Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
My recycling bin is kept outside near one of my gardens. One day I was taking a few plastic bottles out to be recycled when I wondered if there was something I could use the bottles for in my garden. After all, upcycling is even better than recycling, right?
Plastic bottles can be used as planters, cloches, vertical hanging arrangements, birdfeeders, seedling trays, and other gardening projects. Recycling them for these garden projects can save you money while reducing landfills, but not at the cost of beauty and functionality.
Vertical Gardening Systems
Vertical planters are becoming increasingly popular with gardeners, particularly those short on space. Using upcycled plastic bottles can provide ample growing room, especially for plants that don’t need much real estate, such as herbs and lettuce.
Consider even branching out and growing radishes in them. If you plant them carefully in a deep bottle, carrots won’t be out of the realm of possibility.
1. Vertical planters with bottles on their sides
One of the easiest ways to garden vertically is by taking plastic bottles and cutting a hole into the side for you to plant.
Putting these new pots on the ground is best if you use ones that won’t roll around, such as milk jugs. Make sure you place a few holes for drainage and plant away!
2. Vertical planters with bottles right side up
Cut a plastic bottle in half, and you’ve got two possible options for planting. One is pretty straightforward, just planting in the base. Drill a few small holes as drainage spots and fill them with your potting mix.
You can plant a variety of options in these containers. Hang them from a set of strings to take up less space on the ground.
3. Vertical planters with bottles upside down
You can also plant in the other half of your bottle. You should leave the bottle cap on and drill a few small holes in it, or consider making a self-watering system with a string connecting each part of a plastic bottle to one down the line.
You must add water periodically, but you won’t have to water them too often, as moisture will wick down the string to water your plants.
4. Vertical planters on pallets
A creative and clever way to add to your garden aesthetic, particularly if you happen to be going with a rustic theme or upcycled chic, is to use a wooden pallet and secure plastic bottles on the pallet, leaning it against a wall or hanging it up.
If you want them to match your outdoor furniture, you can paint the plastic bottles before you plant in the theme; make sure only to paint the outside.
5. Hanging garden
Combine multiple hanging plastic bottles that have been recycled into a beautiful garden. You can space the bottles and color-coordinate them (or even paint them).
Many strings, like rungs on a ladder, hang over a fence or wall, so you make the most of your limited gardening space.
6. Hanging planters for flowers with a milk jug base
For larger plants, you can still create vertical gardening space; you will need to use bigger containers. Milk jugs cut off at the base and washed out well can be wonderful planters, whether painted or not.
You can hang cascading plants, including certain varieties of cherry tomatoes, and hang them around your porch or patio.
Growing Your Plants
A cloche is a great way to protect young seedlings, particularly during the early spring. Plastic two-liter bottles and milk jugs make excellent cloches, so you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg for them in your garden.
Making a cloche is as simple as carefully cutting off the bottom of your bottle or jug and removing the lid to help the bottle recycle the humidity around the plant and preserve the temperature for your seedlings.
To help keep these from blowing away in the wind, you can secure them to the ground with wire, such as from coat hangers.
Keep in mind that some people recommend carefully melting the edge of your soda bottle to create a rounded and firmer edge.
While this makes the cloche more secure, you must melt it over a hot stovetop and mold the base, typically over a structure such as a measuring cup.
This will expose you to plastic fumes, so it should be done in a well-ventilated area.
8. Holder for compost tea
Hold on to that milk jug before you toss it. It happens to be a great holder for composting tea or mixed liquid fertilizer. With the lid on, after mixing the amounts needed, give the container a shake.
You should use the contents within a few days, shaking them daily to mix and help evenly distribute components. It’s a great way to help provide your plants with the necessary nutrients.
9. Seed starting container
Cut your milk jug or plastic bottle roughly 3 inches from the end. You can save the top to make something else, such as a cloche for your plants.
Poke or drill a few holes into your container bottom and add seed starting mix or potting mix. Plant your seeds in the mix and water as needed. This is a great, low-cost way to start seeds with minimal fuss.
10. Propagate cuttings in a container
Other people use gallon-sized containers for propagating cuttings of different plants. After removing the top of the container, fill it with the planting medium you need for your cuttings.
You can view the progress of your roots through the container, and when your plant is big enough, just cut away the container and plant your cuttings.
11. Plant saucers for your planting pots
You can use plastic two-liter bottles and milk jugs for saucers to put underneath your indoor and outdoor pots, as long as they’re small enough to fit in them.
For low-maintenance planting, you could put a wick in the pot down to the saucer and fill the saucer with water periodically. Watering from the ground up will help preserve your plant’s foliage and conserve resources.
One of the more popular things to do with plastic bottles is to create a self-watering mechanism. This is especially handy if you are traveling out of town for a few days and don’t have anyone to water your plants.
The simplest way to work this magic is to take a rinsed-out bottle and fill it with water.
Bury it upside down beside your plant, with the neck covered several inches. The water will seep over several days, and you won’t have to worry about watering your plants.
