Plastic-free gardening

How to buy plants without the plastic

I love to buy plants. What gardener doesn’t? It’s what gardening is all about: that magpie-like delight in tracking down a coveted treasure, the thrill of spotting the perfect plant for the gap you wanted to fill in a border.

Only trouble is, with every plant I buy the stack of plastic pots in my garage gets even taller. And since I plant not only my own garden, but bits and pieces of four other gardens I look after, it is already well above my head and definitely at the teetering stage.

Our addiction to plastic – or rather the horticultural industry’s dependence on it – means that whenever you buy a plant, it comes with a side order of plastic pot. It’s all very well pledging to buy no new plastic for the garden; but what about the plastic you don’t buy?

So for the last couple of seasons, this is one of the main areas where I’ve been concentrating my efforts to reduce the plastic in my garden. And I’ve come up with my own rules for buying plants without the plastic.

It does involve a certain amount of self-denial. We have become used to being able to pop into the garden centre and pick up plants whenever we feel like it, 365 days of the year, and plastic is what makes this on-demand availability possible.

Just as with supermarkets, round-the-clock availability divorces us from the natural turning of the seasons. We have lost our feel for the right season to plant and sow. And for gardeners, that’s never a good thing.

Plants you put in the ground in, say, summer need massive amounts of watering to keep them alive, let alone growing (in last year’s summer, they’d be goners). Plant in autumn, and through winter into spring, and the ground is consistently damp and occasionally fairly warm; plants are largely dormant, so they can concentrate on root systems before they need to find the extra energy for top growth.

Autumn, winter and spring are also the best times of year to strike cuttings, sow seeds and divide your existing perennials to make new plants. All requiring no plastic at all.

So I have been confining my plant acquisitions to the six months between September and March. It has taken every ounce of my willpower – I’d never noticed before quite  how many plant fairs and flower shows take place during summer, the very worst time to plant, and every last desirable plant on offer sitting in its plastic pot. But I have been  Very Good and will walk past the lot of them (well, I might stop for a moment and gaze a little wistfully).

Because from here on in I will buy plants only if they are plastic free. And – with the occasional exception, such as stumbling across Hairy Pot plants in the few nurseries and garden centres which stock them – that means no impulse buys from garden centres or nurseries or plant fairs or flower shows.

I console myself with the fact that my plants will be happier and will establish better. And I’m going to have a whole lot of fun with raising plants myself, the old-fashioned way, with all the deep, long-lasting satisfaction that comes with that achievement. And that’s something you can’t buy in any garden centre.

Here are my five ways to buy plants without the plastic:

Buy bare root: By far the best way to do it, with the easiest access to the widest range of varieties (and it’s increasing all the time). Available November to March, you can buy plants bare root from many mail order nurseries and from the wholesale nursery Howard Nurseries (based in Norfolk). Hedging, roses, fruit canes, strawberries and (for some reason that escapes me) wallflowers are all routinely sold bare root at garden centres throughout winter, too.

Buy mail order from plastic-aware nurseries: Nurseries like Bluebell Cottage Nurseries in Cheshire take plants out of their pots before sending them to you. They wrap in wax paper or newspaper, pack them carefully and they arrive without a pot for you to deal with (the original is usually re-used back at the nursery).

Divide existing perennials: Increasing your stock without accumulating extra plastic just takes a little patience. Dividing gives you the quickest results: chop clumps of perennials into two, three or four pieces in autumn or spring and replant each chunk for a new plant.

Raise from cuttings: If you have a sympathetic friend or relative with a particularly desirable plant in their garden, ask if you can take a cutting to pot up at home. You have several chances for taking cuttings throughout the year: in spring or autumn take softwood or shoot cuttings; in summer you can peel away a heeled or semi-ripe cutting; and in winter you can propagate shrubs, including roses, from hardwood cuttings, probably the easiest of the lot.

Raise from seed: The joy of persuading a seed to germinate is a very special thing. Most of us sow a few annuals and vegetables – but you can sow perennials, shrubs and trees from seed too, and it’s great fun to try. Plunder seed swaps and membership schemes like those run by the RHS and the Hardy Plant Society for sometimes quite unusual varieties to add to your collection (you get loads of plants for your money, too, so it’s a lot cheaper to stock your garden this way). Raising plants from seed gives you a connection with them you don’t have any other way, too: I currently have a huge cordyline, some 12-15ft tall and mature enough to flower and fruit, which I raised from seed myself: it would be a fairly ordinary plant bought with its pot on in a garden centre, but because I have raised it from a baby it is my pride and joy.

I will be going into each of these options in more detail in the coming months: watch this space!

Advertisements
recycling

Plastic pot recycling: the latest

You may have heard that the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) recently brought in ‘taupe’ pots – actually a kind of bilious shade of grey – as an alternative to the ubiquitous black variety which can’t be recycled as sorting machines don’t ‘see’ the colour black.

Taupe pots use a polypropylene completely free of the ‘carbon black’ pigment, so sorting machines should be able to see them and recycle them along with other rigid plastics.

The work goes on to encourage garden centres and nurseries to take up the taupe pots: it’s always been a given that this is going to arrive on shelves gradually, as the current stock of black pots has to be used up first. Fast-growing plugs, like bedding, annuals and vegetable plugs should appear in taupe first, followed by perennials, followed by shrubs and trees which are in containers for longest.

So far Hillier have led the way by having its first commercial crop ready grown in taupe, Other growers are following; Waitrose already has plants in taupe pots on the shelves, and Wyevale Nurseries, Farplants and Bransford Webbs are among other names taking up the new pots. They will be more expensive (of course) but the (smallish) cost rises aren’t expected to appear on plant price tags till 2020.

But…

For the taupe pot initiative to succeed, they have to be not only recyclable, but actually recycled. And there’s the rub.

The British Plastics Federation says 79% of local councils recycle rigid plastic (often referred to as ‘pots, tubs and trays’) at the kerbside.

But trade magazine Horticulture Week took it upon itself to ring 70 local authorities and actually ask them whether they will accept plastic plant pots in kerbside collections.

61 of them – that’s 87% – said they would not accept plastic plant pots at all, whatever colour they were.

The advice is to drive your plastic plant pots to your nearest municipal tip for recycling there (as long as they accept rigid plastic themselves, and as long as the pots are not black, of course). For me, that’s a 1hr 20 minute round trip to Exeter. Which rather cancels out the environmental benefits of recycling the pots in the first place.

The HTA is now lobbying the government to put pressure on councils to accept plant pots alongside rigid plastic food packaging and take them for recycling.

But I can’t help thinking that this underlines the increasingly undeniable fact that recycling is not the answer. It is, at best, the least we can do: but it’s a half-hearted, lily-livered sort of an attempt to turn back the plastic tsunami which floods into our gardens each year.

Even recycled plastic still ends up in landfill or floating about in our oceans anyway: you can only recycle plastic 7-9 times before the fibres become too short and they are useless for recycling further. And that doesn’t even start to address the 70% or so of rigid plastic which is not recycled at all, by anyone, whether there are the facilities to do so or not. And that’s a lot of plastic: there are 500 million new plant pots manufactured every single year.

The only real solution is – as so often – the less easy one that requires real, genuine change. We need to find other ways of doing things which don’t use plastic at all – not even if it’s recycled. Wood, metal, paper, cardboard: materials which biodegrade at the end of their lives, properly, without harming wildlife or polluting our environment. That is the only real way out of this mess: anything else is just a sticking plaster covering more of the same old rubbish.