The results of Monty’s plas­tics pledge

With con­cerns grow­ing over the amount of plas­tic pol­lut­ing our nat­u­ral world, Monty shares the results of his New Year pledge to re­duce plas­tic use at Long­meadow

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

At the start of this year, I made a pledge to try to use as lit­tle plas­tic as I pos­si­bly could at Long­meadow. This was no small mat­ter. Long­meadow, like ev­ery gar­den in the coun­try, was awash with plas­tic. Not just plas­tic pots and seed trays − although there were thou­sands of those − but also plas­tic trugs, wheel­bar­rows, bags and la­bels. You name it, plas­tic, in some form, was play­ing a piv­otal role in the gar­den. It is im­por­tant to be clear as to why this might be a bad thing and why I wanted to cut back. Plas­tic in the oceans is reach­ing a cri­sis point. Great is­lands of the stuff are form­ing out at sea and there is scarcely a beach that is not awash with tidal plas­tic lit­ter. Less vis­i­ble, but just as se­ri­ous, are the mi­cro-plas­tics that are be­ing con­sumed by fish. These are the tiny man-made par­ti­cles used in things like tooth­paste and cos­met­ics to help con­sis­tency and form, and which pass through the sew­er­age sys­tem and end out in the seas where they pass up the food chain un­til, irony of ironies, they get con­sumed by us again. Landf i l l is not much bet­ter. Vast quan­ti­ties of land are filled with black plas­tic waste from gar­dens. This will not com­post , although even­tua l ly it biode­grades, al­beit in some­thing be­tween 500 and 1,000 years. How­ever, dur­ing that time much of it will fil­ter into the aquifers and also work its way out to sea. This prob­lem could be greatly al­le­vi­ated if we could − and con­sci­en­tiously did − re­cy­cle our gar­den plas­tics. But this is where there is the big­gest hitch. Black plas­tic is dif­fi­cult to re­cy­cle. But many plants demon­stra­bly grow best in, you guessed it, black plas­tic. So, the in­dus­try sticks with black, we all buy our plants pot­ted in black and then, be­cause we can­not re­cy­cle them, throw them away. And so the plas­tic moun­tain builds.

Non-plas­tic op­tions

Through­out this year I have tried var­i­ous al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic. This has in­volved pots made from wood chip or coir, soil blocks, loo rolls and egg boxes. Soil blocks are the best of the lot and they pro­duce healthy plants, but in­volve quite a big ini­tial out­lay and a sys­tem that needs to be adapted for them. They are best for a block

about one inch cubed. Any­thing smaller is a fid­dle and any­thing big­ger dries out too much. Pa­per and wood chip pots were pretty use­less as they dis­in­te­grated too fast, while slugs loved to eat them! Coir pots get too dry and it is hard to know if it is best to plant them pots and all, or to try and re­move the root­ball and in do­ing so po­ten­tially dam­age the ten­der feed­ing roots. Not sat­is­fac­tory. Di­rect sow­ing and rais­ing seedlings in a seed bed is a good idea but de­pends on hav­ing the right soil and weather con­di­tions, whereas a con­tainer of any kind means you can work around the weather rather than be a slave to it. We have stopped us­ing small plas­tic bags for things like com­post or grit, wher­ever pos­si­ble and, as well as mak­ing much of our own leaf mould and com­post, we buy what we can’t make in bulk and re­use old bags. The ma­jor les­son I have learned from this year is that it is im­por­tant to value what plas­tic you have as much as pos­si­ble in or­der that it may be reused as much as pos­si­ble. Wash it, store it care­fully and treat it with re­spect. But the most im­por­tant thing is to re­con­fig­ure our at­ti­tude to­wards plas­tic from a throw­away, dis­pos­able ma­te­rial to some­thing that we wish to pre­serve and use for as long as pos­si­ble. The real crime is sin­gle-use plas­tic in any form, in par­tic­u­lar, sin­gle-use black plas­tic pots. In­di­vid­u­ally, the prob­lem is mod­est. I have a lot of pots be­cause we raise thou­sands of plants ev­ery year and buy hun­dreds more. But most gar­den­ers only in­tro­duce a few pots into their gar­dens ev­ery year – per­haps a dozen or so, and rarely more than 20. How­ever, the ac­cu­mu­lated ef­fect is colos­sal. UK gar­den­ers buy half a bil­lion plas­tic pots and trays ev­ery year, five hun­dred mil­lion sep­a­rate plas­tic con­tain­ers, a high pro­por­tion of which are thrown away ev­ery year after a sin­gle use and ev­ery sin­gle one is dis­carded sooner or later. And so the plas­tic moun­tain has be­come an Ever­est. Most plas­tic gar­den pots are made from around 80 per cent re­cy­cled ma­te­rial, taken from a va­ri­ety of sources. They are there­fore en­vi­ron­men­tally very ef­fi­cient. It is what hap­pens to them after we have used them that is the prob­lem and that is down to their colour as much as any­thing else. Gar­den plants are mostly pro­duced in black plas­tic

