Decorating repurposed recycling

Short version:

You can decorate repurposed recycling containers for both aesthetics and functionality. Here are some details on how to make both a pot with drainage and a base to collect the drips from a single plastic bottle There are some decorating ideas that involve reusing old wrapping paper, paint and craft bits. It is a great activity for little ones and it ticks a few home schooling boxes whilst being free and involving no screen time.

The majority of my indoor sowing tends to start in March, but there are a few things that I do like to start in late February like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers some brassicas, some herbs and a few edible flowers. By the time these plants get too large for their indoor pots the weather should have warmed up enough for them to be planted out.

So, early February is the time to start preparing containers for my first batch of early indoor sowing. I have been collecting plenty of food containers over the winter so that I have lots of pots ready to go. I tend to collect old milk cartons, juice cartons, plastic bottles, grape boxes and mushroom trays. The tetra pack cartons I always cut little holes in the bottom or occasionally cut the whole base into a flap and then stick the whole carton into the soil to provide a bit of extra protection from slugs and snails. I have written lots about this in a previous blog ‘Sowing seeds’. I don’t usually care how my pots look but it’s a nice little project to do with the little one. It’s a great opportunity to show her a few new ways to reuse things. We try and keep old wrapping paper, cartons, cardboard and pretty bits of packaging for her to use to make things with – so repurposing is often at the back of her mind.

My usual way to use recycling as pots it’s just to have a container that has drainage holes in the bottom squashed inside a mushroom box. However, our windowsills are a bit thin and sometimes there’s a bit of space that would be perfect to squeeze a single pot into as opposed to ta tray of pots. This is the perfect space to put a repurposed plastic bottle pot.

How to make a repurposed plastic bottle pot

  1. Plastic bottles smaller than 1.5litres may be a bit small for the effort. If the label is easy to remove then do so. It turns out that the innocent smoothie bottles are best left with the label on. The glue doesn’t come of very easily. Just FYI – rubbing with oil can sometimes work on glue that is not water soluble.
  2. Cut the bottle in half with a stanley knife. The ratio of top to bottom is down to your own judgement. The further away from the mouth of the bottle you go the bigger a pot you create for your seeds and seedlings, but if you go too far then what is left at the bottom doesn’t provide much support for your top-heavy bottle.
  3. Invert the top of your bottle to fit inside. You now have a pot with a drainage hole and a receptacle at the bottom to collect any water.

These are fine as they are but there is opportunity to decorate here. Also, by decorating, you can provide a bit more darkness for the roots.

Reused wrapping paper

This is the quickest method and also fantastic for using up old wrapping paper. It’s worth getting a bigger piece and folding the ends over. It’s quicker because it means less cutting and it also gives you a thicker sheath to go around the pot. This is particularly good for when you’ve got a pot that has too short a base. You can extend the height of the wrapping paper past the bottom section so that it forms a taller base for your top pot. Hopefully with careful watering and not over watering your paper shouldn’t get wet. I have tried to use the Christmas paper that is less obviously Christmas themed. Little one is a big fan of cats and this pink monstrosity is what her last birthday pressie came wrapped in.

Painted pots

You can paint pretty designs on any kind of repurposed recycling pot as well as the repurposed plastic bottle pots. I’d advise using acrylic paint as it can be used on plastic and is waterproof afterwards. My little one had lots of fun making this pot with clouds. Quite a fun design is to draw a face on the pot and then whatever grows in the top of your pot looks like it is the pot’s hair. Again, you can see the little one loves cats, with this cat face she drew. I may be one of those awful coo-ing mothers, because I really think this is adorable and pretty good for a 5 year old. Hopefully, you can tell that one of these below is a minion. The other is a, slightly more obscure, vittra from ‘Hilda’ – who do actually have greenery out the top of their heads.

Craft pots

You can make a combination of painting and crafty pots too. This is so very easy for little ones. Glue dots and double sided sticky tape are great for letting little ones stick things on pots. We ransacked her craft box for the little things that she likes. We also had a few paper punches (like a hole punch but cuts shapes) that make really easy shapes. She used both the owl and the dragonflies. One pot has foam autumn leaf stickers. Acrylic paint provides green grass, blue sky and white clouds. Felt flowers and paper dragon flies are stuck on top. The last has 2 sizes of paper punched flowers layered and stuck on a blue acrylic paint base.

