Gardening Without Plastic

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Plastic-free terracotta plant pots

As gardeners we try to work with nature where we can. And that’s one of the joys of growing your own: fresh food without all those nasty chemicals and pesticides! But what about that artificial material we’ve been hearing a lot about recently: plastic? It’s everywhere, including the garden.

Here are some great ideas for growing and storing fruits and vegetables without relying on plastic...

Grow Healthier Seeds and Seedlings Without Plastic

Let’s begin with sowing. Swap seedling flats or seed trays for wooden alternatives. They are heavier and need watering more often, but will last for many years and are simple enough to make and repair. Wood also improves conditions around the roots because it allows the potting mix to breathe.

Replace plastic plug trays with ones made from pulped cardboard or pots pressed from fibre or coconut coir. Better still, make your own seedling pots from strips of newspaper. Cardboard egg trays are handy for most seedlings, or save toilet paper tubes to start off crops that prefer a longer root run, including sweet corn, peas and beans.

All biodegradable pots need to be watered a little more frequently, but on the flip side they encourage healthier roots and can be planted whole, pot and all, to avoid disturbing the root system.

Forget boring old plastic plant labels, make beautiful wooden ones instead!

Long-Lasting Pots and Labels

It’s easy enough to replace plastic pots with all manner of terracotta, metal, wooden – even slate – alternatives, most of which look significantly more eye-catching anyhow. Remember that terracotta and metal pots take a lot of energy to manufacture, so a sturdy plastic pot may have less of an environmental impact over its lifetime, especially if it can be recycled locally.

Labels are easy to make from lollipop sticks, which you can buy in bulk from craft stores. Wood naturally absorbs moisture, which may cause ink to become blurred over time. Use a soft pencil instead, or try labels made of bamboo. For larger labels opt for lengths of wood batten cut to size, painted with non-toxic paint to give a more durable, decorative finish.

Buy Plants Without Plastic Pots

Plants are typically sold in plastic pots, but look out for fiber alternatives, often made from quick-growing, sustainable grasses. Most trees, shrubs and perennials can be purchased bare root over the winter months while they are dormant. Some mail-order nurseries now despatch young plants and seedlings with minimal packaging, just carefully laid between layers of newspaper or straw. And, of course, remember that the cheapest and most effective way to raise lots of plants is to propagate them yourself, by sowing seeds, taking cuttings and dividing established plants.

Recycled plastic compost bins can be very durable, so may prove a more sustainable option than other materials

Plastic-free Potting Soil

Potting compost typically comes in plastic bags. These can be reused in a multitude of ways around the garden, but if you want to avoid plastic altogether the simplest way to start is by making your own garden compost and leafmould. Blend your own potting mixes by thoroughly combining garden compost, leafmould, topsoil and organic fertiliser.

Bear in mind that plastic composters tend to have a longer lifespan, so this is one area where you might want to relax the rules. The composter above is made from thick recycled plastic.

Compost and other soil amendments can often be bought in bulk bags, which require less packaging per unit of product and can often be returned to the supplier.

Choose natural fibres for plant supports

Durable Plant Care

Plastic twine is out, replaced by string or twine made from natural fibers such as hemp, which is also less likely to cut into stems as they grow. Plastic netting is easily swapped with sturdy, longer-lasting metal alternatives.

Keep on using your plastic watering can but when it finally needs replacing, go galvanized with a traditional-looking can. Water barrels have many metal or wooden alternatives – pricier but very attractive!

Cold protection necessitates a return to glass, which is more durable and less likely to scuff, shred or blow away compared to lighter-weight plastic cloches and row covers.

Storing Produce Without Plastic

There’s really no need for plastic in or around your harvested fruits and vegetables. Use crates of damp sand to store root vegetables like carrots; boxes of straw to insulate fruits such as apples; or breathable hessian sacks for maincrop potatoes.

Herbs keep for longer once picked if the cut ends are placed in a jar of water

Keep just-picked leaves fresher for longer by washing then wrapping them in a damp towel destined for the refrigerator. Bunches of herbs should be popped into jars of water, like cut flowers, a method that also works for asparagus spears. Twist off the leaves from roots like radishes, beetroot and turnips then store in a container in the refrigerator with a damp towel or cloth laid on top. Carrots should be placed into containers of regularly changed fresh water, while tomatoes and aubergine are best left at room temperature, out of the sun, in the dry.

Finally, store bananas well away from all other produce. They emit the ripening gas ethylene, which can lead other fruits and vegetables to quickly spoil.

Of course, plastic isn’t all bad and can sometimes form the most sensible and sustainable choice. Nevertheless, we could all do with reducing our addiction to plastic, especially single-use plastic.

Share your tips for a plastic-free gardening life down below. We’d really love to hear your experiences. Have you managed to kick the plastic habit?

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Show Comments


"Thank you for this article. I think all of us need to be reminded that truly regenerative gardening requires us to re-consider some things that we've taken for granted because they're so darn convenient! Let's do our part, as "mindful gardeners" to make a difference where we can."
Julie on Saturday 22 February 2020
"Absolutely Julie!"
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 26 February 2020
"I'm trying to find a bin for collecting garden waste when I'm out weeding that's not made of plastic. I was using an old wicker laundry basket for years and it finally fell apart and I composted it. Anyone have ideas? I've done a little searching on the internet but everything is made of polypropylene. "
Michele on Wednesday 6 May 2020
"Hi Michele. My only suggestion would be to buy something second-hand or even source something from a recycling/refuse centre. That way, while it might be plastic, you aren't contributing to the production of new plastic - you're not part of the problem. If you really are insistent on avoiding plastic then perhaps another wicker basket or perhaps a trug made of wood?"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 7 May 2020
"Michele, what I thought of when I read your question was, how about an old wagon? "
Connie on Wednesday 22 July 2020
"Stainless steel bucket"
Donna on Friday 11 June 2021
"I need to knowhow to overwinter without the poly fabric or plastic sheeting used to cover hoops. It could be that the only way is to go full greenhouse but I know people have figured out how to grow in New England its just a lot of plastic and I am not willing to do it. "
chris on Tuesday 29 June 2021
"Hi Chris. Yes, the only real alternative is glass, as you obviously need something that's see-through. However, sometimes plastic has its uses and is justified. While it's great to avoid plastic, sometimes it's just more convenient, as in the case of overwintering plants. So while I'd avoid it where you can, don't massively go out of the way when and where it serves a good purpose."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 2 July 2021
"What do you recommend instead of "landscape fabric" around fences or inbetween rows "
Jasmine ShoShanna on Thursday 9 March 2023
"Hi Jasmine. I always use cardboard with woodchips on top. These rot down over time, so need topping up, but they do contribute to soil fertility, which will benefit surrounding plants. Any plastic-free alternative is likely to decompose over time, but you are at least feeding the soil."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 14 March 2023

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