Call us now on

0800 201 4811

How You Can Upcycle To Create The Perfect Plant Containers

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt



Plant containers are a space-saving option for the garden that's easier than working the soil. Leigh Hunt, Horticultural Advisor for the RHS tells us all that's needed to know about upcycling them. 

I love a good rummage. Whether it’s a cavernous antique centre in Lewes or the shop at the council recycling centre (where people donate before they dump), no matter what I set out to look for, I come back with things I never knew I needed (and I can’t be the only one!). However, there is one thing that's always high on my upcycling list, and that's containers that I can grow plants in. Looking for and buying these is a particularly great thing to do in autumn, as the season is the perfect time to get potting for winter colour in your garden.

Find That Special Item To Upcycle

Now, when I say I'm 'upcycling items to turn into plant containers' I’m not talking about wonky wheelbarrows and old gardeners’ boots. As shabby chic and charming as these may look in an eclectic garden, I’m always hoping for something that's a little more special. 

One of the best containers that you can find is actually Galvanised wash tubs, complete with handles for the holy grail. Once known as the un-automatic washing machine of their day, they now do much better service with a couple of holes in the bottom as planting troughs. Brilliantly, they can look great in any garden style, fitting well with a vintage chic look. Or, a plainer Galvanised wash tub would equally fit into modern, minimalist garden designs. If you're feeling adventurous, a lick of paint can completely revamp its look too!

When choosing your item to turn into a plant container it's important to think of the three questions. Will it function as a plant container? Can I drill holes into the bottom to enable drainage? Does it suit my style and my garden's style? If you can happily answer these, then you've found your container!

Unwanted Items Can Become Your Beloved Plant Containers

When you begin searching for containers at the recycling centre, you're going to notice that there are plenty of items that you could buy at a garden centre, that people are actually throwing away. I regularly pick up terracotta containers, wooden troughs and the odd (fake) stone pot that make excellent additions to my garden. As long as the items fit your purpose and style, my advice is, have a go! Thankfully, many recycling centres and antique shops will deliver to your door if you do get carried away with your container hunt – or if you find something that's too heavy to carry away!

Good Drainage Is Key To A Functional Plant Container

No matter what the container is that you have chosen, there are two key basics when it comes to growing plants in them. The first is drainage.

To ensure that you have good drainage in your plant container, you'll need to add a decent sized hole in the bottom – or several. You can either do this by drilling it yourself or by getting a family member or friend to do it if you don't feel experienced enough. 
Once you're happy that your container has adequate drainage, simply add a piece of broken pot or a recycled chunk of polystyrene bedding to the bottom of your container to stop the compost falling through. There’s no need to add a layer of grit or gravel in the bottom, as this just reduced the amount of compost that will reach your plant's roots.

Understand The Type Of Compost That You'll Need

Choosing the right potting compost can seem like learning the dark arts, especially when you're confronted by piles of bags at the garden centre. I like to keep things as simple as possible, so if it’s a container where the same plants will grow for more than 2-3 years, go for John Innes No. 3 compost. This is a rich compost that works well for a wide range of plants, trees, shrubs and climbers as well as mature indoor plants that may need replanting. 

For plants that will last one season, say until next summer, then a multipurpose compost is perfectly adequate for whatever you choose to plant. Now, I’m not one for brands, but when it comes to multipurpose compost, there are a lot of dubious products out there. From experience, some grow plants very poorly. That’s why I’d suggest going for some that have been tried and tested by consumers, for example by the consumers’ association, Which?. According to which, their top peat-free Best Buys for 2018 are Melcourt Silvagrow and B&Q Verve Multi-purpose Peat Free. 

How To Decide On What You'll Plant In Your New Container

What to plant is the fun and easy part. Most garden centres have sections of winter bedding plants, such as pansies, ivies and primroses from which you can have carte blanche. These will flower a little in the winter month, providing some welcome cheer, before bursting into full bloom next March or April. To add a twist to your arrangement, plant an impressive corkscrew hazel in the centre that will bear catkins in February. 

For a punch of colour, use dogwoods with colourful stems. Both of these are shrubs and can either be left in the container for another year (don’t forget your John Innes No. 3!) or you can alternately, plant them out in the garden.

Top Tips To Help You Get The Most From Your Container Garden

Once you have created your perfect container garden, here are Leigh Hunt's top tips on getting the most out of it, all year long.

  • Don’t forget to water your plants in winter. The compost in containers only needs to be kept moist, so it may be a case of watering them once a week to once a fortnight, but most plants can’t withstand drying out.
  • Remove faded flowers. It will keep your containers looking presentable and can prevent mould disease.
  • Make sure that your plant selection is hardy. Some variations of cyclamen, for example, are hardy while others aren’t. Simply check the label or ask to be sure.

So, feeling pleased with my not-on-the-high-street containers, I look forward to the upcoming winter, making use out of them and I hope that you can take inspiration from this too. Do buy whatever you like though... whether your plant container is shop bought or upcycled it's what goes into them that matters the most. Although, in my opinion, from the few pounds spent on my upcycled plant containers, I get even better satisfaction than I would from a brand new winter coat!

Like this article? Subscribe to receive updates...
Subscribe to receive notifications when we post new articles to our online magazine.
By subscribing to these updates you’re agreeing to receive email updates when new articles are published to the McCarthy & Stone online magazine.
We’ll never send you spam or sell your details. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Related Articles


How To Manage Your Diet In Retirement

There are many extra demands placed on our bodies as we progress through life and because of this our nutritional needs also change as a result. It is never too late to revamp your nutrition and nurture your body with a healthier diet.   ...Read more


Tackling loneliness among older people with Pen Pals

We understand the problem of loneliness amongst older people and we want to do something to combat it. That’s why we have created our latest Pen Pals programme, an outlet to connect older people with other older people in communities by the writing and exchanging of letters. Click to find out more. ...Read more


How To Make New Friends In Retirement

Friendship is hugely important at every stage in life, and retirement is no exception. What’s more, in retirement you could make the most of the extra free time you have to discover different experiences and meet new people – leading to new friendships and relationships.  ...Read more


Sheffield – The Steel Centre of the World

Famed for its industry and innovation, the green, modern cityscape now replaces the smoking chimneys from the industrial revolution. There’s a friendly, independent and alternative spirit that can be hard to find in other cities alongside a thriving cultural scene. ...Read more


Wally & The Flying Scotsman

Popular North Gate Court customer Wally Blazey moved into their McCarthy & Stone apartment with his wife Gladys seven months ago, and the couple have just celebrated their 72nd anniversary. At 92, Wally is one of the two last surviving drivers of the Flying Scotsman, the most famous steam locomotive in the world. ...Read more


The Top 11 British Hidden Gems

Where are the best locations in the UK to visit... that you've probably not heard of? We've ranked the best hidden gems around Britain, that are easy to access, and offer a great weekend away with the family. ...Read more


Do Pets Make You Happier?

Whether you're a pet owner or have a pet free home, animals of all kinds have been proven to improve the happiness of their human counterparts. To find out more McCarthy & Stone conducted a survey to see how pets enrich their owners lives. Here are the results! ...Read more


Let’s Dance 

It’s sociable and fun, and it’s good for your health and your brain – time to put on your dancing shoes  ...Read more


The Thought Behind Your Home

Prospective homeowners will be delighted to know all aspects of their new living space – including the communal areas – have been considered during the design process, helping to make their lives more comfortable and a little easier  ...Read more


Making your memories last forever

It’s never been easier to keep your most precious memories alive. From personalised photo albums and keepsakes to specially commissioned biographies and films, there are many ways to create a very special legacy – and have a lot of fun while you’re doing it. Here are a few ideas to inspire you  ...Read more


5 Recipes For A Royal Wedding

We look into the perfect recipes to pair with a royal wedding. We've picked out the most delicious, as well as the quintessentially British for the special occasion! ...Read more


The Best Golf Courses in the UK

Now is a great opportunity to get out on the fairway and get practising. We've looked into some of the best golf courses in the UK, including golf courses in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to get you ready and eager to tee off this spring and summer. ...Read more


Small is Beautiful - Balcony Gardening

Creating a beautiful outdoor space on a balcony can bring a lot of pleasure to you and your visitors for minimum effort. Balcony gardening offers the joy of plants but without the work that usually goes with a garden – you shouldn’t have to do much weeding for a start, you won’t get slugs, and there’s no lawn to worry about! ...Read more


