Urban gardening in bread crates.

First. A confession. I don’t live anywhere near a city.

But we have a patch of gravel outside the house so that, for the time being, is my urban backyard.

My idea was to test if you could grow a “garden” in a pile of bread crates on a wooden pallet. Then use them during the winter for storage of Bokashi. Conclusion: works brilliantly.

I started in the winter (the original blog is here) and now that summer is just about done here there’s no doubt it works really well. Actually I’m quite excited because I think this could be a really nice way for people with real urban backyards to get a small garden going AND recycle more or less all their food waste on a patch of asphalt no bigger than one square metre.

This is the summer bit. (The winter bit involves storing cured Bokashi in bio-bags or plastic bags in the empty crates.)

First step, you’ll need a pallet and up to ten plastic crates. Not too deep or you’ll never be able to lift them. Get hold of some plastic potting mix bags and cut them to size. Poke in a few drainage holes. (In the original experiment I used newspaper for lining. Forget it, it gets too dry. Plastic is better.)

Then a first layer of potting mix, just the cheap stuff from the garden shop.

Empty a bucket of cured Bokashi and spread it around nicely.

Then top up the crate with soil.

Lift on the crate you’re going to plant in. This one I’d done a couple of weeks earlier. You can have up to five crates in a stack, makes a nice working height. (No snails! No weeds!)

If you plant in a couple of worms before you know it you’ll have a whole colony doing their bit for your garden!

Time to plant! Herbs, lettuce, whatever will do ok in the shallow soil. But it seems to me you can plant quite intensively as the soil is so good.

Ready! Just to let them grow and enjoy the results.

The good thing with growing in a stack like this is that run-off nutrients from the top crate will filter down through the others and not be wasted. In peak season you could spread out the trays and grown in all of them, or hand them out to friends and neighbours ready-planted.

When the season is over the soil will still be quite good in the trays, so empty them somewhere valuable and stack up the trays nice and neat ready to be used as winter storage. You may even want to lift the whole thing into the cellar to make life easier in the winter.

18 thoughts on “Urban gardening in bread crates.

  1. The Bokashi system has definitely a lot of advantages! There is also an Bokashi bin, which you can use in your house. That is a realy great option for all households, even for those living in multifamily buildings. The kit seems inexpensive and easy to use. Its small size can make it work in most kitchens. The Bokashi is also durable, ecologic and it’s realy good for your flowers! Great!

  2. I am still waiting for my first batch of bokashi to “ripen” while my second batch is still in its infancy. Very soon I will have to decide where I”m going to dump/bury #1. I’m looking around to see where I can get bread crates.

    One question, what happens to the “juice” that comes out the holes in the plastic in the bottom crate? That stuff can be “strong” so I’m not sure I would want it all over my driveway.
    Thank you for all your great ideas, Jennie.

    1. Good question. The runoff is really valuable and a pity to waste. If you had a proper stack of crates the “juice” would drain down from one to the other when it rains or you water the top crate. I started out with a pile of 5 on each side (10 crates in total) but I’ve given away a few since then to friends who wanted to try πŸ™‚ But what I found when I had a bigger stack was that the bottom crate tended to get pretty dry so it was always able to take up most of the leftover water. Otherwise you could arrange some kind of tray under the crates.
      Here in Sweden we can buy bread crates from an industrial supplier (witre.se), they cost around SEK 100 each (roughly €10). Choose the shallow ones if you’re not a bodybuilder, they get quite heavy when they’re full with soil! And things seem to grow surprisingly well in even a shallow bed.
      Good luck!! What country are you in? If you find any good place to get hold of crates it would be great if you could share it here!

  3. Thanks for answering my other comment & questions Jenny! I think I will try the bread crates. Is this the best place to ask you more questions, or should I email you / or if you have IM?

    A few questions about your bread crate method:
    1. Is your ‘cured bokashi’ in your first photo thawed from a frozen winter crate? – Related to that, did you store one bag of frozen bokashi per crate over the winter? And then just remove it in the spring, cut open the potting mix bag (really like that idea), and then empty the thawing bokashi into that same crate? (Very space efficient). Did your cured bokashi smell at all over the winter? Attract any pests?