As we are currently in the joyous throes of COVID home-schooling it’s worth nothing that getting her involved in things like this ticks lots of boxes. She gets to exercise her imagination, she practises fine motor control as she draws, paints and sticks and of course she’s learning a little about sustainability. It’s also an almost zero cost activity (depending on what kind of things you have around the house) and involves no screen time.

Make a Seed organiser

Short version:

In December when you have little inclination to venture into the garden and you have the head space to deal with your seeds you can make a practical, repurposed seed box with the small Amazon delivery boxes and some cardboard or old cards.

There are only a few things that I can bring myself to do in the rainy, cold December garden:

  1. Sowing – there are a couple of varieties of broad beans that can be direct sown outside still (a few herbs, and salad leaves, like lambs lettuce, can be sow inside or undercover ).
  2. Harvesting – physalis, oca, Chinese artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, yacon, cauliflowers, chard, three corned leek, chard, Chinese chives, kale, purple tree collards and the last few beetroots and radishes are available.
  3. Removing cat poo and, last week, one dead rat that recalls the phrase ‘smells like something has died.’ To be honest this has put me off going into the garden more than the rain does.

Really preferring the indoors after that and in December I have the time and head space to sort out my seeds. With the plethora of ‘Black Friday /Cyber Monday’ seed sales and my ‘worst case scenario wife’ (and yes – he really does call me that) Brexit/COVID panic I now have a ridiculous number of seeds. Even if I annex the shed roof, parts of the lawn and fill abandoned water tanks and pots, I imagine I’ll still have plenty of seeds come 2025.

The number of seeds is overwhelming and through the year I find myself getting annoyed at trying to find things and forgetting to plant things. I’ve stored seeds in different labelled envelopes and jiffy bags, trying to keep my sanity. In addition, I have a large seed collection for the school edible garden that I look after too.

I would love a beautiful, shiny, metal seed tin. It just seems like a nice thing. I couldn’t find one that was the right shape and size. I soon realised that beautiful was pretty far down my list. I want a practical seed tin. I want a cheap (or free) seed tin and, very importantly, I would like an environmentally friendly tin.

Free boxes

With COVID and school bubble quarantines we have done much shopping online this year, leading to the discovery that the small packaging boxes used by Amazon are the perfect size for a seed box.

I find that this is a good way to organise seeds. Into the main sowing months February – May split into inside and outside with January, June, July, and August with only section each. In January I have nothing that I want to sow direct outside and by June there’s very little point in sowing indoors in pots unless I’m growing extra plants to fill up space outside as it becomes free.

Organising my seed packets

Indoor sowing is the only option – Sweet peppers are sown inside from mid-February to be planted out from mid-May so that goes into the February indoors section. 

Outdoor sowing is the only option – Radishes and beetroots are direct sow outdoors from March, so I put them into the March outside section.

Early indoors or later outdoors options but outdoors is better – Carrots can be sown under glass/plant indoors from February onwards or direct sown from April. I make a judgement on whether I have space indoors and deep enough pots – as carrots are not so good with being transplanted or if I can wait for carrots another couple of months. I’ve put them under April outside.

Early indoors or later outdoors options but indoors is better – Summer squash can be sown indoors from March or outdoors from mid-May. Here, I think it’s worth giving large plants, like these, a head start. Recent years there has been some really erratic weather, so I’ve put these into March indoors so that they get as long as possible a season before weather turns cold or damp.   

Waiting to sow to suit timing – Climbing beans for school if sown as soon as possible (indoors) then harvesting starts in July – when the kids are about to go on their summer holidays. The children don’t benefit from harvests during their longest holiday. Therefore, starting the seeds outdoors early July saves effort and means that they’re ready for the kids when they return. These have gone into the school box under July outdoors.

Using the box

As each month hits, when I have a couple of free days, I’ll pull out the suitable section and sow everything from one section in one go if possible.

With vegetables that can be sown in succession, once they’ve been sown, rather than go back into the original section, I put it into the next month that I think I’d like to sow them again. E.g. Radishes are in March outdoors – but when March rolls round, after I’ve sown the carrots I’ll pop them into April outside so I can sow some more in April. If in April I’ve run out of space in the garden I’ll pass them on into the next month.


I did try making some dividers with some bits of card and folded over post it notes but the post it notes got a bit squished. I then realised that a flap was not necessary, and we could repurpose cardboard further and easily make divers from with the cardboard flaps of the bigger cardboard that we get deliveries in. This was a quick and easy step.

