4 ways to upcycle your food packaging for food growing

I wrote this post for Greener Kirkcaldy blog a couple of years ago. I am reposting it here because I think it’s a perfect way to kick off Pass It On week, 10-18th of March, Scotland’s annual celebration of re-use. Tayport Community Garden is joining in the action this year with Spring Seed Swap and Secateur Sharpening drop in session on Sunday 18th of March, 1-3pm (for details see March events page). I, and my rusty secateurs, are looking forward to it!

Food packaging is a significant contributor to our personal carbon footprints, accounting for 6.8% of carbon emissions related to the food supply chain in the UK. Granted, it is important in getting the food to our door fresh and uncontaminated, and reduces food waste from spoilage in transport. But it is heart-breaking to see it all end up in the bin straight away (20% of UK household waste is packaging). Even if you are like me and try to do the right thing and avoid buying excessively packaged goods, it is hard not to end up with some packaging. Of course, most of it can be and is recycled in Fife. But would it not be even better if it could be reused and given a second life?

Here are four simple ways you can re-use food packaging in garden projects to grow more food at home, which in turn would reduce your need to buy it, packaged, from the shop. It is a nice way to shrink your carbon footprint a little and it will cost you nothing! You don’t even have to have a ‘real’ garden – all of the ideas will work perfectly in a flat or a small outside space such as a balcony, patio or drying green.

1. Tin can herb pots

A photo of Upcycled tin can pots
A couple of can pots in experimental colour wave cozies. The colours for the one of the left were inspired by a walk on beach sand-dunes and on the right – in the pine forest

Food tins make for great plant pots. Just give them a wash, strip the labels, and make a few drainage holes in the bottom by hammering a sharp, thick nail through it several times.

If you are into a shiny and modern look, you can leave them just like that (keep in mind that they will rust in time where exposed to water). If you are after something more craftsy and’ shabby chic’, you can cover the pots in ‘cozies’. It is a great excuse for knitting or crochet fanatics like me to use up odds and ends of their yarn stash and try out some new stitches or colour combinations. New to yarn crafts? It is a perfect project to get started! The simplest way is to make a rectangle long enough to wrap around a tin, sew the short ends together to form a tube and slip it over the tin (make sure to hide the seam and any unsightly yarn ends on the inside).

Here is an example of a simple striped cozy crochet pattern – this will produce a seamless cozy. If you are up for more of a challenge, here’s a very cute wave pattern which works well with colour (I played around with it to make the cozies on the photo above).

A photo of a balcony hanging garden
A start of my hanging garden – I had fun trying out all the different stitches for the cozies!

These pots are perfect for a mini-herb garden on a sunny window sill. If you have access to a balcony or a fence, they can also make an attractive ‘hanging garden’ for small growing spaces. Just add some holes on the side of the can and thread wire through them. For those it’s probably best to stick to slightly more drought-resistant herbs such as thyme or rockery plants such as Sedums as the pots are small and will tend to dry out quickly. You may not get a massive crop of herbs from them but at least the bees and butterflies will have a bit of a feast on the flowers!

A word of caution though – most tin openers do leave a sharp edge on the can so please be careful not to cut your hand on it. You may want to sand it down a bit to make it safer or use cans with that come with a lid and which have a blunt edge.

2. Aluminum drink can plant tags

A photo of Aluminum Plant Tags
Plant labels I made from an aluminium drink can as a part of a present for a friend.

Now that you have some pots, you will need some plant labels to keep track of what you have sown in them! Aluminum drink cans make excellent, durable and attractive plant labels. Here is a great tutorial which I used to make mine.

Again – the edges of the label are sharp and benefit from sanding down.

3. Glass jar sprouters

A photo of Glass Jar Sprouters
My sprouters with mung beans (left) and chickpeas (right). The mung beans are ready to eat but chickpeas have some time to go yet!

Winter can a bit of a frustrating time for anybody trying grow their own food…it’s not exactly plant-friendly weather out there! Good news is that you can take the edge of the gardener’s itch by making some sprouts at home for your salads or garnish for your winter soups and stews. Here are some very easy to follow instructions on how to make a sprouter from a metal-lidded glass jar. One bit of advice I would add, is to keep your sprouting jars in a dark cupboard to stop sprouts going green and tough. There is no need to buy special seeds – experiment with dried mung beans, lentils and chickpeas from the grocery store.

Haven’t grown anything before? Sprouts are a brilliant way to start. They give you a great view of how plant seedlings develop. Might come in handy once you start growing things in a ‘real’ garden…

You may also want to check the NHS safety advice on growing sprouts at home.

4. Plastic bottle cloches

A photo of Plastic Bottle Cloches
My plastic bottle mini-glasshouse!

Winter is also a good time to plan for your gardening season, making sure you have all the required equipment. Large, clear plastic bottles can come in very handy early in the spring to protect young seedlings from overnight frosts. Such bottle cloches work equally well in pots or a garden bed, or to protect your windowsill cuttings later in the year. There are good instructions of how to make one here.

Do you have a particularly windy garden, or ‘energetic’ pets? It may be worth using sticks to firmly secure the cloches down as suggestedhere.

Have you ever given a second life to your rubbish in the garden? It would be great to hear some ideas!

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