Mini-greenhouses, first step to combat desertification. Part 1 : Yoghurt or other plastic pots (Willem Van Cotthem)

Please find here the description of “mini-greenhouses” made of simple and cheap materials like yogurt pots, soda or juice bottles, mushroom boxes, plastic bags etc. This kind of inexpensive equipment to produce seedlings of vegetables and trees, e.g. fruit trees, is available all the world and almost free for all the poor, both in rural and urban areas.  All the seedlings, grown in such mini-greenhouses with a remarkable minimum of irrigation water (saving water !), can easily be planted in the family gardens or school gardens and survival rate is dramatically higher than with classical farming or gardening practices.

The interesting advantages of this method to produce a maximum of seedlings with a minimum of means, together with the fantastic educational aspects of growing plantlets close to the house instead of in the field, makes it an efficient first step to combat desertification.

I will publish a number of variants on mini-greenhouse construction in different parts:

Part 1 : Yogurt or other plastic pots.

Part 2 : Plastic bottles

Part 3 : Plastic trays

Part 4 : Plastic bags

All of these materials are generally littered on all continents and enhance pollution in a significant way.  Streets and squares, road sides, fields, thorny trees, even the deserts are literally besmeared with all kinds of plastic objects in the most diverse colours.  That dirty plastic is not only degrading the environment, it is also the source of many diseases.  Therefore, I am convinced that it is better to teach youth how to “recycle” plastic bottles, pots, cups, bags and the like by using them for seedling production in mini-greenhouse form.

Part 1 : Yogurt or other plastic pots

On March 19, 2008, I already posted on this blog a message on the use of yog(h)urt pots as mini-greenhouses with the following description:

A major part of my life has been dedicated to the combat of desertification and alleviation of poverty, in particular that of rural people in the drylands. One of my main objectives is to find cost-effective ways of helping these people to get better standards of life and to offer them opportunities to apply the best practices in that combat of desertification. Success stories have been registered in this combat all over the world. Unfortunately, these best practices are not yet applied at the largest scale.
Although some very efficient and cost-effective technologies and methods have been developed and repeatedly described and recommended to decision-makers, their application rate is still dramatically poor. One wonders why it is seemingly more easy to spend billlions at enormous programs and projects than to provide reasonable financial means for large-scale application of the best practices.
It sounds a bit discouraging, but it is not. The day will come that people will be aware of the necessity to turn to simple, but effective methods, instead of spending too much at non-productive initiatives. That is why my personal interest is focused on simplicity and cost-effectiveness, e.g. recycling waste or saving valuable seeds from the garbage bin (see our project “Seeds for Food” at and .
Continuously looking for new opportunities for container gardening, a wonderful method for producing food in the drylands, I recently did some experiments with transparent yogurt pots. I thereby found an easy way to transform these pots into mini-greenhouses for a windowsill or a table close to the window.

Below you will find some pictures explaining the functioning of my new (?) mini-greenhouses, in which small quantities of seedlings can be grown before being transplanted. Maybe someone did the same before, but up to now I didn’t find traces of this method. Should you have more information, don’t hesitate to send it to me.

2008-03 (178) – Mini-greenhouse made of 2 yoghurt pots. Left: Lower part of one pot (cut off with small scissors) used as a cup and put on the cover of that pot. Right: the second pot without its cover.
2008-03 (179) – The cup was filled with potting soil. Sorghum was seeded in the cup and germinated quite soon.
2008-03 (185) – The yoghurt pot, covering the cup with the Sorghum completely by pushing it in the cover underneath, is perforated (4 little holes) to allow minimal evaporation and penetration of oxygen inside the pot. The covering pot can be lifted from time to time to “harden” the seedlings before they will be transplanted.
2008-03 (186) – Set of 3 mini-greenhouses with cherimoyas (Annona cherimola), lychees (Litchi chinensis) and sorgho (Sorghum bicolor).
A large number of seedlings can be produced this way. It’s a very interesting method to produce tree seedlings with a minimum of water. These seedlings can go to the field or garden; they can also be transplanted into a plastic bottle to allow further growth before planting them in the field.

Advantages of this method could be :

* Possibility to grow seedlings indoors (even before Spring in temperate regions, like in Belgium).
* Possibility to grow seedlings with a minimal quantity of water (avoiding drought outdoors) inside the house in the drylands (not in the garden outside) .
* Easy way to check germination daily.
* Easy way to regulate moisture level in the “mini-greenhouse” (lifting the transparent yoghurt pot, covering the seed(lings), to aerate whenever needed).
* Opportunity to choose the right moment (dimension of seedlings) for transplantation.
* Opportunity to reuse the same mini-greenhouse multiple times (easy to clean after transplantation).

This is probably a method which could tremendously help rural people in the drylands. It suffices to offer them free heaps of “yogurt pots” (which should not be littered anymore, but washed and cleaned!) to have them growing seedlings of certain crops in an optimal way, without having to irrigate their garden daily with a huge quantity of water (isn’t saving water in the drylands a MUST ?).

I wonder if we could not set up local or regional collecting points for these yoghurt pots and offer them afterwards to NGOs for their development projects in the drylands. Impossible ? Anyway, it would be much easier than constructing a dam or boring well No. 126.417 in Africa !
In the combat of desertification mini-greenhouses are a giant step forward.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

%d bloggers like this: