If you've ever grown your own plants or vegetables you'll be well aware of the role that plastic plays in your windowsills and greenhouses. As gardeners, we are surrounded by plastic with nearly every item we use when growing our own. Whether it be seed trays, plant pots, compost bags, plastic labels, plastic cloches, propagators and all other GYO accessories. I've undertaken 8 months worth of detailed research to start my own challenge to garden without plastic this year.

I’ve already detailed the issue with plastic plant pots and containers in the garden. Even when conscientious gardeners pop them in their recycling bin, more often than not councils won’t recycle them. In fact 87% of those councils that could recycle plastic plant pots don’t. Frustratingly most of these items then become ‘single-use’ and end up in the bin filling landfill and starting their long journey towards breaking down into tiny fragments and vicariously entering our food source. This series of blogs will track the progress of my Plastic-free gardening journey.

I’m the kind of chap that likes to think of myself as part of the solution, not the problem which is why I’ve set out this year to Garden Without Plastic, alongside its champion, garden writer Sally Nex. Sally has been taking to the columns of the press and I shall be taking to both my Youtube channel and blog to demonstrate the alternatives first hand. So that gardeners can start to see the alternatives to plastics and learn from both the lessons and no doubt mistakes of my challenge. We begin with pots and seed trays.

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Growing your own plants without plastic

Plastic is an incredibly useful material in the potting shed. It creates cheap, lightweight and stackable pots meaning that you can grow your own plants from seed cheaply and without huge investments. Even a small apartment with a window sill or balcony can be turned into a productive grow your own area. The issue is that if you’re buying your own plants they nearly always come in a plastic pot. So there’s a limit to how many you can store, reuse and recycle at home. Inevitably they get sent to the bin in one way or another.

I’ll be growing all my own this year without plastic. Even my potting bench is wooden.

Growing without plastic involves choosing alternative pots, seeds trays and planters that can either be reused and ultimate ‘composted’ back down or pots that biodegrade as the plant grows to allow them to leave no trace in the garden.

I’ve spent 8 long months speaking to a number of industry experts, companies, bloggers, Grow your owners and nurseries to see what the options are. This series of articles is going to short cut you to all this wonderful knowledge so you can make your own informed decisions about the steps you too can take to reduce your plastic footprint both in growing your own and buying plants from nurseries.

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Biodegradable seed trays and plant pots

The first step to growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbaceous plants is a vessel to allow your seeds to germinate and take root. This is usually done in some form of pot or seed tray. You only need to step into a garden centre or homeware store from March onwards to see racks of plastic shiny trays, clear plastic lids and pots usually next to a library of brightly coloured seed packets. All beckoning for you to become selfsufficient and grow your own!

A sea of my own black plastic from only one garden design; shocking

Seed trays serve one primary purpose of offering a large surface area for seeds to be scattered, usually lightly covered and then watered. Once they germinate you then can prick them out when they grow their first ‘true leaves’. If you think of the seed tray as the waiting room for germination. They don’t need to be really deep as the seedlings only have very small nutritional and root requirements at this stage. After they have grown these leaves you then ‘pot them on’ into larger individual containers or pots with more nutritional compost and space to send out their roots and grow.

So if we’re not using plastic, what are we going to use as seed trays?

Wooden Seed Trays

Wooden seeds trays are the original plant propagation tool. Long before plastic become so readily accessible gardeners would use wooden seeds trays. They are the same size as the plastic ones you’re used to, sometimes a little bit deeper and a bit heavier. The first thing to say is that they look beautiful in a glasshouse and far more aesthetically pleasing if the design is high on your consideration list!

I prefer wooden seed trays, and have used them for years, as they warm up quickly, are breathable and I find the seedlings roots develop much stronger. I’ve also found them less likely to suffer from dampening off. I’m not sure whether this is because they are less likely to retain excess moisture or just because of other factors.

Wooden seed trays showing Lettuce in my Chelsea Flower Show 2018 design

The drawbacks of wooden seed trays are that they are expensive relative to plastic trays and they don’t stack inside each other. However, they will last for decades whereas most plastic seed trays at some point will crack or get damaged. So it’s a trade-off.

Cardboard seed trays and egg boxes

The next alternative to plastic seed trays is the DIY method of using cardboard boxes. I’m trialling two types of cardboard seed trays. The first is the egg box. Handily this doubles up as a mini seed tray and a seedling modular plant pot on the other side. So for one egg box, you can sow seeds and then plant on 6 or 12 of these into the other side!

I’m also trying an empty cardboard tissue box as well. Comparing them both at the moment during these trials. I believe the egg box will be the winner. The tissue box looks much more flimsy but I’ll be tracking the progress. It’s all about options and seeing what works and what may be doesn’t!

Egg boxes are a great DIY biodegradable seed option; offering both a mini seed tray and modules for the seedlings

I’m also using oven trays to hold the egg boxes and other cardboard seed trays. This means I can move a number of them quickly if I need to but also allows for bottom watering of some seeds. It also means I’m not manhandling them too much and damaging them along the way.