At the beginning of December, I found some old Christmas cards, as well as some birthday and thank you cards. I’ve kept them because they are beautiful or have lovely messages written inside and I can’t throw them away. I am a bit of a hoarder but would like to find a use for them beyond stuffing them in a box and forgetting about them for the next 5 years. Some of the cards were a perfect size for the box. So I used them as dividers. With some creative trimming others had readable messages still or lovely fronts. It’s a lovely way to repurpose (and they could still be recycled a few years down the line too) and I still have them as mementos.

I wrote on the back of the cards (because most of these were white) with a marker.

The outside

With the cards I found some used Christmas paper. So …er…definitely a hoarder. I often try and keep big, not so crumpled paper after unwrapping. I always assume I could reuse it but by the next Christmas I can never find any of the paper I had put away and/or I realise that it doesn’t look very nice and/or the Sellotape glue reside on it has gone a bit funny. I decided that this paper was perfect for covering a box. I had 2 similar looking boxes and whilst it was easy to tell by looking inside which box was mine and which one was school’s. It got a bit tedious having to check every time. At one point I even had a third box that I was building for someone.

The paper wrapped box, of course, is a bit tacky and there’s a few little bits of Sellotape glue residue on it, it’s very obviously Christmas paper and the trees are upside down on one side, but I feel a little good about life every time I pull it out. I know that I’ve given that box, those cards and that paper a second use (and they can all be recycled after when it gets too tatty). It’s a completely guilt free box. There was no energy used in the manufacture of it (the seed box I mean – obviously the original box did, but it has already served the purpose for which it was made), no resources were used to create it, no fuels were used to transport the box, no storage was required, and no money was spent on it (other than paying for the double sided sticky tape). It was also a fun craft project.

Recycling, reusing and waste disposal (Part 2)

Short version: (Part 1) Please see here for recycling and repurposing household stuff. (Part 2) If you have huge garden project that has heavy materials a skip and a good wheelbarrow (and maybe some helpful friends) is the most cost-effective way. A company can drop a skip off in your front garden or your kerbside (though be careful with parking restrictions) and then pick it up when full. For lighter, bulkier loads a waste management company is more expensive but requires less work on your part. For small loads you could try a ‘Hippo’ bag.

This is the second half of my two-week blog and talks more about the bigger items that are found in the garden or during DIY.


We got our forever house in early summer 2017. I call it ‘forever’ because I… AM… NEVER… EVER… MOVING…AGAIN! We had a really hideous purchase and move but I was very excited to have a big enough garden to grow edibles to my heart’s content.

Creating my little ‘oasis’ from the paved monstrosity was quite a journey. You can see how it went from paved to lawn in this post. Whilst writing that post I thought it might be worth discussing what to do with waste.


If you were to look at my garden, you would realise very quickly that I am more concerned with function than aesthetics. If I can squeeze both in all the better, but I will not compromise on function or sustainability for better aesthetics – especially as sometimes that can be quite subjective anyway. For example, I will grow flowers if they are edible, great for pollinators or can be used to create something fun. Anyway, this means that to save money and/or be more eco-friendly I have reused or repurposed some of the waste that I found in the garden. This explains why my garden looks like it’s been ‘cobbled’ together.

As I dug up the garden (to lay the lawn) there were edging stones and bricks that I was able to reuse to make the edge of the lawn or border the beds. I kept part of the patio (though it’s not particularly nice to look at) because it meant less work, less waste to shift and it is still functional. I kept some of the flagstones to make paths elsewhere. I used some of the flagstones to provide a sturdy base for the shed to go on. I kept a few bags of sand to use under the paths or for future projects. Old solar panel rails made a blackberry support and uses up otherwise empty space.

It’s worth keeping bits of wood whenever you have DIY projects as they often prove useful in the garden later on. I used some to hold together a pallet planter and mount a baby gate that became a squash climbing frame.

Almost all of the kitchen cabinets that came out when we had the kitchen done have been reused as storage elsewhere – either in the pantry or the shed.

London reusing

Like in the previous post where I wrote about how in London you often see things left outside homes for someone to take, we have also sent garden waste out into the world this way. As part of the ongoing garden renovation I removed a wall. It seemed quite new so I tried to keep as many bricks intact as possible for reuse. This meant that I had a large amount of bricks. I also took up a small section of the patio to make a brassica bed. Some of the bricks were used to line border the edge of this new bed, but I had far too many to use. I left them outside our house and let the neighbours know that they were going spare. One neighbour took some to make a path, one took some to make tea light holders and one took a single one to replace a broken brick in her front garden wall. I also had a large amount of sharp sand dug up from under the patio when making the brassica bed. This was harder to shift. There was, at the time, a friendly builder who I kept passing on the school run. I asked him if he had any use for some sharp sand. I bagged it into about 7 rubble bags. The next day he came round and removed it all as well as the remaining whole bricks. The broken bricks I piled into about 6 rubble bags that the husband dutifully took to the dump.

I dug up a rose bush to make space for a physalis and left it outside the gate. A neighbour adopted it.

When we had our roof done the excess tiles were taken away by my kung fu club for breaking in demonstrations and blackbelt gradings.


Wherever possible, any green waste is put into the compost bin. This is any green waste that doesn’t contain perennial weeds, weed seeds or diseased plant matter. Here is more info in ‘Why and what to compost

Green Waste

If your council has a green waste collection but you think it is too expensive you could club together with a neighbour and share a collection. My husband said no to having our own collection. I was annoyed as I think it’s a great resource. On the other hand, because I compost most of our waste it would be quite expensive to have a collection for how little green waste we would actually have. This was solved when a lovely neighbour offered to let me use theirs. I offered to make a contribution towards the cost, but she said no. I soothe my guilt with gifts of vegetables and by being respectful and grateful.

Disposing of large loads

So, with the great dig of 2017 (and the many ongoing projects) there has been a large amount of un-reusable, unrecyclable (in my home) waste. There are a few things you can do with this:

Trips to the dump

It is free and with the local centres they make it possible to split your waste into different skips so you know that any rubble can be reused as hardcore, any green can be chipped and used, any metal can be scrapped, cardboard is easily recycled, textiles have a spot and they even have an area for appliances that are still working. That at least makes it feel more eco friendly than landfill. If we had tried to move all of the waste from this house by car it would have resulted in husband expiration or divorce at the very least, the car would be filthy, we would still be doing trips to the dump 2 and a half years later and the suspension would be shot.

Collection by a company

One of the first waste removal attempts I paid around £500 for a company to remove flagstones and sand. Unfortunately, because their vans tend to be subject to weight limitations, they could only take about 20% of the flagstones and sand and a dilapidated shed. That was an expensive lesson. They removed some of the flagstones and sand from in situ but at the same time it was not what I had thought I was paying for. As a newbie to the process it’s easy to be taken advantage of.

We did a second one about half a year later from a different company. I was less naïve. They charged around £300 for ethical waste disposal. Their ethos included recycling or upcycling what they could. After being stung the first time. I hired this company knowing that the waste I had this time (waste from the kitchen and bathroom refit that I couldn’t reuse) wasn’t as heavy. They did a great job and cleaned up the area afterwards. Hiring a company for bulky lighter weight items means that they do all the work for you and you know it’s not all going into landfill.  

This may be a good time to note that anyone coming around and offering to take stuff away for you for cheap is probably doing something illegal. A man in a van offered to remove a large amount of rubble from the side of the house for £100. When asked about where he was going to take it, he said he was going to take it to the dump. Now my problem with this is that is that I know that vans with DIY waste are subject to fees at the nearby refuse and recycling centres. This means that it was likely to be dumped randomly somewhere. It also may be worth mentioning that before we moved in several houses on the road (including our one) had been burgled. Picking up waste is a good opportunity for someone to scope out your access points. Basically, if the removal of the waste does not look like it is going to make business sense and/or doesn’t seem like a legitimate business then it’s best avoided.


I absolutely love getting a skip. So much so that I’ve hired 3 so far. This has been the most cost-efficient option. It cost around £250 per skip. Each one was delivered (by a lovely company called NJB) on a scheduled date. It was then left for as long as I wanted as I filled it. I then called the company and they picked it up a day or 2 later. Skips are wonderful when you are hampered by weight, rather than volume. After the first waste removal company I got our first skip. It did take two skips, but those two skips took the last 80% of flagstones and sand left over, all the rubble under the sand (which in fact meant most of the waste from the extension built by the previous neighbours) and a crumbling wall we found behind the recently removed shed. Skips can be back breaking work to fill though. A wheelbarrow with an old door propped up by flagstones as a ramp was helpful. Friends willing to lend a hand speeds the process along (thanks Jak). The third skip was for most of the kitchen and bathroom refit. Unfortunately, we were scuppered by volume. There was too much for one skip. That’s why we went with the second waste management company. I was exhausted by this point. For almost the same price as a skip someone was going to take it away without any work from me.

