Before and After: I Turned an Old Filing Cabinet into the Modern Planter of My Dreams

published Sep 12, 2023
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Want more DIY tips, tricks, and inspiration? Check out more stories featuring the 2023 Apartment Therapy DIY Collective. This content is presented in partnership with The Home Depot; it was created independently by our editorial team.

I love decorating and doing projects around my home to refresh its look — but I’m also really passionate about sustainability, so I always try to upcycle secondhand items when I can instead of buying new. Thankfully, is a great way to do all of that (and even save some money!).

Gardening is another passion of mine, so when I saw a couple of creators I follow (Monica Chavez at @house.of.esperanza and Hilary Prall at @hilaryprall) make cool planters out of filing cabinets, the project seemed like a perfect fit for me. I can always use more planters!

Credit: Melanie Gnau
Credit: Melanie Gnau

 My project started by picking up an old filing cabinet.

I kept an eye out for old filing cabinets as I scoured secondhand sources, and I ended up finding one at Habitat for Humanity ReStore that was a good size for the space I had in mind: right next to my rain barrel. The before looked like a worn and dirty filing cabinet — nothing special! I wanted to transform it into a modern-looking planter.

Step one was tilting the cabinet on its side and pulling out the drawers. I cleaned both the outside and inside thoroughly to make sure there wasn’t any residue that would prevent my paint from sticking. Then, I gave the cabinet a little scuff sand with an electric sander before spraying on a couple coats of glossy black paint.

Credit: Melanie Gnau
Credit: Melanie Gnau

A paint switch-up made this cabinet look way better.

Surprisingly, painting was the part I struggled with most. I’ve painted hundreds of things in my life and never had this much trouble. But after a couple of coats of my first paint pick, a glossy enamel, on this filing cabinet, I hated the look. The glossy finish ended up showing too many flaws in both the metal and the paint.

So I pulled out my electric sander again to sand off that round of paint and tried again. This time, I used a hammered spray paint with a matte finish because I knew it would hide the flaws in the metal more efficiently. It took longer than I would have liked to finish the painting process, but afterwards, it looked much better.

Credit: Melanie Gnau

Scrap wood helped me adapt on the fly.

Unfortunately I realized after I’d already bought the cabinet that it didn’t have a bottom — which meant one side of my planter was totally missing. Thankfully, that was an easy fix. I grabbed a piece of scrap wood, cut it to fit the side, then painted it to match the cabinet. Once it was dry, I attached it to the cabinet with screws. I also drilled holes in the bottom of my planter so it would have proper drainage.

If you’re interested in copying this project, try to find a cabinet that has a bottom so you can skip the step of adding wood to the side. That’ll make this project faster and easier! And if you like the finish of the cabinet you find, you could even skip the painting process, too.

Credit: Melanie Gnau

Some strategic layering helped me fill up my planter without weighing it down.

Finally, it was time to actually plant in my planter. I filled it with a few layers: first, with sticks and wood, then organic material, then fill dirt, then dirt made for container beds. This is roughly based on something called the “hugelkultur” method, in which crops are planted on raised mounds of rotting logs and debris that help provide nutrients as they break down. I like using this method for a few reasons. First, this saves money because soil is expensive and the container is quite deep! It also has a lot of benefits for the plants. Placing wood in the bottom of the planter improves the soil’s quality and its ability to retain moisture. The composting process of the wood will also slightly warm the soil and help give me a longer growing season.

After that, I added plants, and I was done! I like that with the height of the planter, I can easily access everything without bending really far over. I placed it outdoors near my back door and my rain barrel, which makes caring for these plants even easier.

I like that this project is fairly versatile and easy to customize. You could pick a bright color for the paint, you could strip off the paint entirely and let it rust in the elements, you could add a wood bottom or even wheels so you can easily move the planter. There are a lot of possibilities! And in the end, you have a modern planter that costs you way less than buying new and was made sustainably.