    2. In your previous response to my comment, you said that I could start planting straight into the potting mix (that was sitting on top of the bokashi) – but in this post you talked about making soil in the 4 trays below the top one – and you only planted in the top tray. Why did you choose to do that? Or were those fresh bokashi? (What did you end up doing with all the frozen bokashi from the winter?)

    3. I’m thinking I’ll try 4 bread – 6 bread crates (how many did you need over the winter for storage? Did you do one bucket of bokashi per crate?) and 2 rubbermaids, and see how they compare πŸ™‚ — I like the idea of planting straight into the bread crates, but the rubbermaids would be good for planting bigger plants too. Any thoughts on planting into rubbermaids? It would mean storage over the winter, (and let it slowly slowly become soil), and then drilling holes into the bottom of the rubbermaid in the spring, and starting to plant.

    4. Have you thought about cutting open a bag of potting mix, emptying half out, and pouring bokashi in, stirring it and seeing if it’ll make soil right in the bag? Thoughts on whether that will work? πŸ™‚ Just an idea! How about doing this during the winter, sealing the bag, and seeing how long it would take to make soil in cold weather? Any guesses?

    Thanks for letting me pester you with all these questions – and let me know if there’s a better place for me to ask questions / have dialogue about this. (Whether it’s email or skype or facebook).

    Again, i’m REALLY excited & grateful for your website. Even though you don’t live in an urban setting…it’s really helpful and inspirational for people like me who have no ground to plant in. My vision is to be able to grow what we need to eat from containers! And that my 5 neighbors in the building would see it, and want to do it as well – so that we could eventually use the roof of our building as an condo community garden.

    Thanks again!! =)

    1. Hi Barnabas! Excellent questions. And I’ll do my best to answer them πŸ™‚ Just as good to do it here, you never know, we maybe can help someone else with our philosophizing…
      1. All the “cured bokashi” has been through the winter outside in the crates (remember we’re talking Swedish winters here!). To be honest I think the microbes take a bit of a beating from the cold but they bounce back and in the end it makes no difference. I just stored as many bags per crate as fitted in, sort of squashed them into shape if need be. Then as you say, just opened them up and put them back into the same crate. I aimed for a 50:50 mix of bokashi and potting mix, probably a bit on the strong side but the plants seemed to do pretty well anyhow. Most of the cured bokashi didn’t smell at all over the winter but I was deliberately sloppy with a couple of bags (too wet, not sealed properly) and when they weren’t frozen they were a bit unpleasant. So keep it airtight and as dry as possible in the bags. No problem with pests.

      2. The only reason for planting in the top tray only was I wanted to test the idea of doing the whole thing on a single pallet. Obviously it would make more sense to spread out the crates and grow in every one of them! The idea of making soil in the lower crates was a space thing. And I wanted to see if it would work like a kind of worm farm (yes!) and also to make use of the nutrient/water runoff from the top tray down through the lower trays. Obviously any arrangement would work just fine, whatever suits.

      3. I reckon 4-6 crates would be fine. I started with 10 and had to keep giving them away to friends so I think I only have 4 left! I think I got in about 20-30 liters of bokashi per tray for storage, I honestly can’t remember how many went into each soil tray (and in typical fashion made no notes). Really good idea to do a parallel test with the rubbermaid boxes. I’ve done something similar with big containers, my solution then was to fill the bottom with drainage material, put a cloth over that to separate it and wick up moisture, then fill the rest with a bokashi/soil mix (1:3 or even 1:2). Rather than drilling holes in the bottom I drilled them on the side at the same height as the cloth, that way the whole thing was self-watering and there was very little nutrient runoff. Would work brilliantly as a winter project I would imagine, come spring it’s just to top up the soil and start planting!

      4. Great idea! Haven’t actually done it but I know it will work. The potting mix bags we get here are usually white on the outside and black on the inside so I sometimes turn them inside out, fill with dry leaves then toss in bokashi during the winter (seal with a clip or something). Put them in the sun when spring comes! Unless you can get some real heat nothing much is going to happen in your bags, but its good storage all the same. Don’t know what your potting mix is like but ours is normally quite wet so I would leave it open to dry out a bit before starting up a mix, that way the potting mix could soak up the excess bokashi liquid.
      Our soil bags tend to have tiny air holes in the ends, no problem for the process but they can leak a bit so watch out where you put them.

