Sustainable Cow Pots for Better Garden Plants


The best kind of sustainability is to take a waste product and turn it into a valuable resource; to turn garbage, as it were, into gold. There’s a farm family in northwestern Connecticut doing just that these days, and in the process it’s also creating an opportunity for gardeners.

Amanda Freund is, along with her sister Rachel and brother Isaac, the third generation of her family to work the Freund Family Farm in East Canaan, Connecticut.   Historically it has been a dairy farm and the Freunds still milk some 300 cows.   Keeping that kind of herd creates a potential for serious pollution: the farm’s acreage sits in the watershed of two rivers and its cows deposit some 30,000 lbs. of manure and urine every day.


But, says Amanda. her father Matthew decided to treat the manure piling up in the barn not as a problem but as an opportunity. Twenty years ago he installed a digester that extracts methane from the manure, producing enough gas to heat the family home while also separating the manure’s liquid from its solids. The liquid, as a sort of manure tea, the farm pumps out to use as fertilizer on its 400-500 acres of corn and other crops. The solids Matthew used to process into compost which he sold through his wife’s garden center. But then he found a better use.

Starting with a pot on the kitchen stove, he began experimenting with turning the manure solids into biodegradable growing containers; by 2006 he had a product ready for sale and the machinery he needed to manufacture it in bulk. This container has, in a university test, proved superior to other biodegradable containers such as peat pots in at least one very important respect. Once in the soil, once transplanted into a garden bed, the “cow pots” (as the Freunds call them) break down faster and more completely so that the gardener is less likely to experience what I have always found to be a disadvantage with peat pots, that when I pull plants at the end of the growing season, their roots are still largely confined to the pots in which I originally planted them.

cow pot

Amanda Freund suspects that it is the nitrogen content of cow pots that enhances their decay. And of course, unlike peat pots, which draw on what many experts maintain is, in practical terms, a non-renewable resource, cow pots are tapping a renewable resource in over-abundant supply. To date, her family has produced some 35 million of these ingenious containers, controlling water pollution on the farm while conserving natural resources.   You’ll find them for sale during the winter-spring seed-starting season at local retailers and on-line as well. Why not do your bit for the environment and give your plants a treat? Give cowpots a try.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. I tried them when they first came out a few years back, and then at least, my response was basically “meh”. I very much liked that they were biodegradable, but other than that, I didn’t notice any appreciable difference in the plant growing in them. They were healthy enough, but not really any more than others. Maybe I’ll try them again – but the first time around wasn’t enough to convince me.

    • They are better for the peat bogs, and at least a partial solution of what to do with all of that cow manure. For me, living as I do in the area, they are also a locally sourced product, which is greener.

  2. I first saw Cowpots mentioned on TV (Dirty Jobs? 20/20? *shrugs*) back when they were a brand-new idea and told my husband I wanted them for Christmas. It took a bit back then to find them here on the West Coast, but he did. Now I get them every year. Haven’t used peat since, but I still find pieces of old peat pots in my compost and garden soil from time to time. Not so the Cowpots.

  3. I’ve always wondered about these sorts of pots. I mean sure using a waste product as material to make a pot seems great, but you have to get new ones every year. I am still using the commercial grade plastic ones I purchased over a decade ago. I imagine I have saved more in petroleum from a lack of annual shipping and packaging than was used in their manufacture.

    • It’s great that you are recycling, but nevertheless the carbon footprint of a plastic pot is huge, given all that is involved in the extraction and processing of petroleum. Turning waste into a resource is a win/win environmentally.

          • Yeah the nursery industry has an issue, especially with bedding plants and vegetables as they have tried to reduce that plastic use by making them super thin and not reusable. I would like to see more places move toward bare-root sales with Missouri Gravel Beds and get rid of the containers and single use media altogether.

      • And if you have it, I would love to see the life cycle cost that includes shipping for those cow pots. I mean if they are making claims about it being good for the environment, they must have data to back that up right?

    • What about ceramic pots? Wouldn’t that be like reusable ceramic coffee cups versus paper disposable cups? It doesn’t take very many reuses before a ceramic mug is greener than the biodegradable cup made from recycled paper even though it takes an enormous amount of energy to extract the clay and fire it. Of course then there is the question about whether the ceramic pot will last long enough to go neutral before the racoons knock it off the shelf and break it.

  4. Like skr, I have been re-using the plastic pots I’ve collected through plant purchases over the years, feeling very virtuous in the re-purposing of something I can’t avoid acquiring. But can I just say it? I….hate…them! After a while they deteriorate and then I’m left with a mass of black plastic shards. The cow pots sound good for starting seeds, but they still won’t solve the problem of what to do with the pots that come with plants bought at the nursery. Too bad they are probably impractical for nurseries and garden centers to use instead of the plastic pots.

  5. I share other readers’ frustrations about the inexorable accumulation of plastic pots from nurseries. Some in my area will take back the larger ones and thank me for it. But smaller pots with thin walls do start to shatter pretty fast, defeating my efforts to reuse them. And my waste hauler won’t accept them for recycling, even if I wash them. (Why, I wonder?)

    For my own seedlings, I’ve reverted (partly at least) to the old-fashioned practice of saving egg shells. Cartons hold them beautifully (duh) and are themselves biodegradable. And I just lightly crumble the eggs as I plant the seedlings.

  6. When I was a kid in L.A. the 60s and went to a nursery with my Mom, she would buy annual starts from big wood flats. The nursery worker would cut out a dozen,or whatever, with a sharp knife and send them home with us in a flimsy cardboard box or rolled damp newspaper. This method pretty much insured you would either plant them right away or consign them to the compost pile.

  7. I am saving my worn/shredded plastic starting pots– Cutting them into small pieces and using them as stuffing for a neck pillows project[like corn husks] There are so many!

  8. Serendipitously, I just got the local recycling company’s newsletter, in which they detail what they will and won’t accept for recycling, and plastic garden pots are one thing thery do accept. So yay for that! It doesn’t solve the front end of the problem, but now I at least have a solution for what to do when they die.

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