Reducing the use of plastics in gardening will take time, but here are good first steps

I am sure you’ve heard the reports that we accumulate at least a credit card’s worth of plastic particles in our bodies every year. Plastics are everywhere. They are in soils, found in even the most remote areas and on and on. I will let experts in the field fill this space, and over the next months I am sure they will. All I can say is this is a garden column and gardeners have come to rely way too much on the stuff. So, let’s talk plastics, as in pots, flats and other things gardening.

Simply put, whether you are concerned about your own health or about the Earth’s, using plastics while gardening needs to end. Well, be reduced, at least. It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight, but it is time. I am old enough to remember when the only pots you could buy were made of baked clay. It is time for both the gardening industry, as well as individual gardeners, to move away from plastics.

The question, of course, is how to do this? I am of the opinion the individual gardener has a bit of responsibility here. We all should be reusing the plastic pots, flats, stakes and what-not that we already have instead of simply tossing them outright. It will take time for nurseries to make a switch away from plastic containers, so we will still accumulate plastic pots when we buy plants.

The question I can’t answer yet is at what point do UV rays from the sun and other factors start to cause a plastic pot, for example, to shed or start to decay into plastic nanoparticles? I will keep researching, but in the meantime, reuse and recycle. And hopefully ALPAR, aka Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling, will bring back the Pot Recycling Program.

Next, gardeners should start or continue to reuse the take-out coffee cups, yogurt and similar suitable containers that clutter our lives. Poke a hole or two in the bottoms for drainage. If you like using cups to grow starts and don’t have enough, buy paper cups.

As for buying new containers, the rule has to be stay away from the plastic ones. Fortunately, these days there are a lot more options than just red, baked clay which still is one of the best non-plastic container materials out there. Look for other biodegradable materials like coconut coir, rice hulls, cow dung, bamboo, cellulose or cardboard. There are lots of these on sale out there.

These biodegradable gardening containers are divided into two categories: hard or soft. The hard are more pot-like; they are solid and can be reused many times. These often come in decorative colors and feel like hard plastic. They will disappear in a landfill, but also hold plants for a few years.


The other category are those biodegradable containers designed to be buried in the garden. The roots of the plants they hold grow right through the walls and the whole pot will decay when buried in the garden, assuming the soil is just a bit warmer than ours here in Alaska. Usually, these do not come in different colors, but manufacturers are seeing a market and more of these are not only colorized, but are offered in larger sizes.

And then, of course, you can make newspaper containers, especially useful to grow individual seeds. There are kits — search “paper pot maker” — but once you see how they work, you might consider making your own newspaper pots. All you need is an appropriate size cylinder to serve as a mold around which to wrap newspaper. Do not use any of my columns you think might be toxic!

A lot of the responsibility for reducing the use of plastic will fall on the horticultural industry. It will take time. In the meantime, recycling bins should be at every place we buy plants — for those plastic labels as well as pots and flats. New plants sold should be sold in biodegradable containers. Wood labels work just fine.

Anyhow, as we prepare for the new season, it makes sense for each of us to not only start thinking about how we are going to reduce reliance on plastics, but actually get going on the task.

Jeff’s Alaskan Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: Check out events at Reserve March 8-10 for the annual spring conference.

Feed the Hungry: Gardeners help the hungry in the summer by Planting A Row for The Hungry. You can help even in the winter. The folks using the Sullivan Arena as shelter need food. Or, you could give monetary donation to Duke Russell, who is spearheading an effort to provide meals. Any donations to Russell can be sent to 3307 Woodland Park Drive, Anchorage, Alaska, 99517.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.