We’re flooding the planet with plastic, and there’s currently a huge focus on how much ends up in our oceans. But as gardeners, what can we do about it? Traditionally, plant care and propagation have always relied heavily on plastic – it’s cheap, durable and easy to use. However, the lack of recycling options often means it ends up in landfill or as a pollutant.
We asked Garden Ninja, Lee Burkhill, a professional garden designer who’s passionate about the environment, what he’s doing to tackle this problem. Here are Lee’s top tips for reducing your use of plastic – with just a few small changes to everyday tasks we can all make a difference…
Plan alternatives to plastic in advance
Plastic is incredibly durable, but it can take centuries to fully break down – a problem made even worse when it’s not correctly recycled. Last year I counted somewhere near 400 plastic plant pots in my own shed, along with old compost bags. Although I reuse these pots and bags each year until they’re no longer fit for purpose, it prompted me to think about plastic-free alternatives so that I’m ready to switch to a biodegradable solution when the time comes.
Sow in wooden seed trays
Seed sowing is one of my favourite activities and, looking around at my online gardening peers, it seems to be a shared passion. Creating and growing from seed greatly increases the variety of plants available. It’s also better for the environment as it reduces the ‘food miles’ travelled by plants, flowers, fruit and vegetables.
I’ve been using a range of different plastic-free growing containers this year and the results have been really positive. Wooden seed trays have been a real winner. Not only do they look absolutely lovely compared to a sea of black plastic, but they heat up really quickly – great for seed germination! They’re also really breathable, meaning that the roots on my seedlings have been far stronger than their plastic counterparts.
I experienced zero damping off or humidity-related issues when using wooden seed trays compared to plastic. They do cost more initially and don’t stack inside each other, which is a slight drawback. However, they should last me close to 20-30 years if I look after them, bringing a better economy to their purchase.
Sow in homemade newspaper pots
The next surprise winner has been homemade newspaper pots. Yes, you read that right. I’ve been using a round jig to make pots from strips of newspaper to pot on my seedlings.
I know they won’t last longer than a few months before breaking down. But for annuals and vegetables that I’ll be planting out as soon as they’re strong enough, they are unbeatable. What’s even better, you can fit 24 of these paper pots into one of the wooden trays, which makes moving and hardening plants off really easy. I love things that are multi-purpose.
Like the idea but don’t have time to make your own? Thompson & Morgan sells packs of 48 fibre pots – you can plant out the whole pot when you’re ready and it will naturally biodegrade into the soil.
Reuse and recycle
Finally, reusing plastic containers from the house does deserve a rightful mention. Yogurt pots, vegetable packaging and other plastic containers all make great seed trays or starter pots. I’d always advocate reusing as much as possible before these end up in the waste. In fact, I’d argue there’s actually no reason to buy plastic seed pots and containers if you carefully watch what you’re throwing away from inside and then reuse!
Make your own compost
Compost is an easy way to achieve plastic-free credentials – provided you have the space to make your own. Once you get into the rhythm of making your own compost you can, in theory, provide enough for your growing needs. It can be tricky for new gardeners to get the right balance for perfect compost. I’ll be the first to admit I have to tweak my recipes each year. Patience is key with home composting (that and the mythical perfect nitrogen to carbon ratio!)
If you don’t have the space or time to compost, the alternative is buying it in thick plastic bags. Often these bags are classed as ‘single use’ i.e. they can’t be recycled and end up in landfill. I tend to reuse these bags around the garden when weeding or clearing up, but there are other alternatives for empty compost bags. Weed bags for life, if you will!
There’s also been an increase recently in the number of local independent nurseries that provide a ‘loose’ compost scheme. You take along your own bag or container and pay for your compost by weight. What a great idea! I’d urge you to research your nearest loose compost provider. That way your bags can live on!
Another great use for compost bags is as an alternative weed membrane. If you’re thinking of putting down weed membrane matting (which itself is usually plastic based) in a low maintenance bed, why not cut open your old compost bags and reuse them? First pierce the bags, like you would a microwave meal, to allow for drainage and airflow. Then overlap them on the area to be covered and top with a healthy layer of either compost or earth. Cut planting holes through the bags to allow plants to grow whilst suppressing weeds. Yes, it may take more time than rolling out a huge carpet of membrane, but you’re helping to reduce your landfill waste and saving money.
As gardeners we have a first-hand understanding of the delicate and beautiful ecology that our gardens contain. By considering alternatives to plastic, and spending a little more time thinking about where our plastic ends up, we can start to make changes. These ideas might seem small – but they’re a good step in the right direction to reduce waste, limit pollution and inspire others to make similar changes.
Garden Ninja, Lee Burkhill, is an RHS winning Garden Designer from the North West of England covering Manchester, Liverpool, Southport and the Cheshire region. He’s also one of the garden expert panellists on BBC Radio Manchester’s ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ and runs the Garden Ninja blog to help troubleshoot your garden design problems.