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How to Start a Portable, Space-Saving Garden

Starting a garden in a tiny patio space, or get limited sun? Make your planters portable—whether in a kiddie pool, bag, or even an old tire.
July 29, 2021, 9:50pm
tire planters
Photo: Getty Images

Let’s face it: Sometimes, even with the best intentions and coddling like a concerned parent, you are bound to be an accidental plant assassin. Man, it's a hot one, and tending a garden space in the midst of fierce heat waves puts the fate of your baby plants in the court of the Sun Gods. 

If your garden has an 80 percent fail rate (is that just me?), or is making you curse yourself and come *this close* to pulling a full Shawshank (sans breaking out of prison victoriously), take a step back, breathe, and consider recalibration. And by "recalibration," I mean putting your plants in a kiddie pool. Or a bag. Or something you can move around.  

One lowkey way to keep your plants alive in your garden (or start your own garden in a teeny patio space) while the universe is beating them with the sun is making your plants portable

Why, you may ask, should you consider planting in a portable space rather than a traditional garden bed? For one: to prevent sun damage. Raise your hand if you’ve ever purchased an artsy, fragrant pineapple sage just to have it splat into shriveled pseudo-compost over a weekend heat wave. Planting in a portable space gives you the flexibility to haul your plant babies to shady areas and then back out to sunny spots as needed—instead of letting sensitive plants languish and bake in the sun during a heat wave. 

Second: to maximize your space. If you don’t have the space for a traditional bed, planting in a portable container provides a welcome splash of nature, even in a city. Simply leave it on your fire escape or roof (if your landlord is cool with it) and bring your on-the-go garden indoors as necessary.  

Third: to support your existing garden bed and help it thrive. Your plants could be failing in a traditional bed because there are not enough pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds, in your area. (Where my fellow desert people at?!) Planting portable crops that attract pollinators and placing them strategically around a flailing garden bed could attract much-needed attention to any sad plants in your garden.

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All together now: If any of these problems with planting this year ring true for you, come hither. Now is the time to consider planting a mobile garden.

Get a pool, then drill holes in it. Yep, you heard that right. 

If you can’t source a busted plastic kiddie pool from an alley (do you, we suppose), pick one up alongside a new drill. Plus, if the garden doesn't work out, you can always whip up some frozen margs and cool off in the kiddie pool.

Simple elegance

This one is shaped like an elephant, and is deeply reminiscent of Horton Hears a Who!. Take the shape as motivation: A garden is still a garden, no matter how small. 

ACE Hardware

H2O Elephant 100 gal Round Plastic Wading Pool

For a more streamlined, flower-adjacent shape, check out this minimalist, cerulean look. 

Starplay

Starplay 37" x 8.2" Plastic Novelty Sandbox

If you’re thinking to yourself, eh, I don’t want a transferable garden that will just hang out getting crusty all winter, inflatable kiddie pools will still do the trick—plus, you can deflate them when you’re finished for the season. In the spirit of good gardening juju, watermelon vibes are in this year in the kiddie pool world. Be warned: You won’t be able to see the cutesy seeds at the bottom once you fill the pool with soil, but hey, you'll know they're there, and that's what really matters. 

Intex

Intex 66-Inch Inflatable Swimming Watermelon Pool

If you choose to go the inflatable route, obviously you can’t drill holes in the bottom. Therefore, make sure to plant seeds that don’t need consistent moisture all the time. Since you can’t drill holes, there won’t be a way for soggy soil to drain out. Instead, just be proactive about positioning the inflatable pool in the sun to dry out the soil as necessary, be careful not to over water, and make sure to move the pool indoors or to a covered area during heavy rain.

Drill time

Next step to your kiddie pool garden: you need a drill. While wildly unsexy (or is it?), buying your first adult power tool in the form of a literal power drill can also be empowering. For your drill's first assignment, you need to make drainage holes at the bottom of your soon-to-be whimsical garden. This Hilti Power Drill is reasonably priced and approachable enough for absolute beginners, and is your first step toward both a better plant setup and your future as a bona fide DIYer. 

Hilti

Hilti SFD 2-a Power Tool Hammer Drill

Alright: Let's say you've got your big, plastic kiddie pool ready to go on your patio, and your power drill in hand. Now what? Simply drill a sprinkling of holes in the bottom of the pool, similarly spaced to how you'd arrange the pepperoni slices on a giant pizza. The holes will allow for drainage when you water your new garden bed. 

