As gardeners we try to work with nature where we can. And that’s one of the joys of growing your own: fresh food without all those nasty chemicals and pesticides! But what about that artificial material we’ve been hearing a lot about recently: plastic? It’s everywhere, including the garden.
Here are some great ideas for growing and storing fruits and vegetables without relying on plastic...
Grow Healthier Seeds and Seedlings Without Plastic
Let’s begin with sowing. Swap seedling flats or seed trays for wooden alternatives. They are heavier and need watering more often, but will last for many years and are simple enough to make and repair. Wood also improves conditions around the roots because it allows the potting mix to breathe.
Replace plastic plug trays with ones made from pulped cardboard or pots pressed from fibre or coconut coir. Better still, make your own seedling pots from strips of newspaper. Cardboard egg trays are handy for most seedlings, or save toilet paper tubes to start off crops that prefer a longer root run, including sweet corn, peas and beans.
All biodegradable pots need to be watered a little more frequently, but on the flip side they encourage healthier roots and can be planted whole, pot and all, to avoid disturbing the root system.
Long-Lasting Pots and Labels
It’s easy enough to replace plastic pots with all manner of terracotta, metal, wooden – even slate – alternatives, most of which look significantly more eye-catching anyhow. Remember that terracotta and metal pots take a lot of energy to manufacture, so a sturdy plastic pot may have less of an environmental impact over its lifetime, especially if it can be recycled locally.
Labels are easy to make from lollipop sticks, which you can buy in bulk from craft stores. Wood naturally absorbs moisture, which may cause ink to become blurred over time. Use a soft pencil instead, or try labels made of bamboo. For larger labels opt for lengths of wood batten cut to size, painted with non-toxic paint to give a more durable, decorative finish.
Buy Plants Without Plastic Pots
Plants are typically sold in plastic pots, but look out for fiber alternatives, often made from quick-growing, sustainable grasses. Most trees, shrubs and perennials can be purchased bare root over the winter months while they are dormant. Some mail-order nurseries now despatch young plants and seedlings with minimal packaging, just carefully laid between layers of newspaper or straw. And, of course, remember that the cheapest and most effective way to raise lots of plants is to propagate them yourself, by sowing seeds, taking cuttings and dividing established plants.
Plastic-free Potting Soil
Potting compost typically comes in plastic bags. These can be reused in a multitude of ways around the garden, but if you want to avoid plastic altogether the simplest way to start is by making your own garden compost and leafmould. Blend your own potting mixes by thoroughly combining garden compost, leafmould, topsoil and organic fertiliser.
Bear in mind that plastic composters tend to have a longer lifespan, so this is one area where you might want to relax the rules. The composter above is made from thick recycled plastic.
Compost and other soil amendments can often be bought in bulk bags, which require less packaging per unit of product and can often be returned to the supplier.
Durable Plant Care
Plastic twine is out, replaced by string or twine made from natural fibers such as hemp, which is also less likely to cut into stems as they grow. Plastic netting is easily swapped with sturdy, longer-lasting metal alternatives.
Keep on using your plastic watering can but when it finally needs replacing, go galvanized with a traditional-looking can. Water barrels have many metal or wooden alternatives – pricier but very attractive!
Cold protection necessitates a return to glass, which is more durable and less likely to scuff, shred or blow away compared to lighter-weight plastic cloches and row covers.
Storing Produce Without Plastic
There’s really no need for plastic in or around your harvested fruits and vegetables. Use crates of damp sand to store root vegetables like carrots; boxes of straw to insulate fruits such as apples; or breathable hessian sacks for maincrop potatoes.
Keep just-picked leaves fresher for longer by washing then wrapping them in a damp towel destined for the refrigerator. Bunches of herbs should be popped into jars of water, like cut flowers, a method that also works for asparagus spears. Twist off the leaves from roots like radishes, beetroot and turnips then store in a container in the refrigerator with a damp towel or cloth laid on top. Carrots should be placed into containers of regularly changed fresh water, while tomatoes and aubergine are best left at room temperature, out of the sun, in the dry.
Finally, store bananas well away from all other produce. They emit the ripening gas ethylene, which can lead other fruits and vegetables to quickly spoil.
Of course, plastic isn’t all bad and can sometimes form the most sensible and sustainable choice. Nevertheless, we could all do with reducing our addiction to plastic, especially single-use plastic.
Share your tips for a plastic-free gardening life down below. We’d really love to hear your experiences. Have you managed to kick the plastic habit?