You can also take a bottle and punch a series of holes into the bottle. Remove the lid and plant the bottle down beside the root system of your plant, ideally before the roots have gotten very large, so you aren’t disturbing them.
Bury the bottle completely so that only the mouth opening is accessible, and fill it with water periodically. The water will drain out to your roots, watering your plant.
13. Decorative pots
Another incredibly popular thing to do with upcycled plastic bottles is to make and decorate pots.
You can even put the saucers you made earlier under the bottle. Upcycling for the win! Make these pots in almost any style you can imagine, and get the whole family involved!
Consider the ever-popular-friendly feline pot you can design from a 2-liter container.
Just remember only to paint the outside or make sure you are using non-toxic paint so that this process does not harm your plants (and you).
14. Lettuce or herb-growing planter
An array of plastic bottles with holes cut into them and filled with the potting mix are a great way to save your gardening real estate for large plants.
Plants that grow shallow roots are particularly suited to growing in recycled plastic bottles.
Keep a few inside the house and some in your backyard so you have lettuce and herbs all year round.
15. Onion container
If you have a five-gallon plastic bottle or jug, you have the perfect place to grow some onions. Remove the lid and, potentially, the neck of the bottle to make your job easier.
Cut holes into the sides of the bottle at intervals, ensuring your holes are large enough for your onions to grow into. Add soil and position your onion bulbs, gradually moving up to the top. Add water periodically from the top.
If it stays warm enough, you can harvest green tops from your onions or smaller ones from the container. This is a great way to grow onions indoors during the winter.
16. Miniature greenhouses
Like the clothes, you can make miniature greenhouses with milk jugs and plastic bottles to get a jumpstart on the growing season.
Typically, you only want to cut part of the way into the side of the jug or bottle and pull the lid back. Punch holes in the bottom, and add seed starting mix or potting soil.
Water and let the greenhouses sit outside. They will help regulate the temperature of your plants, allowing you to start seeds outside, even in snowy weather.
17. Make a wall around plants as a heat sink
You can make a wall around certain garden areas if you have enough plastic bottles. Fill the bottles with water and set them around the plants you want to provide extra heat.
During the day, the water will absorb heat and radiate it to the plants as the sun does, and temperatures cool off.
While several large jugs can be protective, even a variety of smaller bottles can add some temperature regulation for your plants.
Bird Feeders and Pest Traps
18. Bird feeder
One style of bird feeder involves cutting holes in several sides of your plastic milk jug, usually about two to four inches in diameter. These are the feeding holes.
Drill smaller holes below the feeding hold and insert wooden dowel rods into the jug, poking to the opposite side. Consider also placing several very small holes in the bottom of the jug for rainwater to drain out.
Once everything is done, hang your bird feeder from a nearby branch and enjoy all the feathered friends who flock to your yard.
19. Other designs for bird feeders
There are various designs for bird feeders made out of plastic bottles and milk jugs.
A simple way to make a bird feeder is to cut a strip from the side of the jug opposite the handle. Consider adding some drainage holes for rainwater in the bottom. Just fill the jug with birdseed, hang it from a tree, set it on a bench, or put it on an old tree stump.
You can also take a plastic bottle and make a hummingbird feeder. There are a few different ways to do this, such as connecting the lid of your plastic bottle to a small plastic plate.
Hang the bottle upside down with a mixture of sugar water, which can be dyed red to attract hummingbirds. Sit back and watch these lovely little birds flock to your yard.
20. Watering bowl
If you don’t have a birdbath, you can still set out a watering bowl near your bird feeder to allow birds to sip water and even clean themselves.
The smaller size can prevent messy larger birds like bluejays from making a huge mess in your birdbath.
You can even keep the bottom of a plastic dish handy to set out beside you when you work so your dog always has access to fresh water.
While you might have a dish on the patio, you’ll sometimes find that man’s best friend doesn’t want to leave our sides while we dig in that fun patch of dirt to play in.
21. Slug watering hole
If you have a slug problem, it’s time to break out the beer and a plastic bottle or two. Cur the bottom of the bottle off so you are left with a shallow dish.
Plant it in the ground so the lip is even with the soil level, specifically placing it in areas where you’ve had a slug problem.
Add a little beer, or make your mixture with water, a pinch of yeast, and some sugar. Slugs will flock to the area and drown.
22. Use as a container to hold plants when purchasing or traveling
If you happen to be purchasing plants and don’t want to risk them tipping over in your car, especially if you are getting numerous small starts or seedlings, you can always cut some plastic bottles to hold the plants in.
This is especially effective with large plastic bottles or milk jugs. Simply take the plants out when you get home.
23. Cut strips for markers
Cutting strips out of a plastic milk jug (or even a plastic bottle) is a great way to make reusable strips to label your plants.
After you cut the strips, label the plant type or species with a permanent marker or Sharpie. If you need to erase the name, a little rubbing alcohol will remove it.
24. Watering can
As simple as it sounds, a plastic jug makes a great watering can for budget-minded people.
You can remove the lid or drill several small holes to gently rainwater down on the soil. Some companies even sell watering attachments to put on plastic soda bottles.
