The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 9, 2011

Gardening Without Plastic, Part 2: Planting and Replanting

A few weeks ago, I began my plastic-free gardening project in my tiny Oakland, CA yard with the help of 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.

Planting Seeds

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.

organic seeds

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.

kitties in the window

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.

natural fiber starter pots

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:

plastic tomato plant 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.

Ecoforms compostable plant 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.

herbs in plastic pots

herbs transferred to Ecoforms pots

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.

reuse plastic plant pots

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.

wooden plant markers

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.)

reuse plastic plant markers

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 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.

reuse plastic plant markers


Three or four weeks after planting my first seeds, only the chard had peeked out of the soil.

Swiss chard

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.

toilet roll plant pot

Well guess what. It worked! Seedlings started popping up right away!

toilet roll plant pot

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 and requested no plastic packaging. They arrived in a plain cardboard mailer. (Disclosure: if you order any products from via a link on this blog, MyPlasticfreeLife earns a small commission.)

Hemp Hands gloves

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.

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Elaine Varley

Love the toilet paper roll idea for seedlings. If your in an area that has bunnies or other bulb or vegetable munchers, just put a layer of dog hair around each plant and top with a thin layer of soil. It really is a great defense.

Beth Terry

bluespinningplanet Thanks for the tips and the book recommendations!


Now that you’re now into gardening, check out books by Ruth Stout. She was the queen of the no-work garden and her methods work great. As to composting, I also follow the easy way and have been doing it since I learned from my mother more than 50 years ago. Just pile it up and let nature do the work! Each time you add kitchen scraps (which have lots of nitrogen), cover them with browns (which have lots of carbon). Browns are anything that’s essentially dried out….think leaves in the fall, hay, straw, pine needles, etc. You don’t have to… Read more »


I am also new to this gardening thing, and am also trying to be as ecofriendly as possible. I collected biodegradable paper cups used a local green fund raising run and have used those to plant the seeds I kept from gemsquash and pattie pans bought at our local home industry – so far so good, I think. Also at the home industry I bought 2 litres of worm “tea” from someone’s wormery (ok, it was in a old cooldrink bottle – but at least it’s not in the landfill yet!) to feed my veggies with till I have compost.… Read more »

Beth Terry

I love the idea of compost pits. Do you have to turn and maintain the compost or just leave it there and let it do its thing? In my book, the less work the better.


oops, i meant the “brown” part of the compost, not the “grown” part….


Hi, I wanted to let you know that i put my compost right on the ground. I live in the country so no neighbors to complain. Sometimes i pile it right in the garden or like this past winter i piled it on top of the ground right where there are a lot of leaves to pull in for the grown part. It works for me, and i can just rake it over since there’s room on all sides. Whatever nutrients are leaching into the ground I’m not going to worry about, eventually i can use that spot to plant… Read more »

Beth Terry

Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve just been tossing peelings and egg shells into a pile in the yard. No time to do more, but I like that it’s staying here and nourishing my soil.


Thanks for sharing this post. Using gloves without is a nice idea to protect your garden from plastic…


Have you thought of painting over the Sweetwater markers with chalkboard paint to reuse them? I just now realized that the chalk would probably wash away when watering – but maybe there’s a way around that… not sure.

Beth Terry

Interesting concept. Yes, the chalk would probably wash away. But also, after taking a walk through my neighborhood this weekend and witnessing a whole bunch of plastic plant markers on the sidewalk in various places (it seems to be garden planting time right now), I don’t think I want to leave them outside. *Sigh*

Kris @ Attainable Sustainable

I haven’t read all of the comments, and I’m kind of late on this, but wanted to chime in. Compost happens in nature without anybody doing *anything. Humans are totally unnecessary for the process. Of course, we’ve discovered methods to speed up the process (turning a pile, for instance) because that’s what we do. The main reason to have a dedicated compost bin is to keep out critters, but one is not necessary. I’ve written about lazy composting (and composting with the aid of my chickens) a lot on my site because people really should know that it’s easy to… Read more »


There are several good youtube videos for assembling compost bins from pallets. They’re free at many garden and hardware stores, the wood is untreated and it re-purposes them instead of going to the landfill


We compost in an old broken trash can. (yes, it’s plastic. But, since it’s good for nothing else, it keeps it out of the landfill)

Lea G

Good idea. It never came up to me to garden without plastic. Well, we use clay pots but here in the city it’s hard to find. glad to come across this

Kelly S.

