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10+ Practical Ideas for Eco-Friendly Plant Pots

I started my plastic-free life back in 2012 and my gardening life long before that. When it comes to plastic-free gardening, though, I’m still a relative newbie. I lived in an upstairs apartment for my first few zero waste years, so there was no garden to practice with.

I’ve been living in our new place, complete with garden, for over a year now, and there’s been plenty of opportunity to learn. I’ve come to realise that whilst plastic-free might be the goal, there is so much “waste” plastic that can be reused in the garden, that I’m more focused on zero waste (and reusing) than plastic-free.

I’d rather use what exists than purchase new “zero waste” items.

I thought I’d share some of my plastic-free and zero waste gardening tips, beginning with eco-friendly plant pots.

Choosing Eco-Friendly Plant Pots when Growing from Seed

The best way to avoid waste is to grow from seed. Saving your own seeds, and swapping seeds with others, is the best way to source seeds. However, it isn’t always practical. If you’re establishing a new garden, like I was, you’ll probably need to buy seeds.

However, before you go shopping, I’d recommend looking for local gardening groups and seed swaps, just in case. A few of our local libraries even offer seeds to “borrow” – the idea is that once you’ve planted them and have your own seeds, you return these to the library.

Some seeds can be sown directly in the ground, but most need planting into trays or pots before planting out.

Toilet rolls

Toilet rolls are the perfect size for seedlings, and you can fold one end over to make a base. However, if you have a productive garden, getting enough can be a challenge!

If you need more, Buy Nothing groups and Gumtree are a great way to find them. Similarly, if you don’t need your own, they are a great way to offload them to someone who does. Save them up until you have enough to entice someone to make the trip, and give them away.

It sounds bizarre, but if you look you’ll see that old toilet roll tube trading is a real thing! ;)

Newspaper Pots

My favourite way to make seedling pots is folding them, origami-style, using old newspaper (you can find DIY instructions for making seedling newspaper pots here). There’s no tape and no glue, no tools required and it takes less than a minute to make one.

I love these as, unlike toilet rolls, there’s no need to store them. Grab a couple of old newspapers and make everything you need in half an hour.

You can buy tools to make newspaper pots. They are usually made of wood, and to make the pot the newspaper is wrapped around a cylinder and pressing into an indented base (here’s an example of a wooden paper potter). Personally I think they are unnecessary, and as a minimalist I like to keep my tools to essentials only.

Wooden Seedling Flats

These are wooden boxes that are not compartmentalised, used for seed-raising. They are filled with soil and seeds sown, which can be transplanted once they’ve germinated.

Seedling flats can be made from softwood (like pine) or hardwood. If looked after properly and maintained, they can last several years. The most eco-friendly option are those made from reclaimed timber and offcuts.

Soil Blockers

Soil blockers are metal presses that allow you to press soil together to make cells to plant seeds without any other material. I first heard of soil blockers via Milkwood, and whilst I love the idea, I’m yet to give them a go. A friend has recently purchased one so I’m keen to test it out and will keep you posted.

Purpose-Bought Compostable Pots

It’s worth noting that ‘compostable’ is not the same as ‘biodegradable’. Compostable means it will break down in a compost bin or soil into humus (natural material) with no toxic residue. Biodegradable means it will be broken down by bacteria under certain conditions (often tested in a lab).

A ‘biodegradable’ label does not guarantee it will be broken down into constituent parts, only that it will break down small enough that it cannot be seen. It does not guarantee there will be no toxic residue.

There are a lot of pots that fall under the “compostable” category. The most eco-friendly ones are natural and made of waste materials like coconut coir or aged cow manure. Less environmentally sound ones are made with brand new wood fibre, and/or peat moss (removal of peat moss has been linked to global warming).

Whatever they are made from, they are designed to be single-use. They require energy to manufacture, package and transport. If we can use what we already have, that is a more eco-friendly option.

They are more durable than newspaper or toilet rolls, so are a good option for growing seedlings to sell or where they need to look more professional.

Purpose-bought Biodegradable Pots

Biodegradable (but not compostable) pots are often made with PLA plastic, also called corn starch or plant-based plastic. This is a polyester made from plant material rather than fossil fuels like traditional polyester.

Some PLA pots will state that they are compostable, but this will usually refer to composting under controlled conditions. They should state the test standard used and be “certified compostable.” Without the certification, the claim is meaningless.

These pots are a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional fossil-fuel based plastic pots. It should be possible to reuse them a few times before they begin to break down.

Personally, if a pot says biodegradable but does not say compostable, or is made of PLA plastic, I would avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

Things I don’t recommend:

Eggshells might look cute, but they are ridiculously impractical to fill. I found the same with egg boxes, and they are so absorbent they dry out the soil, but if you don’t live in a hot climate, they might work. On the downside, too cold and damp and they will encourage mold growth.

Terracotta pots aren’t great for seedlings as the roots can attach to the clay and get damaged in transplanting. Brand new compostable seedling punnets might sound green, but they seem a waste of resources when there are so many other options to use.

