Plastic-Free Gardening: How to Garden Without Plastic | Almanac.com

Plastic-Free Gardening: How to Garden Without Plastic


Choose Plastic Alternatives in Your Garden

Plastic permeates every aspect of our lives, including the garden. But as the world wakes up to its addiction, just how easy is it to ditch plastic while growing and storing more of our own food? From sowing seeds to protecting crops to low-tech ways of keeping harvests fresher for longer, we’ve got ideas that will help you to make more sustainable choices.

As gardeners we try to work with nature where we can. And that’s one of the joys of growing your garden, 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 fiber 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.

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 popsicle 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 send out 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.

Plastic-Free Potting Soil

Potting soil 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 leafmold. Blend your own potting mixes by thoroughly combining garden compost, leafmold, topsoil and organic fertilizer.

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. 

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.

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 burlap sacks for maincrop potatoes.

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, beets 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 eggplant 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.

Plastic Considerations

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?

Try the Garden Planner

As a courtesy, the online Almanac Garden Planner is free for 7 days. This is plenty of time to play around on your computer and try it out. There are absolutely no strings attached. We are most interested in encouraging folks to try growing a garden of goodness! 

Try out the Garden Planner on your computer (for free).

About The Author

Benedict Vanheems

Benedict Vanheems is the author of GrowVeg and a lifelong gardener with a BSc and an RHS General Certificate in horticulture. Read More from Benedict Vanheems

2023 Gardening Club

Randy (not verified)

1 year 7 months ago

Here in Onondaga County NY we have a great recycling system for everything except plastic pots. I hae suggested that our reource recovery plants find a way to do this. I believe Milwaukee has a system to do so.

Randy (not verified)

1 year 7 months ago

have been making newspaper pots for seeral years now. I also use toilet paper cardboards to start herb seeds. I propogate many of my herbs by just placing cuttings in water. I do not have that much basil, but I am slowly getting more by rooting cuttings. I want enough to make pesto, which I then freeze in ice cube trays for using in the off season.

Barb (not verified)

3 years ago

I loved this article. I would love to see more ways to ditch the plastic. Thank you!

Ben Vanheems (not verified)

3 years 12 months ago

Hi M. Whitman. Thanks for that suggestion. We don't regularly use these over in the UK where I'm based - so much so that I had to look up exactly what they are!

They seem like a really good idea though, in that you can just plant the whole thing much like a biodegradable peat or cardboard pot. I would imagine they dry out at a similar rate, given that the sides of the root ball which be much more exposed. Looking at them, I'd recommend packing them side by side, and within a sided flat or seed tray, so that the sides aren't exposed to the air so much and a nice, moist environment is created around the root zone. They would then need watering at a similar rate to other seedling pots - perhaps every two to three days in temperate weather.

Ben Vanheems (not verified)

3 years 12 months ago

Hi Eugene. Thanks for the question, and to you Melanie for those suggestions.

In my locality some of the garden stores do sell plants in pots made from grasses (miscanthus). Also, ordering online, many young plants now arrive packed loose, simply stacked horizontal between layers of straw. But yes, most plants do arrive in plastic and I will always reuse pots multiple times before finding somewhere to recycle them.

Potting mix almost always arrives in plastic bags. Buying in bulk at least means there is less plastic packaging per unit volume of usable material. I use old plastic bags to line terracotta pots (which can wick away moisture if left as they are) and hanging baskets.

Avoiding plastic entirely is really very hard. I guess the purpose of the video is to share just a few ideas to at least reduce our plastic use or be mindful of it.

Melanie (not verified)

4 years ago

In reply to Eugene, there are few alternatives at this time to plastic pots. But if you purchase from a local nursery instead of a big box chain, some will happily accept their pots back after to be sanitized and re-used. As for plastic bags from compost and potting soil, I leave them in the shed as garbage bags. Sometimes you have just a little bit of stuff that needs to be cleaned up and don't want to use a larger garbage bag. So when plastics cannot be avoided, I try to reuse them at the very least and recycle them if that's not possible. Happy gardening!

M. Witman (not verified)

4 years ago

I would like to see a video on how to plant and transplant using nursery bags. I have recently purchased 3 different sizes and I’m not sure how much to water them versus peat pots. There is not a lot of information on using them.

eugene (not verified)

4 years ago

Easy for you to say, but tell me where, anywhere, where I can buy plants that are not in plastic pots, name one place where I can buy potting soil not in plastic.