Plastic substitutes, Plastic-free gardening

The alternatives #2: Clay and coir

Clay pots

IMG_5043Probably the one type of biodegradable plant pot we’ve all used at one time or another, clay pots have a fine pedigree: they were the go-to pot of choice for all Victorian estate gardeners, and remain the benchmark for classy gardens everywhere.

What is it:  Clay pots are made of baked clay – that’s the stuff you get out of the ground, so about as natural as it gets. As old as the hills, the ultimate in traditional gardening, they look wonderful and last for ages if you look after them. But they are heavy and clumsy gardeners will struggle to keep them in one piece.

How long do they last: Theoretically, forever; you can reuse clay pots year after year for generations. They are more robust than plastic pots, in that you can strim a clay pot without it getting shredded; but if you drop one, you’ve lost it.

How are they made: You’ve seen Ghost, right? You know the pottery scene? (of course you know the pottery scene; it’s the only one anyone remembers from that movie). That’s basically the same for plant pots. Except possibly minus Patrick Swayze. They are made, by hand, from clay, on potters’ wheels, then fired in a kiln. You can watch a rather lovely video of US master potter Guy Wolff making terracotta pots here.

Terracotta – literally ‘baked earth’ – just refers to pots made of unglazed, and therefore porous clay (as opposed to ceramics, which are glazed).

Cost: Middlingly expensive, at about £1 a pot for 11cm diameter; slightly cheaper from reclamation yards where you can get lucky and pick up boxes of second-hand clay pots relatively cheaply.

Also available as: Rhubarb forcers, plant labels, plant saucers, pot feet

Pros: Re-usable and long-lasting; heartbreakingly lovely to look at, the stuff of fantasy gardens everywhere. They age beautifully, too. Available in every possible size and shape, and readily available too; these are the one type of biodegradable pot you can be sure to find in a standard garden centre. In my experience, plants like clay pots and seem to grow better in them: I think this may be because their porous nature allows the roots to breathe a little better. They dry out quicker than plastic, but re-wet more thoroughly as the pot absorbs water as well as the plant, so you don’t get water running down between rootball and pot and draining out at the bottom without wetting the roots. There are many UK based manufacturers, so they don’t have to travel far to get to you; though watch out as the cheaper versions seem to be made by a company called Spang, based in Germany, so are imported and so have a higher environmental cost.

Cons: Heavy, and easily broken. Pricey, especially online mail order as the postage costs are high for heavy items. The firing process – 1000 degrees for 18 hours or so – means that even though they are produced locally so don’t have a high mileage, the carbon footprint of clay pots is still pretty high.

Stockists: Widely available from garden centres, reclamation yards and garden equipment suppliers online.

UK-based terracotta pot specialists include Yorkshire Flowerpots and Whichford Pottery . Both do a ‘garden essentials’ range, but expect to pay more; there’s a good reason, too, as these are superb and very beautiful pots, and a cut above your bog standard potting shed fare.

Coconut fibre (coir)

coirpots_hairypotplantcoThe second most commonly found biodegradable alternative to plastic after clay; a single-use biodegradable which the plant roots can grow through, so you plant it along with your seedlings. It’s also made from what would otherwise be a waste material. Unfortunately, because it must be imported from south Asia, it comes with quite a high environmental cost.

What is it: Coir is a by-product of the coconut industry. It’s that fibrous, hairy stuff you find on the hard shell of a coconut, a mix of lignin and cellulose, and it’s extremely useful stuff: it’s also used in ship’s rigging, matting (mainly door mats) mattresses and potato sacks. It is, unusually for biodegradable materials, relatively waterproof which is what makes it such a popular product in horticulture.

How long do they last: Up to 12 months above ground before they go ‘hairy’ and are best planted in the ground. There they take a few months to biodegrade.

How are they made: Fibres are stripped from the coconut then softened in water, then mixed with latex, the sap from rubber trees, before being moulded into pots.

Cost: 50 9cm pots for £11 (but need to buy new each year)

Also available as: Hanging basket liners

Pros: Easy to re-wet as absorbs water easily. Available in every size from Jiffy propagation modules to large pots. Can be planted out in the garden without removing from the plant, avoiding root disturbance.

