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Start Saving Your Milk Jugs for Tomato and Pepper Plants!

Tomatoes planted into milk jugs in Indianola, IA.
Photo: David Klodd.
My entire childhood, I thought that everyone planted their tomatoes and pepper plants into milk jugs. This is because my dad has always planted his tomato and pepper transplants into gallon milk jugs with the bottoms peeled back and the tops cut off. This gives the plants an early head start and protects them from late frost, rabbits, and wind.

When I moved to Pennsylvania for graduate school, I realized that I was the only one in my community garden doing this. It also meant that I was able to plant my peppers about two weeks before everyone else. Thanks, Dad.

A good reason to drink milk!

By drinking milk and saving jugs, my parents are able to grow at least 60 massively productive pepper and tomato plants this way each year; all while supporting the Iowa dairy industry.

To clarify, this is not an article about winter seed sowing, where seeds are sown in the late winter and covered by a milk jug. However, that is a worthy use of milk jugs as well.

The 'how-to' info

Here is my dad's milk jug method for tomato and pepper plants:

Preparing milk jugs for tomatoes and peppers. Photo: David Klodd.

1) Acquire a milk jug, box cutter blade and heavy gloves to protect your fingers from cuts.
2) Cut a wide X in the the bottom of the jug. The edges of the X should extend about an inch up the side of the jug, as pictured above.
3) Peel back each triangular wing created by the X, so they are at a 90 degree angle as shown. Your jug should be able to stand up straight on the wings.
4) Cut the top 1-2 inches off of the jug.
5) When it is time to plant your transplants into the garden, plant them as normal, but then lower the jug over the plant. Mound dirt up about a third of the way up the jug, thoroughly covering the wings.
6) The jugs can be left on the plants for the whole season, and sanitized and re-used next season. Cleaning them with bleach will help to ensure they do not carry plant diseases from season to season.

Make a jug greenhouse, too!

Photo: David Klodd
One year, my dad left the tops on the jugs and used these as tiny individual greenhouses to plant the transplants about a month earlier than usual. They can be watered through the cap opening, but be careful not to over-water this humid environment. Once the plant starts to barely touch the top of the jug, the jug's top must be cut off to let the plant grow freely.

As evident in the photos, he also re-purposes concrete reinforcing wire for tomato cages, and supports them with metal fence posts. This provides a sturdy structure for the plants, which tend to grow very large and produce heavy loads of tomatoes. The straw, from a nearby farm, is used for weed control and to prevent splashing of soil borne diseases onto the plant leaves.

Do you grow plants using milk jugs? What unique vegetable gardening tricks have been passed down in your family? Feel free to tell us about them in the comments below.

Author: Annie Klodd, Extension Educator - Fruit and Vegetable Production

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