Building a Pallet Planter: Getting Started
Pallet planters look good, reuse discarded materials, and let you put your plants in the best possible location. Chris Bond helps you get started with your pallet planter project.
Reusing materials is both economical and environmentally savvy. Nature provides numerous examples of recycling resources. Frugal-minded gardeners have been reusing the bounty of nature for millennia and the surplus materials of various industries for centuries.
Incorporating pallets into the garden is just one of the more recent great garden-recycling ideas to have come down the pike. There are literally as many different options for pallet garden construction projects as there are the number of people that build them.
Why Use Pallets?
Pallets are generally a throw-away item to many businesses. They are abundant, cheap, or even free to obtain. Many businesses give them away, so they do not have to pay for their removal. Since most pallets are made out of wood, they are a renewable resource, so people can feel good about not only reusing an item that was earmarked for a landfill, but by using something that is also made from trees. They are also a conscientious choice because there are unlimited possibilities with what can be created out of pallets.
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One of the great things about pallets as a building material for garden planters is they are readily available. Almost every home or garden store, national or locally owned, has stacks of them behind their buildings or in their receiving areas. Essentially, any business that receives merchandise or supplies via truck will have received them on pallets. It is important to note here that although pallets are generally considered to be refuse, some businesses pay deposits on pallets and are not able to part with them. This means it’s important to check the status of pallets with their rightful owners so you are not charged with theft by taking any pallets that might appear at first glance to be garbage. It would be pretty embarrassing to be thrown in the slammer for scavenging pallets to build a garden planter.
If locating free pallets proves to be a challenge, there are many companies that deal in the business of used pallets. These folks range from a guy in a pickup truck scavenging in the same locations that you might think of to large-scale refurbishing operations that churn out thousands of rebuilt pallets each day. These larger operations will often collect pallets, sometimes even buy them, then repair and resell them. Having to pay for used pallets is obviously not as good as getting them for free but will of course be cheaper than buying them new.
Not Just Any Pallets
As with anything you can obtain for free, it’s important to assess what you are looking at and how much work will be needed to make your pallets usable for your pallet planter. There is a standard pallet size of 48x40 inches. There are probably more pallets out there that don’t conform to this standard than do, though. You can find pallets in almost any size and dimension imaginable. If uniformity is important for your pallet project, make sure to check that you do not have any odd sizes or you may need to do a lot of awkward cutting. If you are only using one pallet for your planter, then this is not likely an issue and the size probably will not matter.
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The type of wood is important if you are intending to grow food items in your pallet planter. Wood pallets vary between softwoods and hardwoods; treated and untreated. Softwood pallets, such as pine, are not usually reused or meant for long-term usage.
Hardwood pallets are better for pallet planters and other garden projects. Treated wood pallets should be avoided. If the letters “MB” appear on the pallet, reconsider it. This means it was treated with methyl bromide, a fumigant, that is toxic to humans. If it appears that any oil or chemical has been spilled onto a pallet, then its use should also be reconsidered. In general, look for clean pallets that have either “HT,” which indicates that the pallet has been heat treated, or look for those that have “KD” stamped on them indicating that the pallet has been kiln dried. Either “HT” or “KD” pallets are safe to reuse for pallet planters. Some pallets have square blocks that separate the stringers from the planks. These blocks are often made of compressed wood or sawdust and often have carcinogenic material used to bind them together. Avoid these if you are planning on using your pallets to grow food crops.
The condition of the pallet must be taken into consideration as the older the pallet, then often, the shorter the useful life of the pallet, though this has more to do with type of wood used, and environment in which it had been used or stored in. Depending on what you want your finished pallet planter project to look like, there will be some prep work to consider. First, check that there are no loose, broken, or missing boards on your pallet. Any of these can be easily remedied by either adding more nails or replacing broken or missing boards with the boards of another pallet. Remove any remnants of shipping. There might be metal or plastic bands, staples, or straps that may still be attached. There may also be metal bits or nails sticking out that should either be removed or pounded down before using for your planter project. If you are expecting to stain, paint, or otherwise treat the surface of your pallet planter, then it may need to be sanded. Pallet wood can often be rough and require a lot of sanding to create a smooth surface. This is especially important to consider if your pallet is stamped “MB” as sanding will release toxins you should not breathe in.
Find a Design
Once your pallet materials are ready to go, the sky is the limit as far as design options. Many pallet planters are as simple as an upright pallet leaning against the wall. You can plant right in the slats of the pallet by adding a “bottom” where needed and some soil. This can be done by using a pallet plank from another pallet, other scrap wood, or a piece of landscape fabric that has been stapled into place. Additionally, a vertical pallet might also simply be used as a platform to hang pots or other planters on or from. This can be done with clamps around canning jars, recycled plastic bottles, hooks, and coffee cans or any other container that is suitable for the planting or seeding of flowers or crops. Other folks may combine multiple pallets to create a living wall effect or combine pallets into a geometric design that has many “walls.” The most basic pallet planter, though, is just a pallet laid horizontally on the ground and filled with soil. It is among the simplest ways to achieve a raised bed and it’s easy to keep your veggies or flowers in neat rows.
Pallets do not, however, need to be kept in their original form to be useful planter material.
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Pallets can be cut into an infinite number of sizes and configurations. They can be used to create window box planters or stand-alone planters. The design of pallets and various stacking combinations lend themselves well to creating layered gardens or planters that have plants growing on not just the top, but all four sides as well. To take pallet planters to the next level, they can be used to construct a cold frame or mini greenhouse when combined with a translucent cover. When placing pallets for cold frame or greenhouse walls, the gap between the stringers and the planks on a typical pallet can be filled with soil or any other material for insulation to add additional resilience to the pallet planter cold frame. Construct these along the south side of your house or building for maximum efficiency.
Pallet planters and their various derivations are not the only useful and unique projects that can be created with these versatile shipping platforms. Many other equally cool yard and outdoor projects can be done using disposed-of pallets like potting benches.
Some creative folks make unique furniture out of pallets. Chairs, tables, swings, and benches are among many such creations. Sheds are another example of a repurposed usage of pallets. Storage sheds, or potting sheds can be partially or wholly made from old pallets. Sand boxes and outdoor toy storage are other items that can be made from discarded pallets. Treehouse builders sometimes make use of pallets in their construction. Other people use them to build decks, stairs, walkways utilizing the pallet boards, or a wide range of other outdoor structural elements to their landscape.
An image search of “pallet projects” will yield thousands of examples of outdoor and planter projects that people have accomplished using these versatile materials. There is an almost infinite number of projects, both useful and whimsical, that can be created using pallets.
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Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.