Gardening is a hobby that adjusts to your budget, allowing you and the family to spend quality time outdoors. Some people imagine huge gardens in the ground with expensive watering systems, heirloom seeds and fancy equipment. All young kids want is a bucket of dirt with some plants sticking out and being allowed to hold the hose. If you catch a few worms to hold and place in the bucket, you are a miracle worker. I want to share my free planter experiment that we built from construction scraps around the neighborhood. Before you say “but I don’t have the right tools”, all of the following boxes were built solo by an untrained desk worker with a hammer (yard sale $2), large nails (Yard sale box of assorted nails $2), Craftsman blade saw (yard sale steal at $5). In the past we used an ancient handsaw found in a barn instead of the handheld power saw.

Asheville is going through a building boom, with new construction happening everywhere. In the past 9 months, three new houses are being constructed on our block. Down the road 4 new homes were put in last year.  With all of the construction taking place, opportunities are abundant for building garden planters with free materials. Keep an eye on the construction process and identify which area of the house is being worked on. The best days for planter items are the last day of roofing when the trim items are being cut, and the days when decks are being added. You will find heavy duty roofing plywood and pressure treated wood. Timing makes a difference, with small lots the dumpsters are unloaded after the house is lock up ready before the internal crews come along.

In the past pressure treated wood was labeled as bad for the garden due to some of the chemicals used in the process. In 2003, all pressure treated wood was changed to two copper based processes, which are deemed acceptable for basic gardening purposes. I wouldn’t want to build an entire farm on pressure treated wood, but a backyard hobby is perfectly fine.

Before you walk up to the construction site, please consider a few things.

  • Be mindful of the construction crews and wait until lunch time or end of the day as they pack up.
  • Absolutely do not approach when people are working on ladders or roof. Safety first.
  • Identify the trash pile versus the working pile.
  • Keep an eye out for crew leaders or foreman, you want to ask them directly.

Sometimes the groups will say No. They have to deal with liability or possible theft. Believe me that most of them would love to give you the wood instead of scrapping it all, but they have jobs and rules.  So far when I mention the wood is for building a small garden for my kid, most mentioned to be careful and swing by after the crews leave. I would load up a trunkful of plywood cuttings and 2×4’s then slowly drive the car home to build up a pile.  After building up a pile from a few different houses, we started planning some builds.  It is nearly impossible to find matching pieces or cuts, so I lined up the best possible matches. Framing the box is relatively easy once you get the first nails in place. The adventure begins when 3 sides fit great, but the 4th side needs a few pieces combined to form a solid side. Laugh about the mistakes and remind yourself everything was free and the kids won’t care. After the first misadventure of trying to raise the bed on sturdy legs, I decided the cinder block route was the best. It helped that lowering the planters to cinder block height let my daughter walk along them and look at the baby plants growing.

Time to water the plants


The first planter was winter snap peas and purple kale.  We planted it way too early and the seedlings got hit by the biggest snow of the year. They survived under a bit of plastic but all of the plants stayed small this year. This picture was very early in the process, the snap peas eventually grew up the makeshift lattice.

The small planter had a row of radishes and sunflowers. The radishes are neat due to the fast growth. In 25 to 30 days you can go from planting a seed to pulling up the full grown radish. We let the kid pull her own radishes and she loved it.

Overall the planters are a fun experiment. My daughter asks to go look at the “baby plants” and we spend evenings sitting in the front yard as she wanders around playing. Kale straight from the planter is a huge hit, and peas are considered a treat. She started carrying the cups of dirt back and forth mimicking us and will hold the hose to water the plants. The bunnies from the neighborhood started hiding under the planters and for a few evenings we had three baby bunnies using them as shelter. A fox swung by one evening and now the bunnies are more skeptical.

Digging for worms
Worm Hunting for the Garden


After a heavy rain we started worm hunting to add to the planters, and now she will sit in the backyard yard and poke the dirt asking about worms, then giggling the entire time she holds one.  The entire process was worth the few evenings of work to get setup, and that is before we consider the vegetables that come out. So far we have harvested 15-20 radishes, 5 or 6 full servings of Kale and handfuls of snap peas. The tomato planter is growing fast, peppers are still going and the sunflower stalks are close to three feet tall.

First harvest


Next year we will have a large garden in the ground, but I think I’ll always have a few raised beds for the kids to play with in the future.


End of Summer update!

Our grape tomatoes did well, and we harvested around 75 of them from the 3 by 2 planter. I planted them way too close to each other and the plants ended up stunted. The banana pepper planter was amazing. We got over 50 full size peppers from the small misshapen planter without adding any fertilizer. Our sunflowers each grew to five feet tall and produced a small flower. I wouldn’t plant them in a planter again, I learned they need deep tap roots to stand up tall. I do think the entire process will transfer to a lifetime of gardening for the kid. At our new permanent house she helps dig for worms and waters the plants on the two raised beds.  We are expanding our garden for the spring and she enjoys being a part of the process.