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Plastics and gardening wouldn’t seem the most obvious of bedfellows, but they are as entwined as bricks and mortar—an unbreakable reliance. Plastic touches every practice of gardening craft. The same holds true in other areas of our lives, but in the garden it’s more extreme, more rampant and out of control.
Plastics took over the horticultural industry at the end of World War II and we never looked back; they were cheap, reliable (too reliable, in fact!), lightweight and customable. Nothing could compete. But as we reach a new epoch to the post-war years, the impact of this “material of a thousand uses” is being felt.
It is estimated that in 2018 approximately 320 million potted annuals and perennials were sold in the United States. Each of these would’ve been in a plastic pot, and that doesn’t count the trees and shrubs or all other plastic gardening paraphernalia. It also doesn’t count the amount of old pots still in circulation or the pots sold empty of plants. Now imagine that only 5 percent of this number are recycled and that each plastic pot will take approximately 500 years to break down. It’s then fairly easy to see where this deluge of plastic will be most keenly felt: nature and the environment.
Plastics accumulate in our soils and watercourses. The polymers and additives used to make plastics are highly toxic and are now impacting and degrading marine, avian and mammalian life. They use fossil fuels in their manufacture and if burned they release extremely toxic gases and fumes that, unless captured, are harmful to not only the environment but our own respiratory and functioning systems.
The realities of our lives mean this will not change overnight, but we should not look the other way, either. If we condense the plastic problem down to just what we do in our gardens, we can start to seize control, step-by-step, pot-by-pot.
Ideas for Cutting Back on Plastic
It is astonishing when you stop and think of the plastic products used in the garden: pots, seedling trays, watering cans, soil bags, fertilizer bottles, cloches, plant labels, sprinkler heads, tool handles, wheelbarrows, fleeces, tarps, tree ties, propagators, weed-blocking fabric, vegetable tunnel hoops, rainwater barrels, compost bins, pond liners, window boxes, plant supports, power-tool casings, edging, trugs and buckets, kneelers, furniture, even fake lawns. Does growing plants really need all this? I don’t think so; we need to be smarter and more economical in our choices of products but also develop a fundamental change in mindset.
Raising seedlings is a great joy of gardening. Pots and trays are essential to this, but plastic is not. If you want to broadcast seed in a tray, then get some old fruit boxes and line them with burlap, or make a tray out of recycled pallet wood. Or, just abandon the tray and seed into pots—this will make you seed less, a much better practice. For the pots, think terracotta and zinc/metal for the long-term. Use compostable fiber-based pots for the medium term (two or three years) and plantable paper, manure, soil and pulp-based for the short-term (one year). If you're concerned about replicating the moisture-rich environment provided by plastic propagators, old glass panels from fridges and greenhouses work wonderfully well, or just allow nature to find a way. It will in time!
Beyond the pots, we can use galvanised metal or zinc watering cans and wheelbarrows that will last a lifetime and more. And we can turn to wooden or slate labels for plants. These add charming individuality to the veg patch. Use a chalk pen to avoid rub-off.
We can also look past cheap plastic-handled tools and seek only those with replaceable wooden handles, which we’ll treasure and pass down over generations. For wrapping, tying and netting our plants we can use burlap, sheep’s wool fabric and twine. The hoops that hold the netting for our brassica crops, we can replace with bamboo poles and stakes or trimmings from our own trees and shrubs.
Plastic compost bins and rainwater barrels show the right intent, but they can be replaced by, respectively, pallets or scaffolding planks and reclaimed whiskey barrels or agricultural troughs. And finally, we can line ponds with clay, be it in power form as bentonite, from construction sites or the subsoil.
Assessing Our Needs
All this points to there being real alternatives to plastics to enable us to carry on the craft of gardening as we know and love. But we must also ask ourselves whether we need the endless litany of paraphernalia that occupies the horticultural sphere. If we make our own compost, leaf mold and potting mixes, we will not need to buy plastic bags of media. If we accept that most weeds are wandering wildflowers and usually enliven paths, we’ll stop putting down landscape weeding fabric. And if we make our own natural plant foods—such as borage or nettle teas—or accept that plants grow stronger without amendments, we’ll negate the need to buy plastic bottles of fertilizer.
If there is a will, there is a way. I will always remember the day I took over an allotment from an elderly couple who’d kept it for decades. When I went to clear the site, the mountain of plastic waste I took away stunned me; every conceivable prop, device and apparatus for growing plants was littered among the soil and in the shed. I held them not to blame, but the industry for making them believe they needed it all. When my knees and back give in, I know I want to leave only good soil, some well-loved tools and a few aging clay pots, with no plastic in sight.
Matt Rees-Warren is the author of The Ecological Gardener.