Take your plastic jug and cut it to make a super handy scoop. You will want to leave the handle in place and cut away the bottom and part of the side nearest the handle. Either screws the lid on tightly, glue it, and scoop away.
26. Use jugs to weigh down covers
Jugs with handles are great to attach to covers so they don’t blow away. Fill the jug with water and tie it to the tarp or cover. You can easily remove them when you’re done.
27. Holder for garden tools
You can cut the top off a jug, making it a great holder for tools such as your marker, scissors, and even pruning shears. Using a container with a handle, you can even hang it up in your gardening shed.
28. Multipurpose funnel
When removing the lid, cutting the top off a plastic bottle makes an easy-to-use funnel. Use this to transfer seeds to a different container, put dirt in a miniature greenhouse, or use it when making jam with your fresh produce.
29. Dustpan for clearing the walkway
Similar to making a scoop from a jug, you can make a disposable or reusable dustpan. This will make keeping your walkways clear a breeze when coupled with a broom.
Decorations and Fun
30. Luminaries for your pathways
Some people want to line their pathways with candles, especially for parties. Cut the bottom, fill it with several inches of sand, and set a tealight candle in the bottle. You can even use battery-operated candles to get the same effect.
31. Garden border or edging
You can make some beautiful edging for your garden with plastic bottles. Paint them to coordinate the bottles with your outdoor decor, or use a mixture of different soda bottles to add an eclectic approach to gardening.
32. Decorative bottle tree
You can make bottle trees with plastic or glass bottles. Put the cleaned-out bottles over tree branches on a small tree when it’s not in bloom, or design a secure wooden or steel frame and hang your bottles from it. It’ll catch the light and look fantastic in your new upcycled yard.
33. String light covers
You can take the bottoms of small plastic soda bottles and cut a small hole into each one. Hang these over a string of lights and drape them in your outdoor paradise.
34. Crazy sprinkler
This one is for the kids. If you are working outside in the heat of the day, consider drilling a series of small holes in a plastic two-liter in different places around the bottle. Hook it up to your water hose, and you’ve got your kids a fun DIY sprinkler.
35. Plastic bottle wind harp
Also known as “wind hooters,” you can create a wind harp by cutting different slots into plastic bottles. Drill a hole in the cap to secure the wind harp to a piece of wood and screw the bottle down onto the wood.
Listen as the wind creates unique sounds blowing through the bottles. Smaller bottles or narrower slots tend to make higher-pitched sounds than larger bottles and wider slots so that you can produce a series of different sounds.
36. Plastic bottle waterfall
Remove the lids from several plastic bottles and cut holes into them so that when you position each bottle, it gets filled by the bottle above it. Secure these to an area such as a fence.
To entertain your family or yourself, fill the top bottle with water. You can put the caps back on when you aren’t using the bottles to allow them to fill up with rainwater.
Harvesting Your Produce
37. Use the bottle to make jelly
After washing the bottle well and cutting it in half, leaving you with a funnel section, line the bottle with a jelly bag. Once you’ve cooked your produce to make your jelly, strain it through the jelly bag lining your funnel.
38. Berry picker
Cut the top off a jug and wash it out, but leave the handle attached. When you go out berry picking, thread your belt through the handle.
Now you have an easy-to-carry berry-picking basket to collect berries or even grapes. This can be used for everything from blueberries to raspberries.
39. Gift basket bottom for jams and produce
A simple but cute way to upcycle plastic bottles is to cut off the bottom of the bottle and paint it.
Now you can fill it with anything you could imagine, such as a jar of homemade strawberry jam or blackberry preserves. Gift it to a friend or neighbor and watch their face light up.
40. Plastic bottle fruit picker
If you have a fruit tree in your yard, cut a hole near the bottom of the bottle slightly bigger than the fruit you will be picking, such as apples or pears.
Then you need to mount the two-liter plastic soda bottle washed out well onto a wooden pole and secure it with ties. Now it’s time to go out picking fruit.
The plastic bottle fruit picker will typically hold several pieces at once. Then you can unload it and get more fruit, which you can turn into jelly and use your plastic bottle funnel and a jelly bag.
Which plants can be grown in plastic bottles?
Typically plants with shallow roots do best in plastic bottles. These include strawberries, lettuce, parsley, basil, oregano, and spinach. Herbs and leafy greens that don’t form a head are usually your best bets.
How do you cut a plastic bottle?
You can cut a plastic bottle in a few different ways. Carefully use a craft knife to cut out your shape, or use an electric knife. Holes can be made by drilling them with a drill or poking a hole, such as a nail.
Which plastics are safe for gardening?
Your plastic bottles and containers will be labeled with a number, which indicates which type of plastic they are and can indicate features such as durability. Plastics labeled 2, 4, and sometimes 5 and 6. Stay away from 7 and avoid 1 and 3 in your garden.
This article has only touched 40 of the most popular gardening projects you can do with plastic bottles. There are so many more that you can do with them.
Only your imagination prevents you from utilizing them within your gardening lifestyle. Don’t send them to a landfill! Give them a further life by reusing them in your garden.
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