      It would be so SO cool if you could get your neighbors inspired and start up a rooftop garden! You just have to let us know how you get on!
      Good luck!! Jenny

  4. I love it that you’re experimenting with recycled containers for people with less space than you’ve got.

    I gather that only liquid could make it from the top container to the ones underneath. What if you lined only the sides of the top two containers with plastic, so that roots could get into the earth in the lower containers? They’d have access to a lot more nutrients that way. (Of course, then you couldn’t peel off a container and give it away!)


    1. You’re right Kate — that’s obviously a really smart idea! You could always peel away the crates when the season was done and use the soil for something good. Something to test next time round! Btw I’m going to move the top two crates into my glasshouse now, frost is due any minute and they’re looking so damn healthy I can bear to let them go yet πŸ™‚ /Jenny

  5. Am I totally wrong in thinking that potting mix is sterile? If it is, then where do all the nice soil microorganisms come from if it’s placed in a container with no contact with the ground?

    I actually live in an semi-rural setting and I do have ground. But it’s New England soil and it seems to grow rocks better than anything else and it’s murder to try to dig a trench to bury bokashi (I’m 70 and not as young as I used to be). What if I made some holes in the bottom of a rubbermaid tote container and filled it with bokashi/leafs or bokashi/potting soil and placed it on top of the soil so that the bottom is in contact with the soil. Might that attract good micro’s and worms through the holes to help the process along?

  6. You’re totally right in thinking potting mix is sterile. So it’s quite sad to think that’s the best we can do for our plants.
    The microbes in this mix come from the Bokashi itself. The bran that you add during the fermentation process (indoors) is full of good bacteria and yeast and that’s the secret of everything. They have a party in the bucket basically (plenty of good food and a nice warm airless environment) and multiply wildly. Which means that by the time the bucket is ready to dig down everything in it is inoculated with the good Bokashi microbes. So they are what bring your otherwise dead soil to life!
    Your rubbermaid container idea should work fine. You can also do something similar in a banana box (it will rot down in due course) or in a plastic sack — whatever works for you. It’s quite fun to test different ideas, most tend to work out sooner or later.
    Thanks for the question. Are you thinking of having a go? Love to hear how you get on!

    1. I’m thinking. Winter is fast approaching (we just had a freak October snowstorm) and I have one bokashi bin that’s about to be full and one more that’s empty and I’ll need to find a home for the full one quite soon. For my first bokashi bin I buried a modest-size trash can 3/4 underground with the bottom removed ( I had a young strapping lad do the digging that time) and I mixed the bokashi with potting soil. That one should be ready to check quite soon. But since I don’t have any more holes/trenches dug, I’m looking for the easy way out. I’ll keep you posted about what I do.

      Thanks for your perpetual experimentation. I, for one, really appreciate it.

      1. Oh poor you! Saw the snowstorm on tv and had the cheek to celebrate it wasn’t us. For once.
        Have a look at the leaf-sack story I just posted (there’s snow pictures on it, hehe!), could that be something for you? Assuming you get your leaves back again before the next dump….
        Good luck!

  7. Commenting in order to follow further comments on this post as I too look for clever ways to keep my urban/mostly-indoor container garden going with Bokashi soil supplements. Very exciting stuff. Contemplate your bread crate option since it can go directly from soil-making duty to moveable planters come spring. Hmmm… Thanks again for your enthusiasm.

  8. Jenny, you’re so creative with all these different ways to plant with Bokashi! Did you plant in the crates right away? I thought the “fresh” Bokashi would make the soil too acidic?

    1. I usually wait two weeks for the acidity to come right, that usually works fine. Really small plants and seeds can often go in the same day as you would expect it to take a couple of couple of weeks for their roots to make their way down to the Bokashi. By which time the pH should be up around 7 and no problem for the plants.
      Give it a go and let us know what you think!

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