Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Reuse, Recycle and Produce: Bottle Gardening in Karachi

A new generation of green thumbs: Students pose with their base pots and a plastic bottle filled with potting mix (left). Photo: Yasir Husain

In December, I came across Willem Van Cotthem’s video tutorial on how to construct a bottle-tower garden to grow herbs and vegetables. It is a simple and effective tool in the global fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Willem Van Cotthem is a botany professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium and has brilliant ideas on how to use plastic bottles to create gardens. By recycling large plastic bottles to create vertical “tower gardens,” professor Van Cotthem has provided an inexpensive method to grow vegetables and herbs using a minimal amount of space, water and fertilizer.

Overwhelmed by inspiration, I initially shared a link on the Crops in Pots Facebook page from my home in Karachi. Soon Rubaba Waqar, an urban farmer from Islamabad, linked us with Nighat, a volunteer teacher for a government school in Karachi who was enthusiastic to have gardening classes for her students. So I thought, “Why not combine both ideas together and create something wonderful for this school?”

To test the idea first, I followed the instructions in Van Cotthem’s video and made my first bottle tower for my garden. It hardly took me 15 minutes to have something so beautiful and simple to plant my food in. Soon after, I made an announcement on Crops in Pots, asking for volunteers to come forward and help me make a bottle-tower garden for this Karachi government school.
Top-down approach: Zahra Ali helps a student set up a tower. “I think Pepsi, Fanta and 7up bottles never looked better,” says Zahra. Photo: Yasir Husain
Amazingly, some very talented urban farmers not only showed interest but also contributed material for the project. Nasreen Ashraf from Amateur Gardener’s Club bought some herb and vegetable seedlings, Mansha Noor from Caritas Pakistan contributed seed packs for each student, while talented vegetable grower Yasir Khan brought some herb seeds and canes for the structure. Meanwhile, I gathered some vegetable pots for inspiration and some other basic things we might need. Nighat, from the school, arranged for the sand and bottles.

We met at the Government School for Girls in Clifton right opposite to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi at 10am on January 24, 2011. In our audience were grade four and grade five students. We took turns talking to them and started to build the first tower. We cut the bottoms off of each bottle, inverted them, filled them with our potting mix and stacked them one on top of another so that water from the top would drip down through each bottle planter. Then we cut little windows into each bottle and started planting.

The girls loved the idea. Most of them live in Neelum Colony, which is right behind the school. It’s so densely populated and overcrowded with houses that finding a place to grow vegetables seems unimaginable. The “bottle tower” was a perfect solution for them. It takes just a few inches of space horizontally but can be made as tall as one likes. The best thing about it is that it works on a drip irrigation system with the help of gravity, and thus one tower requires as little as one glass of water every two days! To make sure every student had the chance to participate, students were asked to get bottles from home, while the seeds were provided to them and a volunteer supplied the soil and manure for anyone interested. We planted salvia, marigold, petunia, mint, tomatoes, coriander, fennel and fenugreek.

I will never forget the glow of their faces. I could see in them the same eagerness to experiment and grow food that I had when I discovered this project, and so I was compelled to ask them each to teach at least three more friends how to make a garden out of a “bottle tower.” I could see the idea spreading in their community. One of the girls said, “Hum aaj ghar jakeh zaroor beej lagain gae” (“We’ll definitely sow seeds today at our homes”), and many more of them repeated this sentiment.

It helps that this gardening method is inexpensive to implement. In total, a bottle tower comprising 25 plastic bottles costs around Rs250. One can easily get a bag of sand and manure mix for under Rs200, which will be enough for 25 bottles. Seeds can be bought for around Rs1/seed. And while some people might need a few canes to support the towers, a tower can also be tied to a grill that you already have. Moreover, you can bring the bill down near to zero by using homemade compost, saved seeds from homegrown tomatoes or other vegetables, herbs or flowers. A bottle tower needs almost a glass of water each day or every other day but even that cost can be reduced to zero by using water from your kitchen. It’s this awesome!

It is amazing to see how a few clicks helped me connect with so many different people who I had never before met, and how a simple video made in Belgium inspired us here in Pakistan. I have become a fan of the virtual world and of its ability to plant ideas across the globe.

It started from Belgium and came to us in Pakistan. We taught 50 young girls here, and now it’s on display for hundreds of more students from the same school. Imagine 50 poor families with a kitchen garden of their own: its astonishing how fast ideas can grow and spread.

Why not do something similar in your neighbourhood, or in a nearby underprivileged area?

This article was published on the Newsline Magazine on 6th Feb, 2012. 
more about bottle towers here 


  1. it's lovely news nd so many thanks of you for sharing this info.really your are doing fantastic job. :)

  2. Impressed to see the initiative from some talented people. Just like in foreign countries there is great need of it in Pakistan.. People should also be taught how to reuse these for their own basic needs.

  3. Its really good to recycle the bottles for gardening. Glad to read about it.

  4. Its really a great bottle tower garden and a great source for gardening.

  5. Yes i am totally agreed with this article and i just want say that this article is very nice and very informative article.I will make sure to be reading your blog more. You made a good point but I can't help but wonder, what about the other side? !!!!!!THANKS!!!!!! reuse water bottles


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