Plastic use has encroached into most areas of our lives, and that includes our gardens. Plastic is often cheap and convenient. But there is a heavy price to pay for our increasing dependence plastics. And, unfortunately, it seems that scientists and environmentalists are only just starting to understand the scale of these problems. Studies are shedding light on concerning levels of microplastic in the oceans, air, and soils. Read on to understand the risks and problems of including plastics in your garden and our top tips for plastic free gardening.
The problems of plastics in our gardens
Plastics pollute at every stage of their life cycle. Most plastics are petroleum based. Therefore, manufacturing new plastics creates harmful pollution and drains valuable resources. At the end of it’s life cycle, plastics can be difficult to effectively recycle and are the main constituent of global litter and waste problems, such as the oceanic garbage patches.
If you’re still not convinced that our plastic use needs to be tamed then read this post from The Story of Stuff: The Problem with Plastics.
But what about the more localized impacts? Are plastics bad to have in your garden?
Plastics can leach toxic chemicals into your soil. These chemicals can, in turn, be absorbed by a plant’s roots.
Some plastics are identified as being food safe, such as the plastics used in our Bokashi Living kitchen composters. These food safe plastics do not leach harmful levels of chemicals. Therefore, if you choose to use plastic in your garden, these are the safest plastics to use.
Interestingly, it has been shown that healthy soil acts as a filter to remove plastic toxins from your garden. The microbes in the soil can actually break down and decompose toxic chemicals. How quickly this happens depends on the specific chemical, the soil type, temperature, and the microbial diversity. Encouraging and promoting a healthy soil food web in your garden is a great way to protect our plants and our homegrown food from these harmful toxins.
Alternatives to common plastic items in the garden
It may seem obvious, but one of the best ways to reduce plastic in your garden is to stop buying it! Here are our plastic free alternatives to some common plastic items found in many gardens.
1. Flower pots and trays
There are lots of alternatives for plastic planters and containers in your garden. Wooden troughs, old ceramic baths and sinks, clay pots and lots of opportunities to get creative with upcycling and re-using items. Check out your local thrift stores and junk yards for inspiration.
If you already have plastic plant containers and you don’t want to replace them, then that’s ok. To reduce the risk of chemicals leaching from the plastic container and being absorbed by your plants make sure that your soil is healthy and teeming with microbial life. As mentioned above, the microbes in healthy soil can break down and decompose toxins and reduce the likelihood of them being absorbed by your plants and into your homegrown food.
But what about new plants? What gardener doesn’t love buying new plants? Unfortunately, when buying plants they invariably come in a plastic plant pot. Yes, some of these may come in useful for transplanting and germinating seeds. But the majority of these plastic pots just sit in a sad tower behind the garden shed. So, how can you eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) the number of plastic plant pots entering your garden each year?
- Use peat pots or homemade newspaper pots for seedlings and plants grown at home.
- Buy bare root plants. This is becoming an increasingly popular option for many mail order nurseries, particularly for winter and early spring mailings. A quick google should find local options.
- Grow your own plants from seeds, cuttings and by dividing existing perennials. Get together with friends and neighbors to share your favorite plants.
Plastic bagged compost can easily be replaced by homemade (plastic free) compost. Homemade compost is full of organic matter and teeming with microbial life which your soil needs to grow healthy plants.
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Jute netting is a great alternative to plastic netting and works perfectly for peas and beans and other climbers. To protect fruit crops from birds, try making fruit cages from metal meshing. Or get creative with bamboo canes and fully compostable jute garden twine.
4. Garden tools
Many garden tools contain some plastic. If you must buy new items, choose carefully. Buy quality, durable tools that will last for years and can be easily mended if needed. Better yet, look to borrow or buy second hand. That way. As a result no new plastics are created.
5. Plant labels
There really is no need to buy new plastic labels. Most garden stores now stock wooden alternatives. Or there are lots of options if you are feeling more creative; painted rocks, glass jars, metal labels, cork labels…. the list goes on. Or throw caution to the wind and skip the labels completely!
6. Garden hose
Unfortunately, this is a tougher item to replace. Metal garden hoses are starting to become more readily available. However, these metal hoses are typically lined with latex or other plastic. I have not found a plastic free alternative to the humble garden hose. A metal watering can and a dedicated gardener may be the only solution!