It’s ~in the bag~ 

If you’re still thinking, eh, I don’t know if I want to buy a drill or fully commit to the assembly of a large-ish thing, there's another way to create a small, mobile garden bed: Put it in a bag. Perhaps you’re one of those people that *hates* single-use bags, but forgets to bring your reusable ones every dang time you go to the grocery store. If this rings a bell, you may already have a surplus of totes/shoulder bags/Target bags (that you're convinced you'll someday reuse). Simply fill a few with soil, seeds, and fertilizer, and voilà! You'll instantly have a mini garden with handles for easy transport around your yard, patio, or the fire escape that you refer to as your “balcony.” 

If you’re looking for a big ol' handcrafted bag  for your garden, check out these Oaxacan totes. They’re wide, made with recycled plastic, and can be cleaned out and reused easily—unlike fabric grocery bags, which will be maxed out after one season. Simply take an X-Acto knife to make a few slits along the bottom of these for drainage. 

Mother Erth

Orange Woven Tote

Waxyakak

Small Oaxacan Handwoven Plastic Tote

A last planter option, especially for hoarders and/or family members of hoarders, is turning a used tire into a garden planter. 

Hear me out: You can easily drill holes in the top of a tire, paint it for ~beautification~, fill it with soil and seeds, and hang it up with a strong hook (or branch). Plus, you can pat yourself on the back for making literal garbage beautiful again. Don’t sweat buying a brand new tire just to make a planter of it—if you don’t have a used tire readily available, you can pick one up online, or you can visit a local auto shop. 

We recommend painting your tire with chalk paint for that DIY touch, and green goes with the vibe.  

Chalky Chicks

Chalky Chicks Chalk Finish Paint

Fill It Up! 

Time to figure out just how much soil you need to fill your bag, tire, or kiddie pool garden. The traditional formula for filling garden spaces is multiplying length x width x height of the vessel to get the amount of cubic inches, then dividing that by 12 to determine cubic feet. A cubic foot of soil is approximately 25.75 dry quarts of soil, so buy accordingly.   

Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Mix will complement any and all of your potential new gardening projects, especially since it’s great for both indoor and outdoor use—ideal for those times when you have to schlep your new gardening bag indoors for a weekend getaway. 

Sungro

Black Gold Organic All Purpose Potting Soil 16qt

To propagate your new and improved transportable garden space, first things first: You need to know what will not die if you plant it right here, right now, so it's crucial to research what crops or flowers are appropriate for your hardiness zone and the season. 

Quarto Know’s Month-by-Month Gardening series breaks down what will thrive in your area throughout the entire year. Simply locate your region and plan accordingly for what seeds will work best for your local climate (even if there are some factors you might not be able to plan for, such as yearly rainfall accumulation and your neighbor installing a massive, sun-blocking awning). 

Amazon

Carolinas Month-by-Month Gardening

In a similar vein, to make the most out of your new, teeny gardening space, check out Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew for tips on growing your potential new plants in an abbreviated space.

Amazon

All New Square Foot Gardening II

Gone Golden

Alright, let's talk about the plants themselves. If you’re on top of your gardening game in mid-spring, planting nasturtiums is a particularly successful endeavor when done in bags—and they’ll attract our favorite things to save: the bees.

Fun fact: Sunflowers are one of the easiest plants to grow in a garden—they’re stealthy, strong, and can outlast brutal heat waves better than most flowers. Plus, they’re amazing at attracting pollinators, so expect to see an influx of happy bees and hummingbirds in your outdoor space. And who doesn’t want a sunflower-filled sanctuary? Then, once mild temperatures are nearing in August, transition to planting leaf lettuces.

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To guarantee that your new plants will have adequate shade and success during a heat wave, this Sun Shade Sail is a great option. It’s easy to install and will keep the golden vibes of summer going strong until the fall. It’s also a great way to give your plants a reprieve from the sun during a potential heat wave. 

Henkelion

Sun Shade Sail Triangle UV Block for Patio Garden

Half the fun of gardening is just giving it a shot. Sure, some things—heat waves, for instance—will be out of your control, but by reimagining what gardening can look like, you can craft your own patio oasis from everyday objects. 

And, if all else fails, you can always opt for a more traditional planter. Either way, get gardening! 


The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.