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Toilet Roll Pots

Loo rolls make excellent starting seed pods for larger seeds. If you visit Instagram you’ll see endless broad beans, runner beans, sunflowers etc all grown in toilet rolls. Now, most ‘grow your owners’ will be saying ‘We’ve done this for years!’. Well now is your moment so this can be your collective GYO contribution trophy! I’ll also be demonstrating this and comparing them to the other methods. They do need to be placed on a tray and tightly packed in as they have a habit of falling over or sometimes unravelling if not secured. They are 100% biodegradable though.

The humble loo roll has been used for years for larger seeds by allotmenteers!

Coir plant pots

So the next area of plastic to be replaced is that of the plant pot to which seedlings will be planted in to. One of the solutions I’ve found is Coir plant pots made from Coconut or coir fibre. These are 100% biodegradable and allow a plant to be transplanted out into the garden (after hardening off) where the pot breaks down in the ground.

Coir is found usually in doormats but can also be used in pots such as these from the Natural Gardener

Cow dung plant pots

Yes, you read that correctly, Cow poo pots. They are exactly as described only minus the smell. These dried poo pots work in a similar fashion to the coir plant pots only with added fertiliser. I’ve had these supplied from Michelle and Amanda in the USA and can’t wait to see how they perform.

Cow Pots will also be trialled and I’m intrigued if the ‘manure’ will also help boost plant growth

The niggle at the moment is that both these pots do come with a large travel footprint which obviously has a carbon impact. Mind you a number of plastic pots are imported from the likes of China and Indonesia so you have to bear that in mind too! This trial is to show the results and then maybe we can start to work out how these solutions can be more locally sourced.

Terracotta pots

Terracotta pots are a wonderful and beautiful alternative to plastic pots in the garden. Modern advances have enabled them to be made frost proof taking away the previous drawback of them becoming cracked in sub-zero temperatures. Terracotta not only looks good but is porous so allows plants and seedlings to breathe more. Most people don’t realise that it’s not just nutrition and water than plants need, but oxygen to grow and develop. Roots are particularly overlooked when it comes to aeration and airflow.

Tried and tested Terracotta reusable and breathable for plants

Plastic is not porous so although it retains more moisture it lacks the airflow that healthy plants need to thrive. Again Terracotta are more expensive initially but last for years with care and look far nicer than shiny black plastic. I’ll be using terracotta when the seedlings need to be potted up and will be showing the progress as well.

Watering considerations with biodegradable pots and seed trays

One of the main drawbacks of not using plastic is that you will inevitably have to keep a closer eye on the water levels and humidity of your plants. If you’re using plastic the trays and pots are ‘nonpermeable‘ so will hold onto far more moisture. Which can be a blessing and a curse, nothing is worse than mildew or dampening off caused by overcrowding of saturated seedlings.

Be prepared to water your seedlings more, particularly if you’re not using plastic cling film to cover them during germination

Also because I’m not covering seeds with plastic, which is the usual method if keeping the humidity high and moisture in I’m going to need to look after them a bit more. I don’t find this an issue given you really should be keeping an eye on your seedlings anyway. To be honest, once you’ve sown your seeds, whether a new gardener or seasoned professional, its hard to keep out of the greenhouse or away from the window sill! You’ll be checking daily for those first shoots.

It does mean I’ll be using slightly more water and maybe spending 10-15 mins every couple of days giving a light water to any that look like they are drying out. To combat this I’ll be using vermiculite on seeds that require considerable moisture. See it is just about the balance between the trade-offs.

So whats next?

Well, I’m going to be growing all my own herbaceous perennials for the #explodingatomgarden completely plastic-free. I’ll also be growing some popular Grow Your Own vegetables such as Tomatoes, Runner Beans and some herbs all without plastic. So the next installment will cover the seed sowing process, methods and materials used in my commitment to Plastic Free Gardening. If you’re concerned about the amount of plastic you’re using in the garden why not follow my progress.

Why not subscribe to my Youtube channel to follow the progress of my Gardening Without Plastic Challenge?

If we share all this knowledge about the alternatives as a collective of gardeners surely we can help reduce the amount of plastic we use. I feel that we have a duty to minimise the impact of our glorious hobby has on the environment with the materials that we use. In fact, I’ve even been in touch with John Ryan By Design a hand made UK based mattress maker who is now offering an entirely plant-based Vegan mattress. All using plant fibres avoiding polyester and other plastics. How brilliant is that?!

If you have any questions or have your own plastic-free gardening tips, please drop a comment below or add one to my Youtube channel where I’m happy to help. You can also check out my TweetFacebook or Instagram for more guides and tips.

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5 thoughts on “Plastic Free Gardening: How to grow plants without plastic

  1. […] I’m also growing all of my own plants for the Exloding Atom Garden #plasticfree this year and theres more on that […]

  2. […] Ninja HQ. If you want to read more about why this is a good thing then there is a whole series of Plastic Free Gardening guides here. Seedlings don’t require huge pots as a general rule (maybe sunflowers the exception). I tend […]

  3. […] with efforts to reduce the amount of plastic used in the industry so when speaking to Lee from Garden Ninja with his plastic-free gardening we had to work […]

  4. […] support our plastic-free pledge. A pledge from our florists to offer bouquets without the use of plastic. Mass produced bouquets […]

  5. […] you’re looking for more grow your own tips why not follow my Plastic-Free gardening tips for sowing […]

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