A few weeks ago, I began my plastic-free gardening project in my tiny Oakland, CA yard with the help of Rodale.com and Eric Hurlock of Organic Gardening. I built a raised bed with sustainable wood and filled it with bulk gardening soil that I had delivered without any packaging. So far so good. But buying plants and watering them has proven to be a little more tricky, plastically speaking.
I bought Botanical Interests certified organic seeds, which come in paper envelopes and are readily available at garden centers where I live. I’ve got: Swiss chard, spinach, baby carrots, wax beans, cucumbers, marigolds, and nasturtium.
Ideally, I would have started some of my seeds indoors, but I could not find a single sunny spot in my house that would not have been accessible to the Furry Ones Who Reign Supreme and their propensity for Total Destruction.
If I had been able to start seeds inside, I could have done it plastic-free. Browsing the gardening aisle at my local Ace Hardware Store, I found Plantation Products starter pots made from recycled natural fiber in plastic-free packaging.
And I’ve discovered some even better DIY ideas. A friend of mine said she starts hers in cardboard egg cartons. Rodale’s Jean Nick gives instructions for making seed starting pots from newspaper. And blogger Mrs. Green of My Zero Waste creates starter pots from used cardboard toilet paper tubes. Here’s her handy video demonstration:
Knowing that starting seeds indoors would be futile, I planted my seeds directly in the ground, which, it turns out, had its own challenges. More on that later in this post. But a few days ago, a Facebook commenter suggested I could have planted indoors if I’d enlisted the help of a few strategically-placed cacti. What do you think? Is that mean? Would the kitties have learned the hard way?
I also wonder if I could have just sprinkled the soil with cayenne pepper, like I do for my houseplants. But would that have harmed the new seedlings?
No Plastic Pots
As I mentioned in my last post, Eric suggested I plant my tomatoes and peppers from seedlings rather than seeds. So the challenge for me was to avoid buying plants in plastic pots:
Fortunately, most of the garden centers in my area are supplied by a company in Sebastopol called Sweetwater Nursery, which offers plants in compostable Ecoform containers made from compressed rice hulls. I bought tomatoes, peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, cucumber, and some herbs in these containers.
Ecoform pots crack easily if you squeeze them like you would plastic pots when removing the plants. But I found that if I carefully loosen the dirt around the edges with a trowel, I can remove the plant and spare the pot to reuse. Sure, the pots are compostable. But why not reuse them as much as possible before returning them to the earth?
If you can’t find plants in plastic-free pots, check with the garden center or nursery and see if they will take back the plastic pots to reuse. In addition to the plants from Sweetwater Nursery, I also bought some herbs from a local vendor at my farmers market. Knowing her plants are sold in plastic containers, I brought some of my own pots (the empty Ecoform pots I’d saved) with me and asked her if I could transfer the plants into my own containers. She was more than happy to have her plastic pots back.
What’s more, I learned that the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery has set aside a spot for customers to return their plastic containers. According to an employee I spoke with, the pots are returned to the growers for reuse.
So what about recycling? It’s true that some communities allow all plastics, including plant containers, in their recycling bins. But the fact is that a lot of the plastic we toss in the bin might not actually get recycled. And the stuff that does is actually downcycled. Read my post on the problems with recycling to understand why it should be the last option for dealing with plastic waste, not the first.
Oh, those darned plastic plant markers
On thing I haven’t been able to avoid are the plastic markers that come with new plants. I contacted Sweetwater Nursery to find out if I could send them back to reuse. No luck. Janis Kelley from Sweetwater said that the company has been trying for years to find a plastic-free alternative but so far has not come up with anything better than the plastic ones. And they won’t take them back. So I guess the plant markers are my first plastic failure in this little experiment. Next year, I’ll either start all my plants from seeds, or I’ll see if I can find local gardeners with plants to sell or give away.
