Have you ever wondered what happens to all the plastic waste we generate in our gardens? Jean Ponzi, green resources manager for the EarthWays Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden, reports that over 350,000 pounds of horticultural plastic enters the waste stream each year in the United States alone.
The EarthWays Center’s groundbreaking horticulture recycling program (now run by a local recycling company) has processed local garden plastic since its inception in 1998, but even they have found recycling this diverse assortment of plastics is pretty challenging.
As in so many cases, recycling is not the solution to dealing with garden plastic. Instead, Ponzi encourages gardeners to seek “ways to keep plastic out of the garden in the first place” to cut demand for horticultural plastics. But how?
If you’re on a mission to cut plastic use in the garden, here are twelve effective ways to use less this season.
1. Make your own fertilizer
One effective way to cut down on the plastic bags and bottles brought into your garden is by making your own fertilizer, known more commonly as compost. If you’re not already turning food scraps and garden waste into a nutrient-packed soil additive that plants love, you’re missing out.
Dawn Gifford, who shares her sustainable wisdom at Small Footprint Family, points out that “Composting is far more than just free fertilizer for the garden. It’s a vital and necessary sustainability strategy for reducing waste, closing the nutrient cycle, and preventing air pollution that causes climate change.”
Composting is far more than just free fertilizer for the garden. It’s a vital and necessary sustainability strategy for reducing waste, closing the nutrient cycle, and preventing air pollution that causes climate change.
Here’s how to cut garden plastic by composting and making free homemade plant food. If you have limited time, an energy-efficient worm composter is an excellent way to turn your food scraps into instant garden nutrients.
Whether or not you compost at home, you can make simple homemade fertilizers from food scraps like banana peels and eggshells. You can also make fertilizer teas from plants growing in your garden by soaking nutrient-rich plants like comfrey, nettle, or plantain in water. If you heat with a wood stove, wood ash is also a great addition to garden soil.
Leaf mold may be used as a soil conditioner, made from nothing more than composted tree leaves.
2. Grow or harvest your own mulch
One easy way to cut down on plastic in the garden and save money is to skip bagged mulch and make use of the free materials growing in your yard all season. Not only do mulches look good and help reduce the number of weeds that pop up, they also preserve soil moisture and add nutrients and organic matter to your beds over time.
Try applying one or more of the following to your garden:
You can also use any of the seed-free weeds you pull, or grow cover crops that you chop for mulch at the beginning of the season.
For places where you’d like wood mulch, contact your local power company, which may deliver chipped wood from street tree trimming projects right to your garden. Many municipalities also offer free wood chips and composted yard waste that you can take by the truckload at community compost sites.
Homesteader Ashley Adamant, who blogs at Practical Self Reliance, makes her own bark mulch or buys wood mulch “in bulk by the yard, with no packaging whatsoever.”
3. Pass on plastic nursery pots
If you buy transplants from a garden center, odds are you’re bringing home plants in plastic pots. While some are recyclable or can be brought back to the nursery for re-use, most wind up in the trash.
You can cut the plastic footprint of your garden plants in a number of ways:
- Get divisions from friends, neighbors, plant swaps, social networking groups, and Freecycle.org.
- Start your own seeds at home in seed starter pots made from newspaper or toilet paper tubes, or repurpose a cardboard egg carton.
- Buy bare root plants.
- Look for pots made from compostable materials like coir, paper, and even cow manure. Watch out for bioplastics, which turn out to have a lot of the same problems as conventional plastic.
4. Pick non-plastic growing containers
Are you a container gardener? When you’re buying new pots or planters, skip the plastic and go for terracotta, ceramic, wood, or metal. You can repurpose metal tubs or oak barrels you find at flea markets and thrift shops as well.
5. Choose plastic-free tools and gear
When you have the choice, go for durable metal and wood tools rather than flimsy plastic ones. Plastic tools are more likely to break in the short term and need replacing. You can often find rakes, shovels, trowels, garden carts, and trimmers made without plastic.
Look for ash handles in tools featuring wood, since ash is one of the strongest and longlasting woods available. When buying a tool featuring metal, avoid aluminum and opt for forged, carbon, or stainless steel. Pick cotton garden gloves. When they wear out, they can be composted along with your food scraps.
6. Share tools
You’ll buy less plastic (as well as tools made from other materials) if you share with others. Starting a small toolshare in your neighborhood isn’t difficult, and your group will cut down on the resources you all need to garden. It’s also a great way to build community, work together on garden projects, and share expertise.
7. Use plastic-free weed barriers
While plastic sheeting suppresses weeds, it also keeps moisture from getting to your plants and can leach chemicals into your soil. Commonly-used “landscape fabric,” while more porous, is made out of woven plastic.
Kris Bordessa, an avid gardener based in Hawaii who shares garden tips on her popular blog Attainable Sustainable, dislikes plastic sheeting and prefers to smother her weeds with cardboard and paper covered with mulch. She reports, “This works for garden pathways and is good for in between perennial plantings, too.”
Little-known sources for cardboard and heavy-duty paper include pallet liners, often available from your local feed store, and the large boxes used to transport bicycles and appliances to your local shops. Call to arrange a pick-up. Often stores are happy to have someone cart these away to save them the recycling effort.
Another plastic-free weed barrier that works well when covered with bark mulch are the repurposed burlap sacks from organic coffee roasters. These are usually made from jute or hemp and will biodegrade into your garden soil, adding nutrients along the way. Check in with your local coffee company for more information. Used 100% cotton sheets picked up from your local thrift store can also work as weed barriers under mulch.
8. Get creative with row and plant markers
Skip the plastic plant markers and make your own with upcycled materials. You can use sturdy sticks or repurposed shims, shards of broken terracotta pots, popsicle sticks, or inexpensive metal spoons from rummage sales or thrift shops. You can even make your own markers out of clay or hand painted rocks—a great project for involving kids in the garden.
9. Choose non-plastic seed packets
Thankfully, the majority of seed packets are made from paper, so skipping garden plastic in this department isn’t as challenging. Thoughtful planning can help you buy less seed overall, and you can cut down on packaging waste further by swapping with friends and neighbors. Consider saving your own seeds as well.
11. Water without plastic
Choose an upcycled container for a rain barrel and use a metal watering can for hand watering. To deliver water slowly to a plant’s roots, try a clay watering vessel, also known as an ‘olla’. These work especially well in raised garden beds.
12. Enjoy non-plastic composting
Though plastic composters are widely available, many options exist for composting without plastic. You can build your own compost bin from upcycled pallets or other scrap wood, or help speed the composting process with a metal compost tumbler.
No matter what type of composting you do, be sure to remove plastic stickers from your fruits and vegetables before you compost.
A plastic-free garden
Gardening with less plastic can take a little extra thought, but it isn’t difficult. Try some (or all!) of these simple swaps and enjoy a less plastic garden this season and beyond. You’ll have the double pleasure of a healthier garden and the knowledge that you’ve helped to slow demand for unnecessary plastic.
Have you found a way to reduce plastic in your garden? Feel free to brag about your success in the comments!