Hippo bag

This is a variation on the skip. You buy a bag from a DIY store for a bit more than £10. You take it home and fill it. You can then call the Hippo company and for £100 they come and take it away. We bought the bag but then it wasn’t worth having it picked up. The garden waste greatly exceeded the weight limit and even with a couple of bulkier lightweight items it would have only removed about an eight of what a skip would have. In the end I ordered the skip and emptied the bag into it. Hippo bags are hard to fill, by the way, as the sides collapse far too easily. Skips are much easier.

Asbestos removal

One last thing. You may find asbestos in your garden. In our street any of the garages with the original roofs will have asbestos in the roof. Annoyingly this wasn’t our asbestos. We had our garage removed by a specialist company. My idiot husband (often he’s smarter than me – in this instance he was NOT), after pulling down a wobbly wall behind the removed shed, he found some asbestos. This was the asbestos from the roof of our neighbour’s garage. Our neighbour’s rather naughty contractors, rather than dispose of it properly, had just shoved it behind their new extension that backed onto our garden. I suspect husband actually had to pull it out from what was technically their land to bring the dreaded stuff into our garden. He did this, knowing it was asbestos, without any protection at all. I told him that if the asbestos didn’t kill him, I would. As a defence he said that he didn’t want there to be anything around that could damage our little one’s lung health. It wasn’t ‘friable’ asbestos, which means it doesn’t crumble easily so if left alone and hidden it shouldn’t do any damage. Moving the sheets and sliding them across each other and breaking them apart – this is what is dangerous. We were about to put a new shed in front of it so really, as it was the neighbours waste, on the neighbours land, we should have left it. We technically stole their dangerous, badly stored waste. I was then charged with disposing of it. This is not something you can put into a skip. It is something that London councils will collect if you bag it up and label it with their precise instructions. They will do a certain amount for free. We paid £20 as we were a bag over the limit.

If you suspect you have asbestos in your home (or garden) there are companies you can call that will extract, clean up and dispose of it safely for you. We used R and S Environmental who removed the whole garage for around £1400. They offered us a much cheaper option where they just removed the asbestos roof and we would remove the rest ourselves but to be honest (despite husband’s attitude) I really don’t think you want to take any risks. About a year later realised that there was an asbestos panel attached to a wall in the under stairs cupboard. This was both a relief and a nightmare. It was the awful, friable kind that is really dangerous. It had been drilled into by the previous owners (see shelves with supports drilled in) so there was probably asbestos dust on the floor of the cupboard that had been shifted around as we used it. However, in the big garden dig we did find a small piece of something that tested as positive for friable asbestos and couldn’t find the source. We had about 5-6 pieces tested after the mother-in-law visited and spotted it. Most of it turned out to be plasterboard. With this confirmed tiny piece I had this terrible dread that buried under the garden was a huge source of dangerous asbestos. I finally knew the source and could even see a piece removed that matched the size of our discovered piece.

FYI – No one is paying me to name drop (though I would love it if someone did!) NJB and R and S Environmental are both companies that I have used more than once, and they were great every time. 


Short version: I feel that there has been quite journey with the lawn. We originally weighed the pros and cons of Astroturf given how hard a lawn on clay soil is to maintain in the winter. It’s the environmentally unfriendly option, but if it means you’ll actually use the garden more and maybe focus your gardening energy into planting more things (especially edibles) around it then that’s great. At the other end of the spectrum I was tempted to just have one giant vegetable patch. I ended up turfing about half. It’s enough to lie on or have a picnic and to provide a soft landing under a swing set. Now that it has been especially muddy this winter and has many little bare patches, I think this is a good time to sow with lawn flowers.

In late January the lawn looks shocking! There isn’t much you can do about this in London, unless you install turf with a very thick layer of topsoil. I did about an inch of topsoil and my lawn looks ragged in winter. In previous years it has recovered fine for the summer. It’s had more of a beating this winter, with an active 4 year old and being the straightest route to the winter edibles.

I feel vindicated when I see the swathes of muddy grass in all the nearby parks. The clay soil and the wet weather combined with any foot traffic just gives mud.

You might wonder why, knowing that the soil here isn’t great for grass, I bothered to install it in the first place. Well, my other half and the sprog had much to do with it. Also, a big (semi) permanent swing really did mean there needed to be something soft in case of an unexpected landing.

Artificial grass?

