Top Ten Tips to Repurpose Plastic Pots

| Plant

More often than not, those new plants we pick up at nurseries or home improvement centers are in a plastic pot. As responsible gardeners, we all hate to simply throw those pots away and add them to the landfill. Most of those pots are made of recyclable plastic, but if you’ve watched a related episode we filmed for Growing a Greener World®, you know recycling plastic pots is not an easy thing to do. It’s a laborious process, so there are better options to consider first.

Before we ever resort to recycling, there are two other R’s to consider first:


When it comes to plastic pots, I’m all for reducing their use. Fortunately, some companies are making good strides toward making suitable alternatives to the all-too-common plastic pot. When given the option, select plants in one of these plastic alternatives. When you vote with your dollar, suppliers will take notice and industry change will become more prevalent.


Plants in biodegradable containers

Reducing the number of plastic pots we use is the best option. So when shopping, look for plants in biodegradable pots.


Another option for reducing your consumption of plastic pots is to buy bare-root plants – typically available from mail-order nurseries. While there are pros and cons of bare root plants and trees, it certainly is a viable option for eliminating more pots at your house.

Despite our best efforts to reduce the plastic pots we bring home, we all still inevitably wind up with a stack or two. Before you toss or recycle those pots, consider the better, second R option:


To me, this is the easiest option to put into practice. Fortunately, it seems that many of you are already finding ways to reuse plastic pots. A few years ago, I asked the joe gardener Facebook group – for their best “reuse” ideas. I received a flood of responses from my online friends, who shared what they’re doing for the sake of the planet. They had plenty of great tips, and I’m sharing my Top Ten choices with you here.

So even if recycling is an option, here is my list of the Top Ten ways to reuse your plastic pots, and the actions we should all be taking before they ever go to be recycled!

1. Save your containers for your own personal use. The more you garden, the more you’ll find times when you need to pot something up, move a plant, divide some perennials, or shop from your yard to add to your own landscape. Maybe you also pot up divisions or cuttings to give to friends and family?

For me, I do all those things. And I especially love having an assortment of containers on hand for all the cutting I love to take to make more plants. In all cases, these saved pots are a lifesaver as a ready supply standing by for whenever they’re needed.

And let me just say, because of their typically uniform size, they are easy to stack and store – out of the way and out of sight – until you’re ready to put them back into service.


Stacks of plastic garden pots

Stack those plastic pots away somewhere handy. There are many uses for these humble, multi-purpose garden “tools” – and many local garden organizations would love to add to their supply.


2. Give them away. Even if you’re not one to repot your plants, no doubt you know someone who is. So, get those pots into the hands of friends who could use them. Or even better, donate them to your local Master Gardener group. Many of those groups have annual plant sales for fundraisers, and they often don’t have enough pots for all the plants.

You could also contact your local nature center, native plant organization, a school or community garden, or even a local nursery. Odds are good that at least one (and probably all) of these organizations would be thrilled to get their hands on those garden pots.

You can even offer those plastic pots on Craigslist or Freecycle.

The bottom line is this: For a small investment of time, you can definitely find a loving new home for all the pots you no longer need.

There’s a fun options-1-and-2 combination that our friend, Elaine Miller from Ohio, does to make sure those pots aren’t retired prematurely. Elaine uses her extra pots to start seeds and plant seedlings or divided plants from her garden to give away to friends anxiously awaiting them. But those gifts come with a caveat: If those friends want more free plants next season, they have to return the pots to Elaine from the previous year. That puts a new spin on “the cycle of life.”

3. Try the pot in pot tip. If you’re the kind of person that likes to have their very best plants front and center when guests arrive, try sinking those empty pots into the ground where you want those feature plants to be seen. Put the lip of the empty pot right at ground level.

Then any time the need arises, drop your best-looking plants into those empty pots. Rather than digging up and replanting every time, just lift one potted plant out and place in the next. With this sunken pot system, no one will ever know you didn’t plant those beauties into the ground. This plant swap works especially well for seasonal bulbs like tulips.

