Last Fall, Rodale.com’s Dana Blinder contacted me about plastic-free gardening. What she didn’t know was that I had already failed miserably in the gardening department several times and wasn’t sure gardening was my thing. That’s when we came up with a brilliant idea. Rodale would teach me how to grow an organic garden, and I would figure out how to do it with the minimum plastic possible.
My guru for this project is Rodale’s Eric Hurlock, Associate Online Editor for Organic Gardening. First, I sent him photos of my postage stamp front yard, the only space available for a garden. (My neighborhood in Oakland, CA, is in Zone 8B, according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder.)
I explained that the yard is basically hard clay that is overrun every Spring by tough little yellow flowers that refuse to be pulled up. Each year the landlord sends some guys over to chop the weeds down, but they’re never uprooted. I’m betting the roots are taller than me at this point.
Eric suggested that instead of trying to make my hard, weedy soil hospitable to vegetables, I should build a raised bed filled with rich, organic soil on top of it. Oh dear. I’m building now? I could see this project was going to be more complicated than buying a bunch of plants and sticking them in the ground. Still, I was committed. And I wanted to not only make this garden plastic-free, but as low impact as possible. So I asked about using salvaged lumber for the frame of the raised bed instead of brand new wood.
Eric said no. For an organic garden, secondhand wood would not work because it might have been treated with toxic chemicals in its previous life, and we’d have no way of knowing. So instead I looked for new lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC-certified) to be from sustainably-managed forests. I rented a pickup truck from Zip Car (the car share service I belong to so I don’t have to own a car) and scooted over to Ashby Lumber in Berkeley, which I discovered carries plenty of FSC-certified wood.
I purchased nails from the bulk bin at the hardware store, tossing the amount I needed into a brown paper bag, which I will be sure to reuse.
Michael sawed the boards to the right length for me (my arm’s been acting up), and then I set to work building my 6′ x 4′ x 12″ box.
But what would I put under my box to keep the weeds from coming up through the new soil I would buy? Black plastic, popular among so many gardeners, was obviously out.
Eric suggested used cardboard instead. Perfect. We have an attic full of broken down cardboard moving boxes. I used a few of those.
And then I had to find a way to fill the box with soil without ending up with a billion plastic bags.
Some companies, like American Soil and Stone in Richmond, CA, sell soil and amendments in bulk. They can dump it into your own truck or deliver it to your door. Bright and early one Wednesday morning, a big truck pulled up loaded with “Local Hero Veggie Mix” (Contains: Sandy Loam, WonderGrow Organic Compost, Rice Hulls, Chicken Manure, Grape Compost, Fir Bark, Cocoa Bean Hulls) for me. “I hope you can use extra,” the driver said, “because I have way more than you ordered.”
Sure! More is always better, right? Um… not if it’s Wednesday morning, and the guy dumps the dirt right in the middle of the sidewalk, and you have to shovel all of that dirt off the sidewalk before leaving for work, all the while praying someone in a wheelchair doesn’t need the sidewalk before you’re done. But I did it. I was prepared with my shovel, as well as a wheelbarrow I had borrowed from our local tool lending library. Yep, the wheelbarrow is plastic, but according to my plastic-free rules, borrowing and sharing durable plastic goods, instead of buying new, is not just allowed, it’s encourage.
I shoveled all morning until my shoveler was sore. And as you can see, I did end up with way more dirt than would fit in my little raised bed frame.
But it turns out that that’s good. Because Eric says that I shouldn’t plant my squash or cucumbers, which tend to spread out, in the box but in mounds of their own outside the box. I’ll also use some of the dirt to grow herbs in terra cotta pots. All this talk of veggies and herbs leads me to my next plastic-free dilemmas:
1) Buying plants that don’t come in plastic pots. I can plant seeds from paper envelopes, but Eric says that I should not grow tomatoes and peppers from seeds but from seedlings. And what about those plastic markers they inevitably come with?
2) Finding a plastic-free garden hose. Does such a thing even exist? And if not, what’s the most eco-friendly hose I can buy? Or is there a better way to water? I haven’t found a plastic-free hose, but I have found ones that supposedly have fewer leaching chemicals. But some people have recommended skipping the hose altogether. One of my Facebook friends recommends ladling water from a metal bucket. And one of the Rodale readers suggests a metal watering can. What do you think?
3) Finding plastic-free gardening gloves. My hands were pretty calloused after all that shoveling, and my fingernails were a mess. A pair of gardening gloves would be nice, but I’m not interested in gloves made with vinyl or polyester, and I’m a vegetarian so I don’t want leather or suede either.
Do you have advice for me? I’d love to hear it.