Container gardening is a great way to maximize the yield from available space, especially when space is limited.
But buying larger-sized containers can get expensive. Luckily, if you are creative, there are ways to find free or create inexpensive containers for vegetable gardening.
And container gardening can be a real money-saver when you are clever about what you grow and how you garden.
Quick answer: My top 3 include reusing food-safe containers from the grocery store, buying inexpensive food-grade plastic buckets at mega-retailers, and making my own grow bags.
Today, I will give you my best tips for finding inexpensive and sometimes even free containers for vegetable gardening. I will also list the type of containers I would never use, even if they were free.
What does food-safe plastic mean? I trust the international symbol of the Wine glass and the fork.  You have to make your own decision as to where you draw the line.
- Inexpensive food-safe container options
- Inexpensive to buy and make food-safe containers
- 3 Examples of Container Options We Never Use
- Container Gardening Checklist
- Best vegetables and herbs for container gardening
Inexpensive food-safe container options
Finding low-cost container options for growing vegetables at home is not hard.
Here, I will list my favorites and what I believe are the best alternatives for food-safe containers.
Food-safe containers from the grocery store
When you look, you realize that food often comes in containers ideal for container gardening. Sizes and materials vary, but we know they are made from food-safe materials.
Ensure you cut holes in the bottom for drainage and use a plate or a saucer to protect the surface they are sitting on.
Bucket-type containers: Food-grade plastic buckets can often be found at big-box or mega-retailers that sell food. Depending on where you live, you may be familiar with retailers like Costco, Target, Walmart, Lidl, ASDA, and Teso Superstores.
Tip! You can find larger-sized food-safe buckets from places running large kitchens, like schools, hospitals, and restaurants. These containers are ideal for growing vegetables, including tomatoes.
Fresh food containers: Fresh foods like grapes, strawberries, and mushrooms are often packaged in clear, food-safe plastic containers. These containers are ideal for growing microgreens and herbs indoors.
Dairy and juice containers: Milk, juice, and other dairy products are often sold in containers or jugs. Great for most types of vegetables and herbs.
PET bottles: Clean, cut off the top, add drainage holes, and fill with soil, and you have created a perfect home gardening container. Ideal to use for nursery pots when you cut the PET bottle at ⅔ and then place the top part on top to create a mini-greenhouse. Unscrew the bottle top for airflow and circulation.
Inexpensive to buy and make food-safe containers
DIY Grow bags: Making your own DIY grow bags is economical but requires some work. Use durable fabric like landscape fabric for gardening to ensure it is safe.
Grow bags are great for growing any vegetable, as they are entirely customizable. I never use plastic shopping bags or garbage bags as I am unsure how safe it is and worry about harmful chemicals leaching into the soil.
Related: Check out our YouTube video and the accompanying article Why you should use a grow bag (& how to make grow bags).
PVC pipes (made from safe plastic): Food-safe PVC pipes are ideal for creating hydroponic grow systems and vertical gardens if you have limited space. Ensure you choose PVC pipes rated as safe for growing food plants.
Grow in soil bags: One of my favorite garden hacks for growing lettuce and leafy greens from early spring through late fall. Make cuts in bags of potting soil, plant the seeds, water, and you are done.
For continuous harvest, consider making one cut first and then your second cut when you see true leaves. This type of staggered planting ensures you have enough but not too much to harvest at any one time.
Related: Check out our YouTube video and the accompanying article How to grow lettuce in soil bags & harvest all season (guide).
3 Examples of Container Options We Never Use
I am a stickler for using food-safe materials; if unsure, I do not use the container. You make your own decisions, and if you disagree, I invite you to leave a comment.
Here are 3 examples of items that I often come across on Youtube and other forums that I would never use and why.
1. I avoid cheap buckets and containers from hardware stores
You can save money by buying bargain-priced containers or buckets from hardware stores.
But are they safe to use for gardening?
If so, great. But from my experience, they are most often not. Many of these cheap containers are made from materials not designed to be safe for contact with food. 
And that is where I draw the line. I do not want to use a container made from a material that could leach harmful chemicals into the soil I use and possibly affect the vegetables I grow.
