Plastic bottles and bags: precious jewels for container gardening (Willem)

On September 12th, 2007 Riziki SHEMDOE sent the following message :

“I have been reading on the container gardening experiments that you have been doing. This has encouraged me to put up a proposal on introducing this technology to the rural semiarid areas of Tanzania where normally crop production is very poor due to drought and poor soil fertility. I am requesting to know whether there are some best practices from the third world countries that you have come across regarding the use of this technology in improving rural food security and poverty alleviation? I will be grateful if you share with me some of the best practices so that I may use them to strengthen my proposal. I look forward to reading from you.
Kindest regards,
Riziki. “

Riziki Silas Shemdoe (MSc)
Institute of Human Settlements Studies,
University College of Lands and Architectural Studies
P.O.Box 35124 Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Here is my reply :

The easiest and most practical way for people in developing countries to practice container gardening is to collect a large number of plastic (PET) bottles and plastic shopping bags. It’s clean and cheap. Moreover, it helps to take care of our environment !

The plastic bottles should be cut in two : a shorter bottom part (the cup, used as a water tank) and a longer top part (with the stop still on), to be filled with potting soil. In order to cut the bottle in two optimal parts, define the length of the two parts approximately so that, turning over the top part (that will contain potting soil later on) and sliding it into the bottom part, the stop is touching or almost touching the bottom of the cup. If this is not the case the bottle will be rather unstable. Then, a small slit should be cut at the edge at two opposite sides of the bottom cup so that the top part of the bottle can be pushed into the cup until the stop reaches the bottom (short slits will open a bit). It is better to have the bottom cup a bit too long than too short (stability). One can always cut the two slits !

The bottleneck should be perforated at two opposite sides, close to the stop, to create drainage possibilities if too much water is poured in the bottle and to create water absorption possibilities from the bottom cup. Holes of 5 mm diameter are sufficient.

When filling up the inverted top part with potting soil, the soil should be well compressed in order to avoid larger air cavities in the bottle. I recommend to mix a water stocking soil conditioner with the potting soil, but if this is not possible for financial constraints, don’t hesitate to do it without.

During the first days, watering should be abundant to eliminate too much air in the potting soil. As the infiltrating surplus of water will run through the two openings in the bottleneck into the bottom cup (water tank), and as evaporation will be limited (only through the top opening of the bottle), one can save a lot of irrigation water and produce significantly more biomass with less water (less leaching of nutrients from the potting soil, and less evaporation).

Isn’t this a nice solution for some of our main environmental problems in the drylands ?
The same advantages are offered when growing vegetables or young trees in the classical plastic shopping bags.

Fill up a plastic bag with potting soil for 2/3, and keep the two handles of the bag upright, simply by pushing them up and sustaining them with two pieces of a small branch or another support (one at each side of the bag). Thus, a shallow cavity is created above the potting soil in which water can be poured from time to time.

Don’t forget to perforate the lower part of the plastic bag a couple of times at the two opposite sides of the bag, e.g. 2-3 little holes (not slits !) at both sides approximately 1-3 cm ( 0.5 – 1 inch) above the bottom (and not in the bottom itself, so that a bit of water can be kept temporarily in the bag). Vegetables can be seeded or planted in the potting soil. Young tree seedlings can also be grown in such a simple plastic bag.

Considerable advantages :

(1) more biomass with less water (because of less leaching and less evaporation).

(2) eliminate plastic from the environment by burying the used plastic bottles and bags at the end of the growing season, e.g. when planting the tree seedlings in a planting hole (ecological cleaning).

Caution : avoid heating in the bottles or bags by keeping them in half-shade or in places where the number of hours of sunshine is limited (not a full day).

Please set up some experiments and discover the real advantages of gardening in plastic bottles and bags, not in the least the provision of food security and the alleviation of poverty. That’s what I call a success story or best practice for sustainable rural development. I hope that once my preaching in the desert will be heard.

PS. Have a look at my former postings to discover pictures and drawings.



“Thank you so much, Prof., for the explanations and the methodological approaches. I will try something in this area. This will really relieve our poor people in the dryland-areas to improve their nutrition. Similarly this will assist in improving the environmental sanitation by giving use values to the plastic bottles that are being thrown everywhere in our cities. Thank you.

Vegetables in plastic shopping bags (Gardening Tips ‘n’ Ideas)

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Gardening Tips ‘n’ Ideas

How to grow vegies in shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags are high on the environmentalist’s list of things to remove from the public psyche.


