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Mineral lick tubs can be recycled for container gardens

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Those wondering what to do with their colorful, plastic livestock mineral lick tubs once they are empty may want to consider recycling them as large gardening containers – a popular practice benefiting ranchers and gardeners.

For Wyoming Master Gardener Arlinda McLaughlin and her husband Ken, both retired Sublette County teachers, springtime means driving to local ranches to gather emptied tubs dotting thawed-out fields. 

The annual practice began while brainstorming ways to recycle the large containers and to see how they would work in Wyoming’s high altitude and very short growing season.

Container gardening in a short growing season

Container gardening is beginning to become a popular way to grow annual flowers, herbs, vegetables, potatoes and greens. The container can be anything from a small food container or flower pot to a wheelbarrow or lick tub – moveable and much less work than digging out a new garden bed.

“There are many hybrid plants being developed which are specially designed to fit and grow in containers or small spaces,” McLaughlin says. “The reward for growing some of our own food is the pleasure of eating something that tastes better and is likely more nutritious than anything money can buy.” 

“Now, container gardens allow us to grow food in small spaces, in rental housing, in small yards and with limited time on our hands,” she adds.

Much of Wyoming has a short growing season, hot summers, cool nights, strong winds and the omnipresent threat of frost. 

Reusing and recycling is practical, and lick tubs can be adapted for personal preferences of sun, shade, convenience, access and height.

Also, soil in containers warms up faster than soil in in-ground beds, and moist soil becomes warmer in direct sun than dry soil, according to McLaughlin.

“In our cool season climate, this can be a real advantage for some plants. Heat-loving plants often grow well in containers, such as eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, as long as they get plenty of water and are protected from the cool evenings and frost,” she says. “On the other hand, on hot days, the roots of plants grown in containers can get too warm.”

What to plant

Sublette County, for example, is in Zone Four, where shade-tolerant plants such as Asian greens, arugula, chard, leaf lettuce, parsley, kale and spinach need at least full sun all morning or all afternoon to thrive.

Compact peppers and tomatoes can grow in lick tubs, which are suited for several plants at a time. But, larger plants needing extra room for roots such as potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, summer squash, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes and corn can be started or transplanted into them.

McLaughlin advises researching compact plants designed to grow in containers. Her go-to resource is the Gardener’s Supply Catalog at

“Lick tubs make great container gardens, and local gardeners have used them to grow just about every type of vegetable and flower,” she says. “However, most perennial flowers or plants such as rhubarb, strawberries and raspberries don’t overwinter well in the tubs.”

All root crops can be grown in containers. Long root crops such as carrots need a container that is deep enough for the root to grow and mature.

Lick tub prep 

While deciding what to grow, individuals should start prepping their lick tubs. 

“These tubs come from hay meadows and pastures so they are very dirty,” McLaughlin says.

Therefore, she advises growers to wash and disinfect them before drilling any holes.

“Washing them at the car wash works really well,” she shares.

Bacteria and fungus on dirty containers can cause damping-off disease, harbor tiny insect pests or transmit other harmful diseases so growers should scrub containers with soap and water, rinse with clear water and then immerse the container in one part bleach and five parts water.

Once the tubs are clean, growers can drill plenty of one-half-inch holes in the tub’s lower side and bottom for drainage and air circulation. Two or three lick tubs can be stacked inside the other for efficiency. 

Pick a location depending on what vegetable or flower is being planted, with an eye to sunshine and wind. 

Add handles by drilling a pair of holes on each side, running a rope through each and knotting them. 

Set the tub on a pallet, bricks or other evenly spaced supports close to the ground. At this point, individuals will start filling the tub with gardening soil, so it will become much heavier.

Some creative gardeners find ways to attach or set the tub on wheels, making it simpler to move on a deck, driveway or sidewalk. Some people turn over one tub and set the upright on it for easy access. Some gardeners cut them in half for a shallower base. 

In Sublette County, Sage and Snow Garden Club members use these for their annual petunia-barrel summer subscriptions in front of businesses along the main street.

Others might move them into a greenhouse, sunroom, hoop house or another area with a solid base. Inside, put a tray underneath to prevent water and fertilizer damage.

Start with dirt

It takes two bags of potting or gardening mix – or its equivalent in fertile dirt – to fill a tub.

Before filling, place coffee filters over the bottom holes to keep soil in the container.

“Adding a bit of native soil and compost seems to energize the potting mixture and improve results,” McLaughlin says.

Old potting mixture can be used at the bottom of a large container with new mixture added to the top. Using filler in the bottom can keep roots from spreading into the potting soil. 

McLaughlin works in layers, and says the tub doesn’t need to be filled to the brim. She starts with about six inches of potting soil in the bottom and mixes in a very light fertilizer mix – fish and kelp meal.

Potting mixes without soil usually have no nutrients, which allows growers to choose a product to meet individual plants’ needs.

“Soil amendments such as compost and manure may boost the nutrient density of a potting mixture, but other fertilizers must be added at the time of planting and throughout the growing season to maximize production,” McLaughlin advises.

At planting time, mix a commercial fertilizer or a mixture of specific fertilizer products into the potting mixture, she says. Then, for plants with medium or high nitrogen needs, apply a side dressing of nutrients during the growing season.

Water well 

Because moist soil warms faster than dry soil, the best time to water a lick tub crop is in the morning so plants benefit from the extra warmth, according to McLaughlin. 

Those who transplant or plant seedlings without a mature root system should keep the soil’s surface moist to help them develop roots.

As they grow, water when the top one-half to one inch of potting soil is dry, soaking the potting mixture completely until water runs through so the bottom doesn’t dry out and stress roots. Overwatering can also stress roots, so wait until the soil starts to dry out.  

“I water in the early afternoon, giving each container about two gallons of water in midsummer. Then, I refill each watering can and let it sit out in the sun to warm up for the next day’s watering schedule,” McLaughlin explains. “This way, plants that do not like temperature extremes get warm water instead of cold water.”


Frost and predators are the biggest threats to a garden container’s plants. 

Use plant covers, trash bags and frost caps to deter both. If a container has sides or growers can set something higher beside it, use a blanket, sheet, tarps or even bubble wrap – but it should not touch the plant.

If plants are irresistible to deer and other critters, a physical barrier is necessary.

McLaughlin says the most deer-resistant annual flowers are ageratum, dusty miller, forget-me-nots, Iceland poppies, salvia, snapdragons, sweet alyssum, vinca and viola.

The most deer-resistant annual herbs are oregano, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and tarragon.

The most deer-resistant vegetables are asparagus, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, peppers, rhubarb, tomatoes, onions, corn and potatoes.

Those who planned ahead and installed wheels or handles, can move their lick tubs to a protected area.

Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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