We considered AstroTurf because of the muddy winters. However, artificial grass is the environmentally unfriendly option. No offence to anyone who has it – we did consider it and you must do what makes your garden functional for you.

However, for those of you who are considering their options – I’m sure you are aware that artificial grass is made of plastic. It needs to be because plastic is durable, waterproof and easy to mould. Plastic is made from crude oil – so that’s the first problem. The manufacturing process of the artificial grass (and plastic) uses a lot of energy and resources and of course any energy from fossil fuels or wood burning gives off CO2. So that’s strike 2. Real grass photosynthesises, taking in CO2 and giving out O2. Astroturf does not – strike 3! Of course, if real grass means that you find it impossible to actually use your garden then whack down the AstroTurf but grow edibles around the edges and you’ll be saving on food miles and plastic food packaging. Planting a few bushes and /or a tree will help with the wildlife. Grow bushes or trees with edible bits and then you’re even further on your way to reducing the environmental impact.

The nearby school has some AstroTurf alongside real grass as a great compromise. There’s some grass there, happily growing and capturing carbon, whilst allowing an area for the kids to play on in the winter.

Turfing Project

So, having decided on turf, this is what we did:

I kept some of the sand to mix into the clay, in the hope that it would help stop it turning into a bog in the winter. To be honest I’m not sure it did much. What clay really needs is shed loads of organic matter. This provides better drainage in the winter and better water retention in the summer. 

A thicker layer of topsoil may have helped with the mud problem we now have, but topsoil is expensive, and I had blown quite a lot of the budget on waste disposal before discovering skips. 4 inches is recommended so my solitary inch was pretty measly.

Rolls of turf that were ordered online and delivered on a pallet were then unrolled to make a lawn. I’m afraid I don’t have any photos of the process as I was covered pretty much head to toe in soil and it was a hot day, so it needed to be done as quick as possible before the turf dried out. In all honesty, I’m probably not the best person to give directions in laying turf. I can only say, from experience, it’s a possible DIY project for a non-horticulturist. I pretty much followed this video:

Straight after laying it needs a good water. You are then not supposed to walk on it for 3 weeks. My little one gave it about 3 seconds before she ran across it. She absolutely loved it. That made the whole thing worth it!

Lawn flowers – the next step

I have slightly resented giving so much space to a plant that I can’t eat.

This is the silver lining I’m looking for. My grass with its many bald patches this winter may be perfect to sow some perennial (or self seeding) edible flowers into. The plan is to add short edible flowers like viola tricolor (a tiny wild pansy) clover, daisy and chamomile. Then some taller ones like calendula, marshmallow and bellflowers may be added to the edges where they won’t be mown so short. Hopefully some of the seeds from last summer will still be viable and / or I’ll sow some more in March.

This has got to be win-win for all involved right? Husband gets to keep his lawn, I get to grow some more edibles and little one can pick flowers to her heart’s desire. I can look on knowing that if she wants to nibble it’s safe.

I’m hoping that come summer I’ll be able to post a photo of a lawn dotted with colour. I will let you know how that goes!

Sowing seeds

Short version:

My method for novices deterred by the perceived effort, cost or time taken to grow seeds, though I’m probably upsetting experts with my inability to follow instructions.

  1. Collect toilet roll tubes, tetra pack cartons and plastic tubs for free and environmentally friendly containers.
  2. Choose seeds wisely
  3. Fill with normal compost
  4. In the recommended month sow 1-8 seeds (depending on plant) in each container, picking a suitable container for each plant.
  5. Place on a windowsill / warm place and keep the compost damp.
  6. When planting out pop the whole toilet roll in the hole so you don’t disturb the roots. When planting Tetra Pak you can cut off the bottom and put the whole carton into the soil to provide a bit of protection from pests. 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the information on different months to sow, types and mixes of potting soil, necessary temperatures, levels of light and water requirements, seeds that need soaking, scratching or a cold spell in the fridge. Then after all that, planting those seedlings outside requires another long list of requirements.  

If you have the time, the patience of a saint and all the fancy equipment, like under pot heating, growing lights, a greenhouse, cold frame or even things like perlite and vermiculite then following all the guidelines could give you perfect results.

The question is: ‘How much worse will it be if you don’t follow instructions to the letter?’ Seeds may take longer to germinate. Fewer seeds may germinate. Seedlings may be weaker. At worst, nothing grows, and you’ve wasted the cost of a few seeds.