Here’s one guy who’s turning his shopping bag problem into cultivatable hot property. He fills the bags with potting mix and sows seeds as someone would do with a garden bed. A little water, some sunshine, add some fertiliser and Voila! the bags have sprouted fresh vegetables. One of the bonuses of growing vegies in shopping bags is that the heat is captured by the plastic which warms the soil. So, for those wanting an early start on some tomato or capsicum plants this is quite an advantage. The plastic bags can be washed and reused after each crop but hopefully they will start to break down from the pH levels. …………..

Food production in transparent plastic bottles and cups (C. ASH, J. TOLLEDOT, Willem)

Here is nice additional comment of Charles ASH on :

Recycling plastic bottles and pots (Charlesash / Willem) August 3, 2007

“You don’t really need to cover the transparent plastic because there appears to be no harm or set back to the plant if you don’t. It’s mainly cosmetic. Not only that, seeing the roots creates more interest. When we used them we got many youngsters interested because we could explain easier and show “what grows underground” of a plant. It created huge interest and some of those youngsters went on to a career in horticulture. So my suggestion is, don’t permanently cover them. Enjoy a sight you do not normally see.

We don’t have any problems removing plants, even well established or large plants, from plastic plant pots. They always come out with the root ball intact and unharmed. They may need a gentle tap once or twice but they always come out ok. And we get to use the pot again!


Thanks, Charles !  It encourages me to continue my efforts introducing plastic bottle gardening in schools of developing countries.  I strongly believe that every kid in developing countries should set up its own vegetable garden in plastic bottles and shopping bags, not only at school, but also at home.

At school, they can be helped by the teachers, at home, by their mothers.

The result would be :

1. A remarkable enhancement of fresh food production, particularly in desertified areas.

2. An interesting improvement in the situation of food security, malnutrition or famine.

3. A very profitable improvement in public health (less deficiencies, less diseases.

4. Better environmental  conservation and protection (less littering of plastic).

5. Enormous educational value.


Will this appeal on all stakeholders (decision makers, authorities, donors, NGOs, local people, …) one day be heard ?  I hope it will happen before the end of my days, with all my heart !

Who can resist the beauty of vegetables and fruits growing close to or even in our house or school ?  Look at this beautiful picture of Joseph TOLLEDOT :

Party cup Pepper

Black manaqualana Pepper growing well in a recycled party cup (J. TOLLEDOT, July 25, 2007)

Recycling plastic bottles and pots (Charlesash / Willem)

Today, I received a constructive comment of Charles ASH on my former posting :

Transparency of recycled bottles a problem for root growth ?

(J. TOLLEDOT / Willem) August 1, 2007

“Some years ago we used to grow loads of plants in used transparent bottles, here in England, with great success. No real problem with algae. But if left in strong sunshine, the roots that where visible would suffer scorch marks. No detriment to the growth of the plant, just looked unsightly. So we either shaded the containers mid day or covered the plastic container with black plastic cut from waste bin bags. Today we use plastic plant pots that have been discarded by garden centres and nursery growers as these are free and, of course, made for the job.

Just another form of recycling in action!




I am wondering what would be the best material to cover transparent bottles for plant growth :

a. black plastic cut from waste bin bags (see above)

b. white plastic (or paint) to keep the roots cooler ?

But after all, maybe we do not need to cover them !

Recycling used plastic flower pots from a nursery seems a good idea too, particularly to grow young trees.  Once tall enough, the pot can be  cut vertically in two halves (in order not to damage the rootball, like it happens regularly with the classical  black plastic grow bags used in nurseries).  I suggest to put the two halves of the plastic pot at the bottom of the plant hole at the moment of planting the young tree. An easy way of getting rid of that plastic.

Starting Peppers on your window sill (50connect)

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Starting Peppers

Starting pepper seeds is easy! Even in a small flat you can still grow them on your window sill.

Soil Preparation
Peppers require a warm spot for the best results, preferably with a well drained, rich soil. During the winter, dig up your plot thoroughly (being careful not to bring clay or granite to the surface) and incorporate a good compost into your soil. Shortly before planting add a good source of fertilizer to the plot. If you lack ground space, you can easily grow excellent peppers in 2 gallon sized pots or grow bags, but remember to water them regularly. In addition, regular feeding with a good fertilizer will be necessary.
Continue reading Starting Peppers on your window sill (50connect)

Choosing containers for strawberry growing (RHS)

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Choosing containers

Grow bags are widely used by commercial and home growers for strawberries. Each bag will take around six plants and grow bags previously planted with an unrelated crop can be reused. To help stabilise the microclimate and improve air circulation, position the grow bags on a wooden plank (preferably of treated timber) supported about 1m (3ft) above the ground, fixed to treated posts 7.5cm (3in) in diameter driven 45cm (18in) into the ground, or to a free-standing timber support, plastic crates or concrete blocks. Grow bags can also be placed directly onto upturned crates or boxes. A rail at each end with a 15-cm (6-in) wide, rigid, small-mesh net stretched along each side will support the fruit horizontally, which helps to improve the sugar content. Yields of around 0.5 kg (1 lb) of fruit per plant can be achieved. Continue reading Choosing containers for strawberry growing (RHS)