We compost in a pile. We put a “cage” around the pile out of some old fencing that we got off of freecycle. You just have to give it a turn to mix it up sometimes. If you have the right “greens” and “browns” balance, it should not smell, and there should be no bugs. In the late spring you could request on craigslist or freecycle for extra plants. We always end up with a few more than we need and give them away after planting (this year i had extra sweet potato shoots and tomatoes). For markers i picked… Read more »


We just dig a hole and drop the produce matter in and cover it up. No rodents. We have worms directly in our soil, too, so we’re feeding them. We live in a townhome with a very small backyard that has two garden beds (one on either side of the stamped concrete patio). I also use containers for edible plants. I use fertilizer for the container plants for now (packaged in cardboard box or paper bag from local family-owned nursery). I’ve been working on our soil for years and it is finally supporting edibles better than the containers at this… Read more »


I have had two different compost tumblers, and didn’t like either of them. We have switched to composting directly in our raised beds. We have 4 beds, and our intention is that each year we will rotate and use a different bed as our compost bed.

Marie @ Awakeatheart

I have been using an old broken steel garbage can that we drilled holes in for our compost bin. The problem I’ve been having so far is that there really does need to be a large amount of stuff in there to really get the pile decomposing as fast as you think it should. A compost tumbler, I’ve been told, can speed up this process because it turns into an oven and can compost smaller amounts of material. I’d love one but it’s a space/cost issue. Ours keeps the critters out (not that we have many, no racoons here in… Read more »


As far as easy to grow… I find herbs especially easy (basil, mint, sage, parsley, oregano, cilantro, thyme, etc.). I agree on hot peppers being more hardy than green peppers. It also doesn’t get an easier than onions and scallions. I love the perennials as well such as Rhubarb and Strawberries. Kale is hard to get wrong and you get wonderful leaves even in the winter months.


I compost in a heap, it attracts squirrels, stray cats, and mice but we don’t seem to have other fauna (dunno why, I know there are raccoons nearby but we never get them in our yard or trash can). If you have rats, coyotes, or raccoons a compost heap may attract them (or bears, but probably not in your neighborhood.) Anyway, i compost in a heap and every spring and fall I spread dirt from the center of my annual bed to the edges, and bury the partially-composted heap in the center. Added 8 inches to my 6×6 bed over… Read more »


p.s. fava beans are the top of my list for easiest to grow. they’re amazing. it depends on climate though. and my compost bin is made of scavenged pallets, i looked for ones that seemed like they’d rot just fine (indicating untreated wood).


you can most definitely just compost in a pile- a pit or trench would be more aesthetically pleasing perhaps, and is a good method as well. for starting my own stuff in the future, i hope to get one of these soil block presses: i saw them on farmama’s blog and it’s like a giant cookie cutter grid that makes cubes out of your prepared potting soil. pot-free. i do reuse lots of little plastic pots for now… i get them from my friends and also snag empty yogurt cups from the staff room at work to use. it’s… Read more »


Plant Markers: If you ever see an old mini-blind sticking (metal or better yet, plastic) out of a garbage can, grab it and cut it up to make a lifetime’s worth of plant markers. You can use scissors on individual slats or a table saw on 10 slats at once.


Not sure how much room you have, and I think you’ll run into the same problems with the unknown origins of reclaimed wood, but I made a compost bin a few years back using 5 pallets (they had been thrown away by a local grocery store). One at the bottom, and the other 4 as walls.

jude hanlon

Composting: My Dad has made (a series of) compost bins for use in our family’s gardens from interlocking wooden slats. Basically, the slats slot together and when you turn the compost over, you just rebuild it next to itself layer by layer until all the non-useable compost is in the new-build. Happy to give you more detail if you want it!


Beth, something may be eating your seedlings. Rabbits, cats, birds, etc. Also, I mulch so that the seedlings say moist. I noticed you don’t have any mulch on your beds. I use straw but the problem is straw can grow grass. So you will have to weed. Each year, I keep promising myself I am going to store a ton of leaves for the winter to make mulch because I get tried of weeding. I store them for my composter as the brown part.. I happen to have plastic composters but I have alot of pest to content with. You… Read more »

Erin aka Conscious Shopper

Regarding gardening gloves – I’ve been planning to make some out of old yoga pants like these:


oh, thanks for this post…we do buy some plants in those compostable-type containers, but sadly, many varieties of seedlings are only available in plastic here in this region of western Kentucky. Love it that you found a place that will re-use the pots…I’ll ask around and see if I can find a place here. thanks!


