One morning towards the end of last year some time, I skipped in to my garden as usual through the little picket gate and pulled up short.
In front of me was not a delightful scene of bucolic beauty and calm productivity: but a pile of multicoloured plastic.
I have no idea why I hadn’t been able to see it before. There were teetering stacks of pots and empty compost bags; the greenhouse was festooned with bubblewrap plastic; plastic trays held my overwintering seedlings (themselves in module trays and pots of green, black or orange plastic).
I looked down to the other end of my garden and it was almost as bad: cloches covered in clear polythene over bright blue hoops of plastic plumbing pipe; winter veg studded tombstone-like with white plastic plant labels and shrouded in plastic-coated insect-proof mesh; and empty veg beds neatly mulched with compost but then covered in sheets of black plastic to protect them from the winter wet.
It could be worse: luckily I don’t favour green plastic pea netting, or plastic ties for my plants. I tend to use wooden and metal tools rather than plastic ones because they last longer and are generally better made; but having said that, many of the impulse buys I’ve made in an emergency after losing yet another hand fork in the compost bin have plastic handles.
How did such a sea of plastic leak into our gardens? There was, I assume, a time when plastic was completely absent: I’m picturing a time of terracotta pots and slate labels, teak-handled tools and wooden plant trays. I think this is actually the fantasy garden we still picture in our heads: but the reality in the 21st century is so very different.
I hate the look of plastic: it looks cheap, and tatty, and artificial, the colours clashing and blaring next to the gentler greens and browns of nature. And I really, really hate what it does to the environment. I won’t start to lecture you here about the horrific sea of microscopic plastic pellets killing everything from fish to albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean; it is headed our way, too, as the fish we eat are increasingly infested with micro-particles of plastic too.
This is not one of those big issues we can’t do anything about and just serve to upset us, like climate change, the Syrian war or the continuing existence of Katie Hopkins. Actually, we gardeners are contributing, very directly, to the problem.
I’d just like you to consider that the split plastic pot you threw out with the rubbish today will still be in the world when you are long dust. In fact it will still be languishing in some landfill somewhere when your grandchildren’s grandchildren have grown into adults and have children of their own.
It takes an average of 450 years for hard plastic to decompose. Just think about that for a minute. I can’t even imagine what the world will look like in 2467. Or to put it another way: a theoretical plastic pot thrown away (as it would never have been, as they didn’t then exist) by a gardener in the 16th century, when Elizabeth I was on the throne, before Shakespeare, before John Tradescant was even born, would only just this year have fully decomposed.
I do not want to be a part of this. It horrifies me that I have sleepwalked into such a state of affairs: when gardeners, who are closer to the earth and more aware of and able to tend to its needs than anyone else, should contribute so unthinkingly to its desecration.
So: this year I have made a new resolve. I will not buy a single thing for the garden which contains plastic. I will use what I have – as it seems a bit counterproductive to chuck it all out and so fill even more landfill with it – but I will not replace what breaks with more plastic. And I will start to think really deeply about how I use plastic in the garden: what alternatives there might be, and whether I can adjust what I do so that I garden more gently upon the earth.
I know it’s not going to be easy: I’ve done a little tentative experimentation over the last few weeks and it’s underlined for me just how dependent we have become on what is, undeniably, an incredibly useful material. Where I can’t find a replacement for plastic, I’ll see if I can find a recycled plastic alternative.
I hope to build everything I find out into a resource on this website, on a separate page, where I will pull together my thoughts and discoveries along with listings for suppliers and manufacturers who are producing stuff for the garden which doesn’t involve using plastic. With luck, it will be useful to other gardeners who don’t like the piles-of-plastic-pots look; at the very least, it should make my garden look a bit prettier.
I welcome any input from anyone who wants to join in. If you know of a good supplier, a technique, ideas or campaigners who might benefit from being included here I’d love to hear about them. Please post below or get in touch via Twitter (@sallynex) using the hashtag #gardeningwithoutplastic. Thanks!
