This could go in the "Hugelkultur and Raised Beds" forum or in the "Gardening for Beginners", but I'm putting it in "Frugality" because that feels like the central theme.
I'm still having my best gardening results in containers and tall raised beds, with the raised beds (with some hugelwood in the deeper parts) doing much better than the containers. Virtually everything I plant in the actual soil gets eaten, by deer or rabbits or field rats or moles or voracious vermin not yet identified. Stuff that's raised or in containers seems to get browsed much less. Only trouble is, I never have enough containers of soil for everything I want to plant.
I've posted before about my $14.00 wheelbarrow and from that you may conclude that "throw money at it" is not among my options. I can't buy soil, but I can concentrate it, slowly, from elsewhere on the property using that wheelbarrow. What I do seriously lack is ENOUGH CONTAINERS. I scrounge buckets from roadside litter, buy a few new ones at the Walton family's quaint little boutique, haunt yard sales, and recycle into a planter every item I get my paws on that could conceivably work.
Last week I found three very large truck tires in great condition (by which I mean, no painful wires poking out) that had been dumped as litter along a county road. I did my civic duty, picked up the litter, and brought them home to make a raised bed out of.
Yesterday morning I woke to a light drizzle under cool gray skies. That's astonishing for this time of year, but I took the opportunity to head out into our woods with my wheelbarrow. Ultimately I brought back three loads of dirt for filling containers. But a "load" of heavy dirt in my wheelbarrow takes up only about half the volume of the wheelbarrow tub, before it gets too heavy to move. So I decided to hand-pull double-armloads of ragweed and horseweed, piling the bulky-but-light stalks on top of my wheelbarrow with each load of dirt. (picture 1)
After dumping three loads of dirt at my container-filling station, I piled all the weeds up next to my empty tire planter. (picture 2) Then I took my machete and whacked them all into about 4" long pieces. This felt like making salad on an industrial scale. It went easily with the ragweed, but the horseweed stems were hard to machete through. When all was said and done, I'd "filled" the planter (picture 3) even though all that biomass won't even fill the first tire in the stack once it's dried, rotted, and been shoved into the gaps inside the tires.
My plan is to just keep stuffing that planter full of green biomass for the rest of the season, watering often, and then topping up with fallen leaves in the fall and throughout the winter. Come spring, I should be able to top up with enough dirt to plant into, and have a rich pool of compost, brown organics, and stems for the roots to feed on.
It seems like every Lowe's or Home Depot has a different policy when it comes to recycling plastic pots. If you luck out, you can find one that has a return rack outside for the convenience of customers who want to return their empties. When I see one of those, I load up on pots just on general principles.
There is also a lot that can be done with plastic buckets and food containers. Anything plastic in the 1-5 gallon size is fair game, I bring them home and drill holes in the bottom to make pots out of them. I have also hit the jackpot when landscapers finish working on new construction houses. They will throw dozens of plastic pots in the construction roll-off dumpster, some of them fairly good size.
Recycling hasn't really caught on around here (except where it's federally mandated, as with lead-acid car batteries). So I've never seen one of those return racks, and I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to make a withdrawal if I had.
I am holding onto every 1.75l plastic whiskey bottle, every laundry detergent bucket and bottle, and every half-gallon and gallon food container that I can get my paws on. We have very little new construction or landscaping happening around here (there's a surplus of housing stock, all of it crumbling, in my area) so I've never seen pots in a dumpster, though I do eyeball the few construction dumpsters I see. I did pick up a perfectly good plastic carrier for a large dog that was stacked on top of one quite recently; it was so new it still had its labels on it. But that I kept as a summer doghouse rather than converting to planters.
When I am feeling flush I buy a few $2.57 5-gallon plastic buckets at Walmart. But the demand seems infinite...
My *best* scrounging strategy is watching the roadsides on both busy highways and bumpy gravel side roads. The oil industry is big around here and they have an infinite fleet of work trucks that goes around servicing oilfield equipment. Apparently they consume a lot of lube and hydraulic fluid, and the empty buckets rattle off their rigs with regularity. Sometimes I get bigger drums this way as well, although I suspect those are often deliberately dumped. I do have to be picky about avoiding anything with residual contents that might be toxic or can't be safely washed out, but I have a professional background of dealing with hazardous site contamination so I've got a pretty good idea what's actually dangerous and what goes away with exposure to soap, water, bacteria, and time.
More practical in the long run is going to garage sales. Sometimes there I find actual flower pots for small money (today I got a stack of 50 starting pots in sizes ranging from pint to 3-gallon for two bucks) but the item that I'm most likely to find is old coolers, at prices ranging from a buck to about three bucks (my limit, although the asking price for old coolers that are still nice is often more than that). From 1.5 gallon drink coolers to 64-quart square Coleman jobs to 10-gallon beverage tubs, these all make *excellent* planters once you drill them out. I find the insulation helps moderate the soil temperatures, so my plants suffer less heat stress and need watering less often. Plus, they are sturdy and last for years. Often the garage sale items have broken lids, cracked interiors, or general dirtiness that make them cheap, yet still perfect for making planters out of. I sometimes also find larger metal cook pots for small money, or decorative wooden kegs, or the wooden bucket that used to be part of an ice cream maker, or... you get the idea. Basically I wander through garage sales looking for any vessel that (1) holds a gallon or more, (2) is durable enough to survive exposure to the elements for a couple of years at least, and (3) is cheaper or better in some way than a Walmart bucket.