Strawberries in containers and grow bags (RHS)

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Royal Horticultural Society

The Garden
January 2001

Pot the red

A handful of strawberry plants can yield a bumper crop of fruit. Jim Arbury recommends a variety of suitable containers

Jim Arbury is Superintendent of the Fruit Department at RHS Garden Wisley

Sweet and versatile, strawberries are the essence of a British summer and delicious when eaten freshly picked. Strawberry plants will yield good crops of fruit when grown in small spaces including a wide range of containers, and growbag cultivation is particularly economical and productive. The small, short-lived perennial plants are suitable for autumn or spring planting, and a little extra time spent now in caring for your autumn-planted runners and finding the right location to grow a container of cold-stored strawberry plants will help to improve your chances of a bumper summer harvest. Continue reading Strawberries in containers and grow bags (RHS)

Growing chilli peppers in containers and gardens (selfsufficientish)

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Chili Peppers – Capsicum by the Chili Monster part 1

The chili plant originated in Latin America, where it was cultivated from its wild form by South American Indians. Christopher Columbus is regarded as the first European to sample the fruit, and indeed coined the term pepper. With the Spanish firmly in control of the Mexican economy, the chili was introduced initially to the Philipines and then to China and other parts of Asia. (It should be noted that some believe that it was the Portuguese that introduced the chili to Goa where it became a constituent of curry). Although grown as an annual outside of its native South America, the chili is in fact a perennial shrub that can tolerate temperatures ranging from 7 to 29 degrees centrigrade, annual rainfalls between 0.3 and 4.6 m and soil pH 4.3 to 8.7. From the container-suited Dwarf Apache and Thai Sun varieties through to the large but very mild Anaheim, from the pungent (hot) Mexican Tepin to the ornamental Purple Prince, there’s a chili pepper cultivate suited to every gardener. Continue reading Growing chilli peppers in containers and gardens (selfsufficientish)

Small space vegetable gardens (Bestgardening)

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Bestgardening (see my Blogroll)

Small space vegetables 

As city gardens become ever smaller, garden space becomes more and more precious. Once the norm, space for growing vegetables may seem just a dream. Yet salads, tomatoes, and other vegetables are so much better straight from the garden. Young, tender vegetables are prized, and so much better when there are only minutes between the garden and the pot or salad bowl. The process, from garden to table, is enjoyable and one of anticipation. There are lots of ways to introduce vegetables into the garden, especially as we can become more innovative in how we grow our veges.

Tips for Small Space Vegetables
Concentrate on growing only those vegetables that benefit the most from being picked fresh and take up a small space. Don’t grow plants that take up lots of space, have a long growing season or you don’t love to eat!  Grow vegetables that are hard to find and not usually on the supermarket shelves, and select varieties for superior taste rather than crop size. Small is definitely beautiful in a tiny vegetable garden. The largest tomatoes are not necessarily the best tasting. Vegetables suitable for small spaces are generally harvested when young and tender. Thus the growing season is shorter and plants can be cycled through faster. Baby cauliflower, finger carrots, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, there are loads of suitable seeds on the market today. Grow fewer vegetables of each type. In a large garden we can grow 20 celery plants, in a small space garden you may want to grow only half a dozen, and in a balcony garden two or three plants will provide fresh stalks for cutting. In courtyards and against a warm wall you can often get planting long before the soil in a traditional garden has warmed enough for planting out and seed sowing.
Continue reading Small space vegetable gardens (Bestgardening)

Growing the hardiest trees in grow bags (Fox Hollow Nursery)

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Fox Hollow Nursery

How We Grow Our Trees

We believe that we have a unique value proposition in growing large Japanese Maples for use in the Southeast. First of all we are located in the same geographic area that our plants will be planted. This means that our trees are already well acclimated for this region. Second we employ a number of growing procedures to develop the hardiest specimens possible and insure a robust root system for each tree.

We use grow bags (knit fabric containers) for our field-grown trees. A specialized grow bag encases the root ball of each of our field-planted trees. The grow bags primary purpose is to restrict the way in which the tree’s root system is created. As the plant’s roots reach the bag material the roots are naturally pruned and the root tips callous. Small feeder roots penetrate the fabric allowing the plant to take in moisture and nutrients. Root branching and bulbing increase the carbohydrates in the root structure and help with plant reestablishment. The grow bags keep roots from circling, creating a more robust and hardy root system. The smaller ball size created by the bags makes transporting and handling the trees easier. Two people can easily handle up to a 4 caliper tree without heavy equipment.