Updated: February 2020
For sheer versatility in the garden, nothing comes close to the humble plastic milk jug. Save both half-gallon and gallon sizes to create these garden helpers.
Seed flats. Starting your own seeds is the easiest way to cut your gardening costs to the bone. And it’s the only way to get many of the newest varieties. To save space and bother, start seeds in shallow trays filled with potting soil, then transplant the strongest seedlings to pots later on. To make free seed flats, cut off the bottom three inches of a gallon milk jug and punch a few holes in the bottom with a nail. Fill with potting mix, and use a pencil to create two or three shallow furrows for sowing. Then plant your seeds according to the packet directions.
Mini greenhouse. In northern zones, young transplants and seedlings are easy prey for spring and fall frosts. Protect them with their own personal greenhouse. Just cut the bottom off a gallon milk jug and, when a cold snap is in the forecast, place the jug over the plant. You can regulate the temperature somewhat by putting the cap on or taking it off. Just be sure to remove the cover on warm, sunny days to prevent turning your greenhouse into a sauna.
Liquid fertilizer distribution system. Okay, the name might be a bit of a stretch, but this idea is a winner. Use plastic milk jugs to mix up liquid fertilizer, then punch a hole or two in the cap with a nail. Use your “system” to deliver a dose of plant food to even the smallest pots or plants.
Protection plus. If you use a cold frame to extend your growing season, line the inside with plastic milk jugs filled with water. The water be warmed by the sun, and will help reduce temperature swings inside the cold frame. The result: a lower chance of frost damage at night and overheating during the day.
Towels, Blankets, and Tablecloths
Never throw away a worn or damaged vinyl tablecloth. There are just too many ways to put these old soldiers to work in the field.
Corral dirt. When digging a hole, spread an old tablecloth out nearby to keep your dirt from getting, well, dirty. You won’t lose precious top soil, and you’ll keep your surroundings clean.
A moving experience. Use a vinyl tablecloth, plastic side down, to transport heavy items like bags of mulch, plant divisions, or balled-and-burlapped trees and shrubs. Even if you have a wheelbarrow, this ground-level transportation system may be easier on your back for many chores.
Frost protection. A lightweight blanket, towel, or tablecloth (or blanket) can save your tender annuals from certain death when a frost is forecast. Covering works especially well on clear nights, when the open sky literally sucks heat out of unprotected leaves.
Ties that bind. Worn-out towels, cut into strips, make safe and secure ties for supporting plants. They may not look good enough for your prized perennial bed, but the gentle caress of the terry cloth is perfect for heavy vegetables, like this tomato plant.
Close behind milk jugs for the “most versatile” award, yogurt containers (and their cousins, plastic sour cream and margarine tubs) have many uses in the garden.
Cutworm collars. Protect young seedlings from night-crawling cutworms by surrounding them with a collar made by cutting the bottom off a yogurt container. Sink the container an inch or so into the ground, leaving 2 to 3 inches above ground. You can remove the collar, if you like, when the plant’s stem hardens.
The scoop. Small plastic tubs are perfect for scooping and broadcasting granular fertilizers and driveway de-icer pellets.
Cheap flower pots. Tubs that are at least 3 inches deep make free flower pots if you poke a few holes in the bottom with a nail. Save the lid, and you have a tray to catch drips — if you water carefully, at least.
Newspapers are the key ingredient for “no-till” garden beds. To create a new planting area without the work of digging, just mow the area as short as possible, spread with 6 or more layers or newspaper, and top with enough compost, soil, or mulch to hold the papers in place.
Over a few months, the newspaper will smother weeds and grasses, then decay into the bare soil. You now have a pristine planting bed ready to receive trees, shrubs, or flowers.
You can pay a lot for a high-quality pruner, but for most everyday trimming chores, get a $1 pair of kitchen shears at the dollar store. That way, if you lose them or leave them out in the rain, you won’t be kicking yourself.
Let’s wrap up with a collection of quick-hits.
Old dish pans. Fill with some potting soil and supplies, and you have a portable potting bench that you can take anywhere.
Carpet scraps. Use old or leftover carpet to line paths in your vegetable garden. You’ll keep weeds at bay, and give yourself clean footing even when the garden is wet. Small pieces of lightweight carpet are also useful for covering cold frames on chilly nights.
Jelly jars. Be on the lookout for attractive little containers for small bunches of cut flowers.
Coffee and tuna cans. Use these straight-sided containers to collect and measure rain and sprinkler water. That way, you can be sure that every part of your garden is getting the an inch of water a week.
Broken mini-blinds. Slats from light-colored vinyl mini-blinds make easy-to-see, durable plant labels. Cut them into 8-inch strips with a point at one end. (Note: Older mini-blinds may contain lead; if you are concerned, substitute inexpensive wooden craft sticks.)
Soft drink cans. Rinse well and place in the bottom of large planters to take up some of the space. They provide extra drainage capacity and you’ll need less potting soil.
Chopsticks. Whether new or used (and washed), use these little fellows when you start seeds in pots. Add one or two sticks to each pot, then cover with a cheap plastic bag to control moisture. The chopsticks will prevent the bag from collapsing onto the soil. Just be sure to keep your “greenhouse” away from high heat or direct sun.
Egg cartons. These are long-time favorites for starting seeds, one or two per soil-filled cell. To reduce the risk of bacterial contamination, use well-washed Styrofoam egg cartons with a single drainage hole punched in the bottom of each cell.
Broken or cracked flower pots. Sink the broken side halfway into the garden to create attractive artful accents.