The ma­jor les­son I have learned is that it is im­por­tant to value what plas­tic you have so that it may be reused

pots be­cause it en­cour­ages ex­cel­lent root growth. Roots are pho­to­sen­si­tive so they try to grow away from a light source. In the soil this is easy, as the deeper the roots go un­der­ground the fur­ther they are from light. But in a con­tainer, the more they grow the closer they get to a light source via the walls of the plas­tic pot. Black plas­tic ab­sorbs the light and blocks it more ef­fec­tively than any other colour, so pro­duces gar­den plants with the health­i­est root sys­tem. There­fore, nurs­eries use it to pro­duce the best plants pos­si­ble and gar­den cen­tres buy it so their plants are as al­lur­ing as pos­si­ble, and gar­den­ers buy it be­cause − well, be­cause they don’t re­ally think about the pot at all. They just want a nice plant at a good price. It’s what hap­pens next that’s the con­cern. Re­cy­cling is sorted us­ing in­frared light beams. These shine onto refuse that passes on a con­veyor belt and iden­tify ma­te­rial by light ref lec­tion. Clear plas­tic shines the light back, which trig­gers a blast of air, which in turn blows the plas­tic into a sep­a­rate bin for re­cy­cling. How­ever, black plas­tic ab­sorbs the light, so the air blast is not trig­gered and the pot ends up in the wrong bin. Hence, the dif­fi­culty re­cy­cling it. There are two pos­si­ble so­lu­tions to this. The first is that we must all try to use as lit­tle plas­tic − of any kind − as we can. The most prac­ti­cal way of do­ing that is to look after and re­use your plas­tic con­tain­ers as much as you pos­si­bly can. This cuts down the need to buy new plas­tic very ef­fec­tively. The sec­ond solution is to find an al­ter­na­tive to black plas­tic. This is where the in­dus­try is fo­cus­ing its ef­forts. A new taupe (that’s browny-grey to you and me) coloured pot is be­ing tri­alled as a re­place­ment for black, which does not con­tain the car­bon pig­ment that in­frared re­cy­cling ma­chines fail to iden­tify. The taupe pots will also have all their polypropy­lene de­rived from re­cy­cled ma­te­rial, and they can be re­cy­cled along with other plas­tics. So far, so good. But I have learned over the years that you can

A new taupe-coloured pot is be­ing tri­alled as a re­place­ment for black... which can be re­cy­cled

bully a horse to wa­ter but you can­not make it drink. It has to be thirsty. Which is to say, that for all the right-on en­vi­ron­men­tal logic of us­ing as lit­tle plas­tic as we can and for all the re­cy­cling that we do, if gar­den­ers do not feel it pro­duces as good plants, then they will not change. It has to be ben­e­fi­cial as well as right.

Black vs taupe trial

So, I have started a very un­sci­en­tific, ca­sual ex­per­i­ment at Long­meadow to see if plant roots grow as well in these new pots as they do in black plas­tic. I have planted Erodium, which has fi­brous roots, teasel, which has a deep tap­root, and Hout­tuy­nia, which has fleshy, un­der­ground stems (rhi­zomes) that bear roots, in both black and taupe pots us­ing the same com­post and left them to grow in the same place. I’m de­lib­er­ately tri­alling this across a range of plants and, more im­por­tantly, root types so we can see whether some roots fare bet­ter than oth­ers. I will mon­i­tor their growth and make a call next year if the taupe works as well as the black. It will prove noth­ing other than be­ing a rough first in­di­ca­tion and I will, of course, share the progress both on these pages and via Gar­den­ers’ World. I be­lieve that real progress is be­ing made. It is not too late for all of us to be part of trans­form­ing the way that we con­sume and re­cy­cle plas­tics. But it will take ef­fort from ev­ery­one in­volved. The in­dus­try has to do all it can to pro­vide an en­vi­ron­men­tally vi­able al­ter­na­tive, and grow­ers and re­tail­ers have to sup­port this by us­ing them. Fi­nally, we gar­den­ers have to ask for con­tain­ers that are not made from black plas­tic and, if nec­es­sary, be pre­pared to pay a lit­tle ex­tra for that. But if we are not pre­pared to do this, then the en­vi­ron­men­tal price that our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will pay is go­ing to be truly cat­a­strophic.

Monty’s plas­tic-free trial started in spring with mak­ing his own pa­per pots (right) then pot­ting on seedlings into fi­bre con­tain­ers

Clock­wise from main pic: Monty tri­alled dif­fer­ent ways to sow seeds, from fab­ric-wrapped coir Jiffy pel­lets, and biode­grade­able fi­bre trays, to toi­let rolls. Soil blocks proved ef­fec­tive in mak­ing sturdy seedlings, and are eas­ily made with a spe­cially de­signed hand tool

Clock­wise from main pic: Plants grown in coir pots, such as this Fri­t­il­laria me­lea­gris, are widely avail­able. Re­cy­cled fi­bre pots gave a good start to dahlias. But if you have sturdy black plas­tic pots, Monty’s ad­vice is don’t bin them – use them while they last.

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