Advice For Low Maintenance Gardening

Let’s be honest, we’d all love a gorgeous garden that would blossom with just the wave of a weed-wand. But I can’t be the only one who finds that a few minutes pottering turns into hours of pruning, trimming and raking at times.  ...Read more


Great British Outdoor Experiences the Whole Family Can Enjoy

Finding an activity that the whole family can enjoy together can sometimes feel like a tall order, especially amongst the hectic schedules of our day to day lives. However, spending time together in the great outdoors is the perfect way to leave behind those digital distractions and create some precious family memories that will last a lifetime. ...Read more


Inspirational Retirement Stories

You may wonder just how you will spend your retirement or worry that you will not find enough activities to fill your time. This can be far from the truth, these active retirees share their inspirational retirement stories  ...Read more


How Do You Want To Live Your Life?

Enjoying a fulfilling retirement isn’t just about where you live. How you live plays an equally important role when it comes to getting the most out of what ought to be an extremely rewarding time of life.  ...Read more


Dating for over 50s: how to find love in later life

Love in later life can seem daunting. If you’ve been married for some years and are recently divorced or widowed, looking for love is a whole lot different today than it was back when you were young. But that’s no reason to be put off – you’re never too old to fall in love! ...Read more


Behind the Scenes

There’s a vast team working all year round at McCarthy & Stone to make sure that every homeowner in every development receives the best of the best. Here we talk to three of them… ...Read more


How we help every step of the way

McCarthy & Stone knows that communication is key when it comes to making a decision as big as moving into a retirement development, which is why it has staff ready to talk through the process, says Rachel Halliwell ...Read more


Return of the Spider Plant

Remember when trailing greenery hung from macramé pot holders in every bay window in the country? Well, the good news is house plants are back in vogue. Here’s how to make the most of them ...Read more


Inspirational Generation

Are you member of the Inspirational Generation? We want to hear your stories. Enter our competition and tell us why - you could be in with the chance of winning £2,000! ...Read more


Starting a new chapter in your life

Many people feel apprehensive about selling their family home, says Rachel Halliwell. Yet McCarthy & Stone managers see the worry and weight being lifted from the shoulders of homeowners once they move in. It’s like being on a permanent luxury holiday, said one ...Read more


What we don't miss about being younger

The study by leading retirement housebuilder, McCarthy and Stone, reveals sitting exams, enduring the daily commute and the stress of running a family, are among some of the things the older generation DO NOT miss about being younger. ...Read more


The Teams Behind the Scenes

McCarthy & Stone has a vast team working round the clock to make sure that every homeowner in every development receives the best of the best. Here, we talk to three of the key players...

...Read more


Behind the scenes: Interior design

A lot of work and careful planning goes into creating the beautiful interiors of a McCarthy & Stone development. Interior designer Hannah Gernon explains how she arrives at the finished results ...Read more


Childhood memories at Waverley House

Mary Kent lived at the first McCarthy & Stone Development to be built, Waverley House in New Milton. Here, her granddaughter Tania Harland shares wonderful childhood memories of spending time there, which inspired her to work for McCarthy & Stone when a job opportunity came up 10 years ago. ...Read more


5 gardening tools for the elderly

Whether you've been a gardening enthusiast for years or only recently discovered the joys of green fingers, getting your hands dirty in the garden can become more difficult in later life. We look at tools that can make this hobby easier. ...Read more



Come to GrandFest and join us throughout June and July for a celebration of heritage skills in partnership with the Royal Voluntary Service. ...Read more


A Date To Remember: 1977

It was a year of social unrest, high inflation, patriotism and punk rock. It was also the year that John McCarthy and Bill Stone built their first retirement apartments. As McCarthy & Stone celebrates its 40th anniversary, we take a look back at the highs and lows of 1977. ...Read more


40 Years On...

Celebrate 40 years of retirement living solutions with McCarthy & Stone. Discover how we are commemorating this special event here! ...Read more


Finding Love In Later Life

They'd both lost their partners 9 years ago and moved to a McCarthy & Stone development, but little did Ann and Robin know they were about to start something very special...

...Read more


Frontline Extra

We are excited about the next few months! Mother’s Day, the feel good movie of the year could well be perfect for your mom this Mother's Day! ...Read more


Finding love

Meeting someone new in later life, for companionship and love, can seem impossible, but these couples show that it can happen! ...Read more