The Daily Dibber said:
Totally agree, please add my email firstname.lastname@example.org to your contacts list. I work at a nursery, we reuse all old pots and modules but still have to purchase many pots each season. This year we have been sowing direct into the multi modules ie 24 that plants get delivered in, these are about 9cm so are ideal for rooted cuttings, large seeds etc. It was a decision based on time spent on each young plant but the added advantage is that now we no longer buy 9cm pots. Each multi-module is washed and reused. The small plastic multi modules that small plugs are grown in that get delivered to Nurseries are also ideal for taking cuttings, if you could get Nurseries to donate these to gardeners clubs rather than throw them away then eventually surely less would be purchased. Hope this helps. Niamh
Thanks Niamh, do let me know the name of the nursery you work at – one of my little plans is to draw up a list of plant sellers around the country who make an effort to cut down on plastic like this so happy to include a web link.
This is something I have thought about for a while now and do try to reuse and recycle as much as possible
Good to hear Ann – reusing and recycling is as much part of cutting down on plastic as finding clever ways to avoid it altogether!
Michelle Chapman said:
It’s not really in keeping with your refuse ethos, but my local garden centre has a garden plastic recycling scheme which helps salve my conscience a teeny tiny bit. I’m interested in if and how you can source peat-free compost without resorting to plastic bags.
Hi Michelle – as above, this is about reusing, recycling and reducing as much as avoiding. I used to have a plastic pot recycling scheme at my local garden centre but they discontinued it. And yes, the compost bag issue is something I will be coming to in a future post….!
Mrs A Griffiths said:
Again, it’s still plastic – but – Solway Direct recycle black farm plastic into self-assembly raised beds and other stuff. We bought some in 2015 so we could grow veg in our back garden in the ‘soggy’ North West.
Brilliant! Thanks very much – I’ll be looking into that one.
Love the thoughtfulness of this post, Sally. My local recycling centre takes plastic pots so that’s where broken ones go from my garden. I’ve ditched plastic trays since seeing Dixter’s fabulous wooden ones; fruit boxes are a good alternative albeit not long-life … and I whittle tree prunings to use as plant labels, taking a slice out of the side to write on. Tree thinnings can also be woven into cloche and plant supports (see Sarah Raven garden for inspiration!). Would thick cardboard stand up to Somerset rain in place of black plastic? Also, in December 2015, I wrote about my visit to the community wood recycling centre in Oxford – a treasure trove of wood for raised beds, plant trays and plant labels.
Thank you Caro! Perhaps I should build up a sort of herogram list of recycling centres and garden centres which recycle plastic pots – I know my local tip doesn’t take them (except in the landfill skip, which doesn’t count!) Some great suggestions there. And my next post on this subject is all about covering veg beds over winter – I am experimenting with cardboard as I write (well, not quite, it’s dark outside, but I will be later :D) Watch this space!
I love your post and resolve, trying to do that too. I used to bring empty pots back to one of my favourite garden centre (in case you DO compile that list: Coolings) but since I don’t get there much anymore have found a different happy recipient: my children’s school. They have a school garden which is used for lessons and tended by an after school gardening club. I’m sure other schools/ nurseries or community gardens would be happy, too. And plastic pots should also be okay to put in normal recycling bins, no? As far as I’m aware they are made of “recyclable” plastic.
Thanks Stefanie, and I’ve noted that – planning a few posts coming up all about plastic pots so I’ll be compiling that list of recycling centres then. And that’s a really good idea – most schools (particularly primary schools) seem to have gardening clubs these days so where better to offer your surplus pots! To answer your last question – I don’t believe plastic pots are recyclable, with a few honourable exceptions. I’m doing a little research into the types of plastic used, but it’s my understanding that most are hard coloured plastic – which is definitely not for the recycling bin.
I’ll be checking the results of your efforts on your blog, thank you Sally. I was sure pots were recyclable – but perhaps remember (wrongly) from my time in Germany.
firstly thank you so much for your post and efforts to reduce plastic waste! I realize that this is from a while ago so Im not sure if i’ll be able to reach you here, but I could use some advice! I’m building a school garden, following permaculture principles, but still find myself constrained by the demands by the community to meet a certain “aesthetic.” The garden needs to look clean and organized like landscaping more than gardening – which means edging. I’m trying to price compare different boarder-creating options for our garden and pushing very hard against plastic but not finding any cost effective alternatives to get people on my side. I would love some advice if you have any!
Thank you so much!