If you have a lack of space like me, I would advise starting most plants indoors. This provides a good start and ensures that something is actually growing before it takes a spot in the garden. You then also have spares for gaps as they appear. Planting straight into the ground can also lead to small stalks of nothingness – evidence of marauding molluscs. More mature plants are less susceptible or recover better.

Also, my neighbour reminded me last week that those new to gardening can find it difficult to distinguish between intentional seedlings and weeds. Once you’ve been growing a while, you’ll be able to tell the difference but until that time – by growing everything in separate containers you’ll have no issues with identification.

1. Find containers

Toilet roll tubes – great biodegradable modules that you pop straight into the ground. It doesn’t disturb the roots and it’s a good way to reuse waste packaging. These are only suitable for fast germinating and growing seeds like peas and beans as the cardboard can go a bit mouldy and fall apart if left damp for too many weeks. Name and date the tube in pencil.

Mushroom boxes – stack the toilet rolls in here so that they don’t fall over and have somewhere for their water to drain into.

Plastic pots – pierce the bottom. A bradawl is the easiest, or even a pin heated with a lighter will do.  

Tetra Pak cartons – If you pull out the side tabs and flatten the top they cut easily. You can also cut a corner on the bottom to allow for drainage.

Make sure you wash the plastic pots and Tetra Pak cartons thoroughly before use. You can write names and dates with a permanent marker. Place these in the mushroom boxes or a tray of some sorts to avoid water draining everywhere.

You now have many randomly sized pots for free and even better you’re helping the environment. You haven’t bought a plastic pot, made from crude oil, that uses energy and creates carbon dioxide in the manufacturing. You are reusing something pre-made for another purpose and when you’re finished with it you can wash it and still put it into your recycling.

2. Choose your seeds wisely

Don’t be tempted to plant the seeds out of an apple you just ate or out of the butternut squash you had for dinner. Despite being an advocate of free or cheap growing, this is not usually a successful way to grow food. The first issue is that a lot of tasty fruit doesn’t provide you with seeds that are ‘true’. That seed will have the half the DNA of the mother plant but the pollen that led to fertilisation could have come from any of the species including crab apple. You might be lucky enough to get a tasty undiscovered variety, or you could get something sour and gross. This gamble would be fine if you didn’t have to wait several years for the first apple to find out. Your butternut squash may produce fruit (yes – squashes are technically fruit) in the first year but it, again, may not taste as good. If the original was grown in another country your new plant may also not be suited for your climate. It may grow but might not fruit. It also may not be disease resistant.

Buy from a reputable supplier. Spend time reading the back of packs and choosing types of edibles and varieties that will work in your garden for its conditions. It may be worth noting that if you live in a paved or concreted yard – you could grow amazing summer squashes or aubergines. Generally, cities are warmer than the countryside and when there is a lot of concrete absorbing and radiating heat it can push the temperature higher still. You won’t, however, be able to grow deep rooted plants like artichoke without a ridiculously large pot.

Sow things that work for your soil and circumstances. E.g.

Seeds come in ridiculous quantities for small garden growers. I would never be able to plant 15 courgette or tomato plants in a year. I’d manage maybe 2 or 3. Kale comes in packs of something like 50 and at a push I’d manage maybe 10 plants. A great way to lower costs is to swap seeds or even plants with a neighbour. Seeds usually have plant before date, usually a couple of years after purchase.

Sort your acquired seeds into the months to be sown in. Sowing at the right time is something that I do believe is important. By sowing at the correct time, you ensure the soil outside will be suitable (frost free and/or warm enough) by the time your seedling is big enough to go out there. You also give your new plant a long enough period to grow and fruit to ripen before the weather turns cold. I.e. If you sow a tomato seed in January the plant will have grown far too big and probably died before the weather is warm enough to plant it outside. If you sow it in August by the time the plant has matured enough to flower the weather will be turning too cold to set or ripen fruit. I’m not too strict about dates though – if something should be sown February to March, I’ll still merrily sow it in the first 2 weeks of April. I would just maybe leave those plants indoors for a little longer so that they can catch up.

This is my crude, but effective, seed filing system. In early Jan before I start I sort everything into the month I’m going to plant in. If I sow something that I think I’ll want to sow again in a later month e.g. peas, beans and coriander rather than put it back into the original envelope I’ll put it into the next month I’ll want to sow it in. That’s why every Jan I need to resort.

Unless you have lots of experience for now avoid the seeds that need scarification (scratching the surface of the seed) or stratification (a period of cold).

