Plastic-free gardening is an admirable aim, but before we rush headlong down any of the alternative routes, we need to check for pitfalls.
As much as gardening is about going forward – at full throttle at this time of year – sometimes it’s also about stepping back. As we champ at the bit to launch into a new gardening project, at times the very best thing we can do is pause for thought. Rather than race in headlong, often the wisest move we can make in our gardens, allotments, greenhouses and polytunnels, is to slow down and draw breath. Much of the pleasure we derive from cultivating our patches of earth flows from those moments when we simply down tools and stop, to reflect and reassess. I’ve got everything crossed that the gardening world will remember this crucial lesson as it begins, somewhat belatedly, to get to grips with the global environmental crisis of plastic pollution.
There’s already something of a virtuous race underway. Gardening and horticultural businesses and organisations, as well as those in the garden media, are jostling to be among the first to jump aboard the ‘plastic-free gardening’ bandwagon: ‘Such-and-such declares war on plastic!’ Yawn. I do hope they will look, think and mull before they leap. The mushrooming debate around the harm – known or as yet undiscovered – being done to our biosphere by plastic is bedevilled by ecological and ethical potholes of every depth imaginable. As gardeners, we need to be careful what we now wish and ask for.
It’s worth remembering that if you’re gardening in a more earth-friendly and organic way, you’ve already earned a plastic-free pat on the back. Choosing to garden with an awareness of our actions on the world around us lessens our negative impacts. Think of all those plastic bottles you’ve never brought into your garden (let alone gotten shot of) because you don’t use polluting pesticides and weedkillers. But even the most steadfastly organic and ‘green’ gardeners can’t escape the fact that, in so many other ways, we’re as caught up in the plastics trap as everyone else.
Inevitably, the rush to purge non-essential plastic from our lives has, in the gardening sphere, focused on plant pots. They pile up in our sheds and our greenhouses, and overflow from ‘recycling points’ (not to mention the skips out back) at garden centres. Taking a pot-shot at plant pots is easy environmental point-scoring (if only focusing on what’s still found in most pots – i.e. nature-wrecking peat-based compost – scored so highly). But plastic pots, along with seed trays and other items, are currently the polluting villain of the piece. There’s good justification: black pots have until recently been non-recyclable because the optical technology used in recycling can’t, er, recognise them. So they’re rejected, presumably ending up being incinerated or landfilled. That situation is changing, but it hasn’t been enough to cool the fervour for plastic-free gardening. Two knee-jerk responses illustrate why it’s worth taking time out.
Terracotta is trumpeted by some as the answer to the plastic problem. Apart from the practicalities of growing in smaller clay pots (which rapidly dry out), there’s the likely price tag. But overshadowing all that is the question of where the raw materials for this new terracotta gardening army will come from – and how much energy will be required to make it? Terracotta pots are made from clay, which (like peat) is dug out of the earth, then fired in kilns at high temperatures using fossil fuels. They’re heavy to move around and, in the UK at least, there’s no way to recycle them (you only need so many drainage crocks). By all means snap up old terracotta pots from car boot sales or salvage shops (the energy it took to make them is already embedded in them), but can we really afford a clay-based solution to plastic pots? I love terracotta. I have a few good-quality pots that I consider a luxury, that will – with care – last me my gardening lifetime, and then hopefully someone else’s.
Replacing plastic seed trays with wooden ones also seems, initially, like hitting bullseye. But guess what? Wooden trays (and labels) are notoriously hard to keep clean, and they eventually rot and fall apart. They rely on the felling of trees – which is fine if you (or the supplier) can be 100% sure that the timber is from a sustainably managed and/or renewable source (those made from recycled wood will earn greenie points). But perhaps the biggest splinter in ditching plastic for wood is the price tag: wooden trays cost an arm and a leg – and they’re often twee and lacking practicality. I use tough, easy-to-clean UK-made 100% recycled plastic trays. When not in action, they’re stored in my shed, away from sunlight. I expect them to last me years. When they do eventually go brittle, I’ll recycle them with other ‘hard plastic’. Maybe I’ll get them back… as more seed trays.
There is an alternative, for pots at least, to the rush for terracotta and wood. ‘Biodegradable’ pots will either rot away in the soil, or can be composted at home. These are largely made from recycled paper pulp, or from coir fibre (coconut husks), which comes from countries such as Sri Lanka (so arrives with ‘gardening miles’ attached; it’s also a so-slow rotter). Avoid any labelled ‘peat fibre’. Others are made from a coir/wood pulp mix. Yes, you’ll have to buy more when you need them, but they won’t trigger any new clay pits, or cause the chopping down of any trees, and they’ll help, albeit in a modest way, to boost your soil’s organic matter. You could even stand them in recycled plastic trays…
Other types of biodegradable pot have been flaunted as eco-fixes. A decade ago, pots made from straw, rice husks and bamboo were trumpeted on TV’s Gardeners’ World. When they broke, all we had to do, we were told, was break them up and pop them in our compost bin. Sorted. I did; I’m still waiting to see any sign of them rotting. They gathered dust in retailers; they were pricey and heavy, and they’ve all but disappeared. They weren’t a bad idea, but if they’re plotting a comeback to oust plastic, it’s worth reminding ourselves that rice and bamboo are not exactly everyday UK crops. And if ‘biodegradable’ is more marketing fantasy than rot-away reality, they’ll just add to our litter-strewn world. No thanks. Surely it’s worth mulling over the potential for using the fibres from low-input crops such as hemp, which does grow here?
Pots aside, if we’re serious about ridding gardening of plastic, we should begin with a reality check. Think plastic, think… garden twine, labels, compost bags, multi-cell trays, cloches, crop covers/fleece, watering cans, our boots and wellies, gloves (apart from those made from cotton/leather), bubble plastic, hosepipes, garden furniture, trugs, wheelbarrows, water butts, fruit cage netting, ground cover fabrics, propagators, polytunnel covers… and on.
There are some easy sock-it-to-plastic wins here. Twine made from jute (plant fibre) or wool can go straight in the compost bin. Metal watering cans don’t shatter in the sun. Cotton gloves quickly decompose. Wire mesh keeps birds from your blackcurrants. Start winning today. Others are tougher nuts. Washing your crop covers (or that cosy fleece jacket) pollutes our waterways and oceans with countless fragments of microplastic. Every step we take wears out our footwear’s rubber soles, releasing more minute, never-ever-rot bits of plastic. Polytunnel covers are hard to contain when they eventually perish and shatter.
This plastic pothole is mighty deep. We all need to hold fire, to step back and pause, as we consider the best, most earth-friendly way for gardening to carefully climb out.
Text and images © John Walker
Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener