Say no to plastic in the garden

No plastic in the garden

David Attenborough alerted us all to the problem of plastic waste and microplastic fragments in the oceans. But what about plastics in the soil?

Scientists in China recently examined the effect of polythene fragments on soil life. They found there was a significant impact on the numbers of arthropods (spiders, beetles, mites and other insects) and roundworms - including springtails, mites and nematodes. All of which play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter within the soil.  

We know that many plastics don’t degrade – they may disintegrate, but small particles will remain for years to come. And some plastics, such as PVC and polystyrene, will leach toxins into the soil.

So how do you avoid plastic in your growing area?

Journalist Sally Nex shared with us her 7 plastic-free garden pledges:

Pledge 1: Allow no new plastic into the garden
This was the first pledge I made and the most important, but the most difficult to keep. Everything in gardening seems to involve plastic, from multipurpose compost to plug plants delivered in plastic blister packs to plant labels. But I simply refused to buy it – then set about finding a non-plastic alternative.

  • Some mail order companies supply plug plants wrapped in paper and others wrap biodegradable plant pots in a sleeve of cardboard instead of single-use, non-recyclable plastic film.

Pledge 2: Use the plastic you’ve got – but not too much
Every gardener has a plastic pot stash toppling over in the shed or getting underfoot in the greenhouse. British gardeners get through 500 million new plastic plant pots every year, and most are never recycled. But recycling isn’t the answer anyway. Plastic can only be recycled two or three times, so it all eventually ends up in landfill. 

  • Keep pots in use - though not until they crack, as the fragments of plastic that break off end up directly polluting the soil in your garden. So before they reach that point, drop them off at a local garden centre that collects pots for recycling.

Pledge 3: Grow in paper and cardboard
As your pot stash dwindles switch to non-plastic alternatives. Clay, (second-hand to avoid the carbon emissions of new), and lightweight Vipots, made of rice hulls, work well for larger containers. But since I grow veg, I do lots of sowing, mainly into trays, smaller pots and low grade (therefore non-recyclable) plastic modules.

  • Knock wooden seed trays up from scrap pallets, or buy from online auction sites 
  • Make newspaper pots for direct sowing and pricking out seedlings. 
  • Saved toilet roll inners are great for larger seeds like beans. I also pot on into home-made cardboard pots, buried with the plant in the garden.

Pledge 4: Make your own potting mixes
Second only to the pot stash is the avalanche of plastic compost sacks that tumbles out whenever I open the shed door. They’re quite useful for carrying green waste to the tip, but a new one arrives with every 50 litres of compost you use. Melcourt now offers refillable ‘bags for life’ for its compost – if your garden centre doesn’t stock them, ask why not.

Pledge 5: Buy plants bare-root, or raise your own
Like most gardeners I’m easily seduced by new plants. But every plant you buy comes with a side order of plastic pot.

  • Buy plants bare-root – dug straight from the field and sold without pots.
  • Divide a congested clump, take cuttings or root strawberry runners for lots more free plants 
  • Friends and family will usually let you make new plants from those in their garden, too

Pledge 6: When you replace plastic, find a non-plastic alternative
Much of the plastic in your garden is designed to last a long time. Look after your watering cans, water butts, plastic tools and fruit cage netting and you’ll keep them useful and out of landfill for years. 
But everything breaks eventually. So whenever you need to replace a plastic item in the garden, or if you’re buying something new, look for a non-plastic alternative. 

  • Second hand galvanised cattle troughs make excellent water butts
  • Net fruit with fine-gauge (16mm) galvanised wire mesh
  • Buy wooden tools with stainless steel blades, and metal watering cans, ideally second hand from your local architectural salvage yard.

Pledge 7: …and if you can’t, do things differently
Sometimes, there just isn’t an alternative to plastic. And then perhaps it’s time to ask yourself some searching questions about the way you garden. Here are some tips: 

  • Instead of protecting new potatoes against frost with fleece (woven polypropylene) for example, just wait a couple of weeks till it’s warmer before planting
  • Wrap tender plants individually with hessian and newspaper on cold nights (remove in the morning) rather than insulating and heating an entire greenhouse over winter
  • Use a watering can instead of a plastic hose – it might take longer but you’ll use less water and target it better, too.

‘Gardening without plastic has been a revelation,’ writes Sally. ‘I’d never have known if I hadn’t tried that seeds germinated in wooden seed trays grow faster and sturdier (something to do with the fact that wood is porous and lets air through to the roots, I think). Seedlings grown in newspaper and cardboard also do better and transplant more easily. My only regret is that I didn’t kick my plastic habit sooner. I’ve not only reduced the plastic pollution I cause, I’ve become a better gardener.’