3. Fill containers with Compost

The cheap and lazy me uses whatever giant bag of compost I happen to have open at the time. I feel it’s more efficient to sow everything in 30 pots in one go once or maybe twice a month. E.g. early March I may sow 5 containers of runner beans, 5 sugar snaps, 5 fine beans, 2 tromboncino, 2 pumpkin munchkin, 3 cherry tomatoes, 2 thai basil, 3 basil and 3 coriander. I’m sure each type of plant would have its own ideal type of potting soil but it’s so quick, easy and cheap just to fill all the pots with the same soil. Let’s face it – if it can’t grow with the decent compost I provide indoors, then it sure as hell isn’t going to make it in my terrible clay soil outdoors.  

4. Sow your seeds

I don’t believe in thinning. The idea that you sprinkle lots of seeds into a tray of compost, wait for them to grow and then prick individual seedlings into their own pots sounds like an inefficient use of time and resources. So many seedlings get squished or die in the process and roots get tangled. I also don’t have the heart to kill a food plant when the books say sow 2 or 3 together and pinch off the weakest 2.

How many you sow in each pot depends:

Things that will grow into tree/bush type things and you want to keep indoors for as long as possible like tomatoes, artichoke, pumpkins and other squashes, physalis, etc I’d stick to one seed per larger container.

Things that you just want to make plug plants for like kale, swiss chard, rocket, nasturtiums, you can do one seed per small container.

Things that grow tall and thin like cucamelons, peas and beans I tend to do 2 or 3 to a container.

Tender herbs that get cut down quite quickly (basil, coriander, dill) and so don’t get chance to grow very large I’ll sprinkle maybe 5 or 6 seeds in one.

I’d suggest planting a few more containers than you need in case you have a couple of dud seeds. You then also have a spare or two if you do plant out your first seedlings and they get ravaged by the slugs and snails. You can always give these away or do a seedling swap.

Label them so you know what you have. If you’re fastidious: plant, variety and date. If you’re me there’ll be an unintelligible scrawl on the side naming many different plants after I’ve used the same container a couple of times.

5. Leave to grow

Windowsills or any sunny spots will do. Keep the soil damp. Some seeds germinate almost immediately whilst some take a little longer. There may be containers that continue to look barren. Not all seeds within a pack are viable. Some plants are just harder. I’ve failed to germinate perilla, tomatillo and pomegranate this year. Following instructions to the letter may have led to success. Then again, it may not have. If you think something hasn’t grown pop something else into these pots. Because I like to keep it easy, cheap and avoid anything too time consuming I give up on the harder to grow things. There will be some things that are better (though more expensive) bought as plants.

6. Choose a spot suitable for your plant

You can ‘harden off’ your plants by putting the containers outside during the day and bringing them back indoors for cold evenings. If the nights aren’t freezing, I have often skipped this step with little or no damage. You will have to see for yourself how necessary this is for your garden. If unsure plant one straight into the ground and see if it’s doing OK a couple of days later.  

Ensuring enough sun, space and supports if necessary, gives you less work in the long run. If your plant is susceptible to slugs and snails, then you can cut the base off the container so you have a couple of inches of container as a barrier, but the roots still have soil access. You can put slug tape around the container or cover with the top half of a bottle to stop them getting in. I only bother with really precious plants that are very attractive to critters.

After all that it’s worth noting that carrots, beetroots and turnips are best sown in situ. Because they are easy small plants grown in larger quantities, they are just a faff to put in containers first. Beetroots will need thinning no matter how careful you are as each ‘seed’ is actually a cluster of seeds.

Then after that has been said, by growing perennials or self-seeding varieties you cut out all the above work. However, perennials usually take much longer to establish themselves and become productive. To get self seeders into the garden of course you need to sow them first. Things like peas, beans and squashes don’t have a perennial version and they can provide you with food as you wait for your perennials to get going.  

So, being end of June, there’s still time to sow some kale or Swiss chard for eating in spring, or peas (including sugar snaps and mangetout), beans (runner or French), beetroots, kohl rabi, , quick growing herbs (like basil, dill, coriander) or salad leaves for something yummy this year.

Today, out of that list I’ve only sown peas, but I’ve also sown an array of edible flowers that should hopefully make it into the lawn (more on that later). All of those would germinate in situ in this lovely weather, but the lawn flowers seedlings would never survive being trampled and I’m sure those little slimers are just waiting to take the growing tips of my beans! Grr…

Grow my pretties… grow…