Gardening Without Plastic

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 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 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.

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. 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.

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.

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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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How to Plant a Bare-root Fruit Tree Step by Step

Planting a bare root fruit tree

The vegetable garden has become noticeably quieter recently but there’s one area where there’s still work to be done – the fruit garden!

Autumn is a great time to plant because trees are now dormant and won’t require as much immediate ongoing care. Bare-root trees, which are much cheaper than container-grown ones, are grown in the ground by the nursery then dug up for sale once they’re dormant, between late autumn and early spring.

If you live in an area where the ground is frozen for much of winter, wait til spring to plant.

Prepare the Ground for Your Fruit Tree

First up is ground preparation. If you are planting into an area of lawn begin by removing an area of turf at least three feet (1m) in diameter. This will stop grass from competing with the young tree for moisture and nutrients.

Dig out any perennial weeds, including roots. If your soil is either very sandy or heavy with clay, add plenty of organic matter to the entire planting area and dig this in. I’m using well-rotted garden compost. Amending the whole area rather than just the planting hole will encourage roots out into the surrounding soil, helping the tree establish quicker.

Dig a planting hole into the prepared area that easily accommodates the roots, so they aren’t crammed in and don’t bend back on themselves. All the ground preparation you did earlier should make this a pretty straightforward job.

Now drive a stake into the ground – at least a couple of feet (60cm) deep so it won’t wobble about in the wind.

Plant Your Bare-root Fruit Tree

Soak your fruit tree in a bucket of water for a couple of hours before planting to give it a good drink. Before you plant, take a careful look at the trunk, just above the roots. You should see a ine where the base of the trunk goes from dark to light, indicating the original soil level. Our aim is to plant the tree at this same depth. If the line isn’t obvious, make sure to plant your tree just deep enough to cover the roots.

Use a cane or tool handle to bridge the ground either side of the planting hole and serve as a guide for the soil level. Begin filling back the soil while holding the tree at the correct level. As you fill, shake the trunk so that the soil gets in between all of the roots.

When you are close to the top of the hole, firm in the soil with the toe of your boot pointing towards the trunk so you don’t stamp it down and compact it. Then fill in with the remainder of the soil.

Thoroughly water around the planting area to settle in the soil further.

Support and Protect Your Young Fruit Tree

Secure the tree to the stake using a tree tie. Tree ties are usually made of rubber, which is stretchy and gentle on the bark. Secure it in a figure of eight around the stake and trunk, about two feet (60cm) above the ground.

Then spread a two-inch (5cm) layer of organic mulch such as compost around the tree to help suppress weeds and retain moisture. Keep the mulch clear of the trunk to prevent it rotting.

If rabbits are a problem in your garden you can add a simple spiral tree guard, which protects the bark from their gnawing. If deer visit your garden you’ll probably need to fence in the tree. If you’re planting lots of trees it’s usually be easier to fence the whole area rather than individual trees.

Trees shouldn’t need watering over the winter, but once the growing season gets underway, be sure to keep young trees well watered to help them establish.

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