As for marking my seeds, several readers have recommended wooden popsicle sticks, which would be great if I had a bunch of used popsicle sticks lying around. But I don’t, and new wooden plant markers come packaged in a plastic bag.
So I’m using the backs of some plastic markers I already had from prior years. I wrote on them with pencil so I can reuse them in future years. (Sadly, the Sweetwater markers are printed on both the front and back, so I can’t reuse those markers in this way.)
I’ve gotten all kinds of creative alternatives from people on Facebook. Like using secondhand metal forks with the seed packet over them. Or shaving the bark off of sticks and labeling those. All great ideas. But I’m fine reusing plastic I already have.
Avoid Plastic-Coated Plant Cages
In her Rodale.com article, “Keep Your Garden Plastic-Free with These Easy Swaps,” Jean Nick’s first bit of advice is to “kick coated products to the curb.” She means vinyl-coated wire products, like the stuff some plant cages are made from. Sadly, my tomato and pepper cages are coated with dark green plastic. But I’m not counting them as a plastic failure this year because these are cages I bought several years ago during my very first tomato attempt. I figure, it’s better to use what I already have than to buy new. So, along with the plant markers, the cages are another plastic item in my garden.
Three or four weeks after planting my first seeds, only the chard had peeked out of the soil.
I think I know why. In that first week, before I settled on a plastic-free watering method (which I’ll discuss in my next post), I watered with the hose. I think the violent sprayer washed the seeds away. Either that or birds ate them. So finally I decided to do some replanting. But this time, I used Mrs. Green’s toilet paper roll idea. (We collect our TP rolls to donate to a local reuse center for art projects, so I already had a few of them saved up.) Instead of making pots out of the cardboard tubes, I cut them in half and twisted them directly into the soil of my raised bed and replanted my seeds inside them. I hoped to accomplish two things: first, I’d actually know where I planted the seeds this time, and second, the tubes would protect the seeds from being washed away. In fact, I could just pour a little water into each tube. Eventually, the cardboard would compost into the soil. That was my plan.
Well guess what. It worked! Seedlings started popping up right away!
A few of the original seeds came up too, but after the seeds I replanted in the tubes. Interesting… Anyway, for weeks now, I’ve been adding more tubes and planting more seeds and watching them come up. Later this week, I’ll post pictures of my garden so far. It’s pretty amazing.
My only concern: should I worry about the glue holding the toilet paper tubes together???
Plastic-free Garden Gloves
In my first post, I also asked about plastic-free gardening gloves. In the stores, I had found most gloves made of or coated with synthetic material. And since I’m a vegetarian, I didn’t want leather or suede, which seemed to be the alternative. I did find cotton gloves, but they were covered with little PVC plastic dots. Finally, searching online, I decided on Hemp Hand gloves made from 100% hemp canvas. Hemp is a much more sustainable crop than cotton, requiring fewer chemicals and water to grow and yielding much more fiber per plant.
I ordered my gloves from GreenBoatStuff.com and requested no plastic packaging. They arrived in a plain cardboard mailer. (Disclosure: if you order any products from GreenBoatStuff.com via a link on this blog, MyPlasticfreeLife earns a small commission.)
The thing is… they’re so pretty, I haven’t had the heart to get them dirty. So they sit unused, waiting to do the job they were designed for, while I continue to dig in the dirt with my bare hands. What was I thinking?
My questions for you
1) Do I need to worry about fertilizing? I’ll need to figure out what kind of food each type of veggie needs, right?
2) Can I compost without a compost bin? I have a compost tumbler I bought a few years ago that I don’t like and never use. Instead, we put all our food scraps in our city’s green bin to be sent to a commercial compost facility. But I’m wondering if I can make a simple compost pile in the corner of my yard without any composter at all. Do I need a bin or can I just toss my organic waste into a pile or a hole in the ground and see what happens? You know, composting for lazy people?
3) What do you think are the easiest crops to grow?
Coming up next: Mulching with straw and watering without plastic.