I agree with many of the other commenters. Compost is essential to a productive and sustainable garden. And, there are lots of good (and easy!) ways to create rich compost. I use the worm bin (made from recycled plastic) that I purchased from I love it and recycle all my food scraps in it. The worms turn the organic matter into compost faster than passive composting. I got my worms from Bay Area Worms – a nonprofit in Alameda. The guy there was a composting guru and had lots of examples of homemade compost bins. He was also more… Read more »


Spinach, peas and beans are super easy to grow. A word of caution about mint. It is very easy to grow but spreads like a weed. I would make sure to contain the roots. My sister has a compost tumbler which does not work very well. She is back to the old fashioned pile mehtod.


Lettuce are the gift that keep in giving. We have 8, a couple of different varietys & between the two of us can’t eat them quick enough before they grow back. (taking of the outer leaves) Magic!

Cheryl Newcomb

Gardening is where I do a lot of re-purposing. For instance, I have not been able to give up using unbleached paper coffee filters for my brew, but each used one gets saved. i use them again in the bottom of my container planting, they hold moisture and keep the soil form leaking out the drainage holes. All coffee grounds are distributed throughout my gardens. Every day. My pants and flowers rock! My best tip for you Beth, ditch the fertilizers ( and their packaging) . Simply place an uncracked raw egg in the sil below the planting. As is… Read more »


1. You shouldn’t need to fertilize the first year. You’ve got virgin soil. It is harvesting crops that slowly depletes soil nutients. Your dirt looked good and black, so I think you’re okay. If your plants look yellow ( and you’re not over-watering) then they need nitrogen. But I wouldn’t worry the first year. 2. Compost, don’t get fancy. I have a small raised bed where I grow tomatoes and sweet potatoes. I just add the compost around the edge of the bed, just as it comes out of the kitchen. That’s the way nature does it. Before I plant… Read more »

Free Range Mama

You can buy cardboard boxes of wooden stir sticks that work well as markers!
I love your enthusiasm!

I don’t fertilize the plants. I just add compost and manure to the soil in the Fall and/or Spring.

My mom used to compost with fencing bins as someone stated, above.


emmer holbrook

ditto ecogrrl! compost tumblers work well and keep critters out, allowing you to compost things you couldn’t use in a pile. that means you get more compost. home gardeners have a giant theoretical advantage over farmers. we can input more than we output. because we don’t grow all we eat and we bringthe rest, with its peels and cores and outer leaves in plus other compostable goods into our homes, we can add more than we take away. another way to compost is to dig a hole near your veggies, ie where there roots may extend as the season advances.… Read more »


Yes, your plants would probably benefit from some type of fertilizer, but will also probably be fine without it, especially the first year. Easy composting–you can save your scraps in a covered container in the fridge until you have enough to half way fill your blender. You can even throw in some shredded paper for the “brown part” if you like. Then blend it all with some (gray?) water and pour into a hole in your garden. It will break down quite quickly. (Or if you accumulate a lot of compostables you can blend them as you go throughout the… Read more »


We don’t have a tumbler. We just pile for a year or so depending on the size. Turn maybe every 2 months or so. Then we have at it to lasagna garden.


I don’t know if this is an option…but what about checking out Home Depot (or other do it yourself store) for scrap pieces of wood trim? (Definitely make sure they’re wood, as some trim is plastic.) You could cut them to whatever length you want and use them for plant markers…and if you get scrap pieces, you can get them for a song. : )


And I NEVER turn my compost! I put sticks in tipi-wise and dump whatever on top of the peak. This keeps air in between things and mixes them up. I layer weeds with the soil still on their roots (green stuff and brown stuff) with kitchen waste. Come spring, I just pull the big sticks out as they come and dump them on top. I find new sticks at some point as the previous ones break down.

If it were difficult, I’d never do it, honestly.