Cons: Coir has a high environmental footprint as it must be shipped from coconut-producing countries like India, Sri Lanka (between them the producers of 90% of the world’s coir supplies) and the Philippines, with all the carbon emissions that entails. And because these pots are not meant to be removed from the plants but are planted out with them, you have to buy in a new supply each year. Commercially, coir pots are often sold wrapped in plastic.

Stockists: It is surprisingly difficult to find larger coir pots. Small ones – propagation modules and pots up to 8cm – are readily available and the biodegradable pots you’ll most often find in garden centres. But I don’t use 8cm pots; I jump from modules to 10cm as I’ve found they need less watering, and anything below 8cm I can make myself at home. I did however find two UK sources for larger coir pots:

Green Gardener sells coir pots in three sizes, up to 16cm diameter.

The Hairy Pot Plant Company stocks plants ready-grown in coir pots as well as the pots themselves, via The Natural Gardener.

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Plastic substitutes

If not plastic, then…. what?

So far I’ve been concentrating on what to do with the plastic you’ve already got.

But once you’ve taken the pledge not to buy any new plastic for your garden (and done your best to fend off the plastic that keeps trying to get back in) you still need pots, and seed trays, and hanging basket liners. So if not plastic, then what?

Smaller pots – anything up to about 7cm – are easy. You can make them yourself: save your loo rolls, make newspaper pots, or use a soil blocker. Small plastic pots and module trays were the first things I got rid of in my garden: I no longer use them as I find the alternatives so much better. I’ll be detailing how I did it soon on this very blog.

Larger pots, though, are tricky. You can’t make them yourself: so you have to buy them in. And most of the pots you’ll see offered for sale at sizes 10cm and above are plastic.

That’s not to say there’s no alternative to plastic pots: actually, there are loads, they’re just quite difficult to find. The stranglehold plastic has over the horticultural industry is loosening off, just a teeny bit, and most garden centres now sell at least some biodegradable pots. But if you look into it more closely, the choice is actually quite bewildering. I have found just under a dozen different biodegradable materials currently used as a replacement for plastic in gardening products. Here’s the list:

  • coir (coconut fibre)
  • miscanthus
  • spruce wood
  • bamboo
  • rice husks
  • straw
  • cow manure
  • starch
  • cellulose
  • cardboard
  • terracotta clay

Some of these sound like they might be the same thing, but nonetheless – it’s quite an impressively varied choice.

Why we are still using so much plastic when there are so many other types of pot out there I’m not entirely sure. Part habit, I’m sure; but also because biodegradable pots are definitely more expensive. This is mainly because most biodegradable pots, ahem, biodegrade; so they don’t last very long and need replacing each year as they are planted along with the plant. That’s not the case with all of them, though: clay pots are the obvious example of a long-lasting biodegradable pot, and there are others which claim a life of at least 3-5 years.

The clincher for me, though, and one that justifies the extra expense is that quite a few biodegradable pots are an improvement on plastic. When plant roots can breathe (as they cannot in plastic), when they can grow through a material rather than being forced to circle round and round (pot-bound plants are a thing of the past when you grow in many biodegradable pots), and most importantly of all when container and plant can go into the ground together with no need for root disturbance – that means a happier plant that’s more vigorous, healthier and quicker to establish in the garden. I can bear witness to this myself: my results, especially at the beginning of the year when I’m sowing, pricking out and transplanting hundreds of plants, have noticeably improved since I stopped using plastic.

Not all these advantages apply to rigid biodegradables like clay or bamboo, but you still keep some. I find when growing in clay pots that the plants seem to appreciate the increased exchange of air and moisture through the sides of the pots, and though they dry out more quickly they also wet more thoroughly than plants in plastic pots, as the clay absorbs the water as well as the compost. That means you don’t get that effect of water running down the sides between rootball and pot before draining out the bottom and leaving the roots as bone dry as if you hadn’t watered at all.

The more I grow in biodegradable containers the more I like it. But having tried a few different types in a rather haphazard way over the last few years, I’m also aware that they are not all alike. There’s a big difference between growing in a floppy coir pot and a rigid terracotta pot; and there are other considerations too. Rice hulls have a very different environmental footprint to cow manure, for example.

So I am going to be spending the next few weeks collecting together information about as many of the biodegradable alternatives out there as possible. I’m also going to get my hands on a few samples of the pots in question and put them through their paces. The result, I hope, will be the most comprehensive analysis yet of exactly what it’s like to grow your plants in non-plastic materials; which are the best, which don’t perform so well and which you should be using in your garden.