For me, it is key to choose containers made from food-grade materials like plastic, ceramic, or wood to ensure my plants enjoy a healthy growing environment.
2. I would never use old car tires
Tires are made from rubber and can comprise as many as 200 raw materials . The risk that tires could leech harmful chemicals into the soil makes me stay away.
3. Third no-no: cardboard boxes lined with plastic garbage bags
Cardboard boxes lined with garbage bags are an inexpensive option. But again, I stay away from this option for a couple of reasons:
- Garbage bags are made from plastic, but I have yet to come across garbage bags made from food-safe plastic.
- Cardboard boxes are not durable, and any contact with water will make them soggy and lose form and structure.
- Garbage bags are watertight, and there is inevitably a problem with drainage.
Container Gardening Checklist
When you start looking, you will see potential containers all around. Here are a few considerations that you may find helpful when finding your best inexpensive container for vegetable gardening.
1. Are the materials food-safe?: I always play is safe and only use materials labeled as food safe.
I grow organically and do not want to use a material that could leach harmful chemicals into the soil.
2. Mobility and weight: If your container is heavy when empty, it will be nearly impossible to move when you add soil and plants.
And containers fitted with handles are a lot easier to move.
After all, one of the great features of container gardening is that we can move pots and containers when needed.
3. The container’s base vs. the plant’s size: If you are growing lettuce, shallow containers will work great. On the other hand, if you are growing indeterminate beefsteak tomatoes, you want a deeper container with a broader base.
Vegetables that grow tall and top-heavy need containers with a solid base to stand firm as the plant develops.
4. Breathable fabrics and materials: Containers from breathable materials help with soil moisture control and create a healthier growing environment for your plants.
Related: Breathable material also promotes air pruning leading to stronger and healthier root systems. 
5. Support structure: Tall vining plants need extra support as they develop. Before planting, ensure you can fit your container with suitable trellises, cages, or stakes. Growing vertically in containers is an excellent way to maximize limited growing space.
6. Drainage and protecting surfaces from water damage: Containers need drainage holes to allow excess water runoff and prevent toot rot and other potential diseases.
Remember to place trays or saucers underneath the containers to protect surfaces from water runoff and damage.
Best vegetables and herbs for container gardening
You can grow any herb or vegetable in a container with the right size and depth.
However, some herbs and vegetables are more suited for container gardening than others.
Here are my top 3.
1. Smaller determinate tomato varieties
Smaller tomato varieties like cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, and other bushier determinate tomato varieties are ideal for container gardening.
A 20-liter container (5 US gallons, 4.4 Imperial gallons) works well, but smaller pots and containers can also work depending on the variety.
Use well-draining soil and get your stakes or tomato cages in place early.
Tomatoes want a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Related: Full guide on Growing cherry tomatoes in pots (from seeds)
2. Lettuce and leafy greens
Lettuce and other leafy greens grow well in shallower containers or even soil bags.
Select containers with good drainage and at least 10 cm / 4 inches of soil depth.
Lettuce and leafy greens tolerate partial shade, and as little as 4 hours of sunlight per day works great for me.
There are almost too many lettuce varieties to choose from, and you can find some of my favorites in article 3 ways to grow lettuce (7 different varieties from seed) .
Choose to scatter the seeds and thin the plants as they develop, or plant your seeds 5 cm / 2 inches apart and use the “cut and re-grow” method to harvest.
3. Kitchen herbs
Grow herbs individually or create a tapestry of kitchen herbs in your container.
I do both where the herbs I use a lot get individual containers, and others are planted to grow together.
Good drainage and full sun are key, and harvest regularly to stimulate new growth.
Some of my favorite herbs to start from seeds are different varieties of basil, cilantro or coriander, and parsley.
I also grow a lot of rosemary and thyme, but usually from cuttings from my established plants.
I started my established rosemary and thyme plants from seeds, but you can also buy plants from your local nursery to save time. One healthy plant is all you need.
Herbs require a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight daily. Water regularly as needed. Pinch back flowers and harvest regularly to encourage new growth.