Charlotte Philcox realises there is too much plastic on her plot
Is it possible to rid our plots of plastic? Let’s Talk’s gardening writer Charlotte Philcox realises she has work to do to become as eco-friendly as possible.
J une is a glorious month in the garden, but right now there’s something more pressing on my mind than plants. That’s because behind nearly all the glorious displays of flowers and vegetables to be seen across the region, there lurks a dark secret. And that secret is plastic. For when it comes to the use - and waste - of this headlinehitting material, horticulture is one of the worst culprits.
We’re all guilty, me not the least. Until recently, I thought I was one of the greenest people around. I grow a large proportion of my own fruit and veg, don’t eat meat, buy most clothes, books and household items second-hand or from charity shops, and recycle, mend or reuse almost everything else. I even dry pieces of orange peel, which make very effective firelighters. I’m also a firm believer that the best thing any of us can do is not buy items we don’t need in the first place, and avoid plastic packaging.
However, a recent foray outdoors proved that everything within my garden was far from rosy - or should I say, green.
I thought I’d been doing well, and had been quite proud of my reputation for using other people’s throw-outs. Unwanted blue water piping has been cut into lengths and placed to span my veg beds, where they serve as ready-curved supports for protective tunnels. Recycled net curtains protect soft fruit bushes from the birds, and
are clipped together with (wooden) clothes pegs. My water butts are second-hand, or else those blue, recycled juice containers you see on most allotments.
I have an army of stackable wire baskets rescued from a shop refit, which are perfect for popping over rows of young plants to keep the pigeons away. And my collection of old oven shelves, used to stop cats and blackbirds destroying recently prepared seed beds, has to be seen to be believed. Added to this, I make paper pots for seedlings, and have even constructed a hanging bird table from an old seed tray.
But then it struck me. Because whether recycled or not, apart from the wire shelves, pegs and paper pots, everything listed above is, of course, plastic. And what will happen to it all when I’m gone? Plastic might be very useful, but it certainly isn’t a legacy I want to leave to future generations.
As the (non-plastic) scales fell from my eyes, I felt a sense of horror. My dabbling around in the garden wasn’t as ecologically friendly as I’d thought, and the more I looked, the more I saw . . .
To begin with, there was the protective netting used as a covering for my fruit and veg cages to keep the birds away - all plastic. My polytunnel doesn’t bear thinking about, as it will have to be ‘re-skinned’ after just six or seven years - and what happens to all the old covering after that? I’m debating whether it might be best to use the structure as another fruit cage, but then I’m back with the plastic again. Of course a glasshouse would be more environmentally friendly, but I was given the tunnel by someone who - you’ve guessed - didn’t want it.
And what can I do about the plastic labels which come with nearly every new plant? Surely it would be better for suppliers to stick plain labels on the sides of the pots, but then I suppose this isn’t commercially viable. And the flowerpots themselves hardly bear thinking of. Module trays are almost worse, as there must be tonnes of them sold with annual bedding and vegetable plants every year. There might be several different types of biodegradable pot available, but how many nurseries or garden centres do you know which can afford to use them?
While I’m having a good rant, I might as well mention the tough plastic sacks used for packaging commercial composts - which admittedly are very useful, as I keep and reuse mine until they split apart. You can grow potatoes in them, and they are great for making leaf-mould, or clearing up hedge clippings and other garden waste. However, there’s a limit to how many the average gardener can use.
And what about the sturdy polythene tubs and buckets in which soil additives are sold? I’m certain that there’s a stack of empty ones lurking in the corner of many a garden.
Plastic might be very useful but it isn’t a legacy.
Of course, in the past, people didn’t buy nearly so much garden ‘stuff’. They were much more self-sufficient, making their own compost and growing everything from seeds or cuttings. Flowerpots were unglazed terracotta, which, if they broke could always be reused as drainage ‘crocks’, before eventually being ground up and used in home-made potting composts.
Glasshouses were just that: made from glass, not UV resistant plastics. And no-one had heard of so-called ‘horticultural fleece’, using natural hessian or sacking instead to protect their plants from frost.
Talking of which, perhaps there’s a keen crafter out there who could crochet a natural hessian string cover for my polytunnel. Now there’s an idea.