As an added bonus, this trick helps protect your plants from voles. (Thanks to Bonnie Saxon for this tip.)


Garden debris in a plastic pot

Plastic pots are useful containers for garden debris or to help when spreading mulch or compost.


4. Capture those strawberry runners. Place pots filled with soil under the runners in your strawberry patch. Press the runners into the soil, and once they’re rooted, cut the runner free. Then, you can either replant it in another part of your garden or give it as a gift. (Thanks to Patti Habbyshaw.)

5. Create a mini-worm compost system. Drill holes in the sides and bottom of the pot to allow worms to enter and leave. Then, sink the container in the garden, and fill it with kitchen scraps and yard debris. The worms enter through the holes, consume the scraps and break down that waste. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be left with compost and worm castings that are easy to retrieve and put to use in the garden. (Thanks to Joe Doyle of Margate City, NJ.)

6. Use smaller pots as fillers. From the responses received during my survey, this is a popular reuse trick. Many joe gardener Group members out there use small or medium-sized pots set upside down into a larger container before filling the container with soil and plants. The air space under the smaller pot makes the larger container much lighter, and a lot less potting soil is necessary too! (Thanks to Jan Dahling, Shannon Carr Pable, and Kimberly Scott.)

7. Put empty pots to work for mulch and compost. Larger, tree-sized pots work great as lightweight, flexible containers for filling and distributing mulch or compost around the garden and landscape. They’re big enough but not too big – making them manageable and the perfect size for easily getting your amendments right where they need to go. (Thanks to Mark Goodsmith of Cedar Rapids, IA.)

8. Put empty pots to work as weed buckets. Those plastic pots can be stashed out-of-site throughout your landscape – behind raised beds, shrubbery, etc. – to be available as a weed or garden debris bucket. That way no matter where you’re working, you’ll have a handy container for gathering up debris. (Thanks to Joanne Cheatham of Mount Airy, NC.)

9. Build pest deterrents. Cut out the bottom of those plastic pots, and place the pot over new or small seedlings to keep rabbits away. As another option, invert whole pots over tender plants whenever you need to capture a little extra warmth or provide frost protection. (Thanks to Benette Sherman.)


Plastic pot sleeve over young plant

By removing the bottom of a plastic pot, the remaining sleeve can slip over tender new plants to protect foliage from pest damage.


10. Restrain those aggressive spreaders. Some herbs – such as mint – spread so aggressively that it’s best not to plant them in the ground. If you want the look of an in-ground herb but don’t want to fight their invasion into other areas of the garden, sink the entire container into the ground. Although roots will still grow out the bottom, the pots will contain and tame their natural habit of overtaking the area. (Thanks to Kimberly Scott.)

A Final Bonus Tip:  If you feel the need to use baits or poison to control fire ants, remember that birds and other curious critters are liable to ingest those potentially-lethal poisons too! So, keep several large containers on hand to use to invert and cover fire ant mounds after putting down that bait or poison. Anchor the pot with a rock or brick, so it can’t be knocked or blown over. The pot protects those friendly visitors to your garden and doesn’t negatively impact the fire ant treatment effectiveness on the mound.  Once the bait or product has been consumed or dissipated, you can remove the container.

There you have it. My Top Ten picks and a bonus to boot. Let’s all commit to putting these ideas to work in our garden to keep plastic pots out of the landfill – and out of the tedious recycling process whenever possible.

Links & Resources

Episode 073: How to Create a Resilient Garden: 10 Key Principles

joegardener Facebook Group

GGW Episode 720: Talking Trash-Dealing with Plastic Pots, Packaging and more

GGW Blog: The Ugly Truth about Gardening

GGW Blog: Recycled Nursery Pots are a Hot Topic – Readers Respond

GGW Blog: Plastic Pot Recycling – One Silver Lining in an Otherwise Dismal Effort

GGW Blog: Why to Love Bare Root Trees and Shrubs; and How to Plant Them


About Joe Lamp’l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently in production of its ninth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm, just north of Atlanta, GA.

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