I think you should try composting. I am a huge adherent of composting. I compost everything. Wool, jeans, socks, lint, horrors from my children’s rooms, weeds, all sorts of kitchen scraps, sawdust, fats and oils – whatever!. The trick in my opinion is to get a composter that is 1 metre/yard around at the base so the compost heats up properly. For plastic-free, you can make one with some wood, a saw and hooks and eyes from the hardware store. Or ask for a free one on Craigslist or freecycle. People “try” them and give up. Or get more fashionable… Read more »


ok my dear this is going to be what i call ‘gardening tough love’: 1) put the damn gloves on. you’re seriously not wearing them because they’re ‘pretty’? garden gloves are MUCH sexier after they’ve got dirt on them. dirt is sexy. 2) you have a gorgeous composter that you “don’t like”? it’s a gorgeous thing, someone actually recycled plastic to make it, and you give all your rich compost to the collectors? what gives? use your composter. stop being a princess and use what you have. otherwise, as with the gloves, you’re being wasteful. gotta be hard on you… Read more »


Pike’s nursery has an organic nutrient for the soil that comes in a cardboard box. I use that. We also use a box of wooden craft sticks for labeling. This year, I used bamboo sticks and string to hold up my tomato garden. Next time I wlll craft it in a different way, but it sure did a great job this year! Most of my plants are grown to the top of it. The seeds planted directly in the ground tend to grow slower than protected because they seem to need a warmer, moist environment. The tubes give them the… Read more »


With respect to easy plants – tomatoes, zucchini, rosemary, and basil are the easiest. I don’t purchase fertilizer, prefering to be as self-sustaining as possible. So I prep the beds with compost, and fertilize with urine and bloodwater. Wood ash can be used to raise soil pH if necessary. I’ve never worried about NPK ratios and have always had bumper crops of veggies. There’s a wealth of books, articles, and websites that discuss how use these methods effectively. As for composting, I have old metal fencing and metal fence posts that I used to build two compost cages. They’re covered… Read more »

Michele Cornelius

I’ve always had the best luck with greens to put in salads like arugula, mustards, kale and bok choy. Potatoes are also easy…I am in a colder climate though. I have been composting for years using the easy way of putting everything in a pile which I flip over a few times a year with a pitchfork. When the pile gets large, I start a new pile and let the old one sit until it is almost all broken down, and dig it into the garden beds in the fall so it breaks down the rest of the way before… Read more »

Sharyn Dimmick

Crops: tomatoes are easy to grow and don’t take much work. I feed mine waste water from the kitchen sink caught in a metal bowl (water from washing vegetables, draining pasta, etc.) They also get some tea and coffee grounds in water everyday. Radishes are super easy, lettuces, chard once it gets going. I have kept a pot of chives going for years, ditto for mint. Tomatoes and basil need some protection from snails — I use copper tape around the base or rims of my re-used pots. I plant tomatoes in ancient plastic buckets that came from laundry detergent… Read more »


My cats are also using up all of my sunny windowsills. I have tried the cactus thing, but cats are pretty clever when it comes to getting at a salad bar, and you’d need to have enough cacti to build a tall fence if you wanted it to be effective (and then you’d block out all the light!). Also, I’m pretty sure their fur keeps the spines from poking them as badly as we hairless people get poked. If anything, the cactus plants I’ve kept have been something that *I* get injured by when I have to hurry over to… Read more »


Love this. I have no luck with the toilet paper roll staring pots but I do have luck with these seeds pots made from newspaper: I also reuse the odd paper cup I get from the coffee shops, and have been known on occasion to dive into a garbage can to retrieve a few!


I have the same issue with the fe-lions getting into the seedlings. I actually built a little cage for them that sits by a south facing window sill. That way I can start things when there’s still 6 inches of snow on the ground and plant when it warms up. But if you try this method be advised… the cats are quite ingenious about getting into the seedling cage so it needs to be pretty secure, and if there’s space on top of it, it needs to be strong enough so the cats can climb up and sit on top.… Read more »


If you do worm composting, you can just toss stuff in and not think about it the worms take care of it for you. But regular compost needs to be turned because the stuff needs oxygen to decompose.

Added bonus to worms: when you have more than enough in the compost bin, you can take some out and put them in your garden. (If you don’t do this, the population will self-regulate.)

Personal agenda to you trying worm composting: I can’t find a way to do it that’s not in plastic and don’t want my nice, organic compost in leaching plastic bins.

Anita Kaiser

Love this idea with the toilet paper rolls. So simple and yet I haven’t ever done it! Will be planting some new seeds in that tomorrow! Thanks for a great tip!


I have a compost tumbler (different model: that I’m very happy with. It’s 50% recycled. Doing without a container in our FL suburban environment would be problematic with critters and insects, but it may work for you. At my last home I just had a ring of fencing containing my pile, but I used it for disposal, not for gardening, so I didn’t pay much attention to the speed or quality of what it produced. The fencing kept my dogs out of it; not sure if raccoons et al. helped themselves at night, but they didn’t cause mess or damage.… Read more »