more about the toxic components of some ‘innocent-looking’ additions like car tyres, I believe the public needs to become more informed and the types of inputs they use in their gardens.
I checked out the Crommelin pond sealer you were referring to and rang the company direct. However, after speaking to them I don’t know whether that would be suitable. The technical officer did recommend an alternative, Exterior Grade Brushable Waterproofer. I asked them to email an MSDS (Material Data Safety Sheet) which should provide more insight into any possible health hazards and active ingredients. You can also request the same. All companies should provide these info sheets for their products if requested and many are online.
Grow bags are of course another alternative, as are wooden planters with pros and cons for both. See Choosing a Container – the Pros and Cons. If you have further questions, I’m happy to help you one-on-one with personal advice if needed via an online consultation anytime.
Louise, I hope this helps answer your questions and gives you some more food for thought! Kind regards Anne
What kind of paint do you use that’s safe.
Chad, the safest paints that I’m aware of are labelled “no VOC” or “zero VOC” (volatile organic compounds), although I believe from the research I’ve done to date, that they still have a minimal amount of chemical compounds, rather than zero. You could look into a brand called Mythic Paint as a starting point. I haven’t used it myself but have read about it. You may also find it useful to read the comments section on this website on the following pages as there have been many similar questions and responses regarding paint:
Choose Safe Containers for Growing Food
The Pros & Cons of Choosing Containers
Hope this helps.
Thanks a million for your email.I checked it now. Can you tell me whats the best time to foliar spray seaweed and molassess to plants and how often should I do it to strengthen my planst-once a week? How often should I also foliar spray my whole plant with eco oil and eco neem to control and kill pests? I will email you on booking a time and day to visist me to teach me gardening in pots.thanks a lot
i haven’t recieved your free ebook after I subscribed
Hi Dona you may have missed the link in your browser when you confirmed your opt-in. I have emailed you the link separately. Cheers Anne
I love your blog!! I could spend hours just browsing and reading. This post is close to my heart … growing veggies isn’t as hard as people think and starting out as you’ve suggested is perfect! I’ve added a link to this post in my “Meet & Greet” series … I think readers will love it! Thanks for all the great information and inspiration!
What a great blog and initiative with the Meet & Greet as well as some top posts. Thanks for the shout out and will be back to check out some more of your posts soon. Cheers, Anne
OMG, I love all your ideas. Thanks a lot!
Thanks so much for the positive feedback! Hope you can create something special in your own garden. If you haven’t already, you can pick up my FREE eBook when you join my newsletter – I send tips and ideas regularly so you may enjoy those also. 🙂
Wow, I love this idea! my wife has been talking about doing this, I am sending her this link now.
Thanks for the great idea…
Thanks Mike! This system is just so easy, quick and cheap and I’ve grown kilos of fresh organic produce from such small spaces. No one really needs a big yard – they just need to learn how to use space efficiently! Everyone can be an urban farmer using these simple techniques. Let me know if your wife needs any help. You might be reaping the edible rewards very soon! 🙂
Love your garden blog! BTW here it is the source for the rock garden markers. http://whimsy-girl.blogspot.com/2008/07/rock-on.html
Thanks Graziela – appreciate that and have updated the link. 🙂
Thanks for your feedback and great to hear you’ll have some container veggies going soon. I’ve had to deal with possums when living in Brisbane – they used to walk along the timber fence making a bee line for the veggie patch night after night. I decided to work with nature and interrupt their visits by leaving them an alternative food source on the top of the fence before they made it to the patch. They seemed very satisfied with this arrangement so we both got a feed!
There are pest repellant plants you might have growing that could also be useful to consider like chillis, lavender, quassia and eucalyptus. Penny Woodward’s brilliant book ‘Pest-Repellant Plants’ is a great read – maybe worth a trip to the library for details on how to use these and other plants in your patch.
Hope this helps!
Lovely post (as usual) and very informative. We are actually thinking about growing some veggies in containers like this to curb the possum problem that we have here at the moment. Anything young, tasty or vaguely palatable is being stripped bare and to avoid the sadness of discovering a garden bed full of only plant stumps where the day before there was a growing garden, and until we get our possum barriers built around our beds we could get some veggies happening in some polystyrene boxes. Great idea and cheers for the lovely pictures to accompany it.