Transplanting Seedlings to Bigger Pots

Sometimes seedlings need to be transplanted into bigger pots before heading out to the veggie patch.

Reusing Seedling Trays/Plastic Pots

I’m a big fan of re-using what we have. We don’t use plastic at home, but I often find plastic plant pots thrown out on verge collection day, and I collect them to re-use. Plastic yoghurt pots, milk bottles and other plastic containers that can all be re-used to make plant pots.

Plastic that has been used with soil is difficult to clean and won’t be recycled. That’s fine if you intend to reuse the plastic as plant pots again and again. If there’s a choice, it is better to choose plastic that isn’t recyclable over plastic that is, and aim for as many re-uses as possible.

Plastic that is left in the sun will also begin to photo-degrade (break down into smaller pieces). They will last better in cooler, shadier conditions.

Potting On (Transferring Plants from Small Plant Pots to Bigger Plant Pots)

Seedlings eventually grow up, and either go into the garden or need bigger, more permanent homes. Whilst it’s easy to find small pots in various sizes, as the size goes up the opportunities become more limited. Here I’ve focussed on some of the biggest options, which are big enough to plant a small tree.

Terracotta Pots

I’ve found that terracotta pots aren’t great for small plants that I intend to repot as the roots get damaged, but they are a great plastic-free option for bigger plants, bulbs or annuals. We got these pots from the verge when our neighbours moved to Queensland.

One thing to note about terracotta – it is porous, which means in hot summers it can wick moisture out of the soil. One solution is to paint or glaze on the outside or the inside, to maintain the moisture of the soil, or choose pots that are already glazed.

Wine Barrels

I love wine barrels. They look beautiful and rustic, and are a waste product of the wine industry, but they are also very expensive to buy. These two wine barrels were purchased several years ago, but now they’d cost more than $100 each. Great for a feature, but not practical if you are on a budget or need more than one.

Wine barrels can be stained or varnished to help protect them from the weather, but ultimately the wood will break down. In Perth with its long dry summers, a wine barrel receiving haphazard (or no) care should last several years. In wetter climates I’d expect they’d need more management.

Olive Barrels

Olive barrels are big 190 litre food-grade plastic barrels that olives are imported in. They cannot be re-used by the import/export industry, so they are a waste product. Yes they are plastic, but they are second-hand. Much as I hate plastic, I love re-use,. Most terracotta pots for sale in WA are imported from Italy, whereas these barrels are already here. They are also extremely low cost – one barrel costs around $25 and can be cut in half to make two pots.

I would always choose the orange barrels, which are food grade. The blue ones are chemical barrels and most originally contained pesticides and fungicides, or other chemicals. They also tend to buckle in full sun, whereas the orange ones do not.

I’ve made all my olive barrels into wicking beds, meaning they have a hole at the side rather than the bottom, and a reservoir below the soil to hold water. This means the soil can wick water from the reservoir in summer, so the plants need less watering. Because a container needs to be fully waterproof to do this, it is difficult to do without plastic.

Upcycled Things

Honestly, it is only your imagination that will restrict you when it comes to finding eco-friendly plant pots. I’ve seen garden beds and plant pots made of old toilets, sinks, bathtubs, metal tins, plastic clam-shells and much more.

Just because it isn’t round and sold in a garden centre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow something in it!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list? Do you have any “not-to-do”s or things to avoid? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen used as a plant pot? And more importantly – did it work or was it a fail?! Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Worm Farms…Tips and Tricks

After writing my post yesterday on how to build a DIY worm farm, I thought it might be useful to write another post explaining how to look after your worms, and also provide some reasons why you might consider worm farming in the first place.

In their National Waste Policy fact sheet, the Australian Government estimate that two-thirds of waste sent to landfill is organic. If you’re not sure what I mean by organic, it’s the waste that originally came from plants and animals which can be broken down. As well as the obvious grass clippings, food scraps and bones, this includes cardboard, paper and wood. In 2006-2007, Australians landfilled almost 14 million TONNES of organic waste. A full garbage truck holds 10 tonnes. Sending all that organic waste to landfill meant an extra 1.4 million garbage trucks on our roads. Even if you think Australia’s got the space, that’s a lot of unnecessary heavy road traffic, not to mention fossil fuel burning and airborne pollutants via vehicle emissions.

Next up, soil quality. Australia has some of the oldest land masses on Earth, and consequently they are nutrient-poor and with little organic matter. Perth has some of the worst agricultural soils in the world. (Someone once told me that it was officially the poorest soil in the world, but I can’t find anything that confirms it. However, ask anyone who ever tried to grow anything in the soil in Perth, and they’ll confirm it for you!) The sandy soil repels water and also nutrients. If you want to grow plants in Australia, you need to improve your soil by adding organic matter. And this is where the worms come in!

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Worms and their castings. Castings are the product created when worms break down organic matter, and contain nutrients that plants can uptake easily.

Worms eat organic waste and break into down into a product called castings. These castings contain beneficial nutrients that can easily be absorbed by plants. Their texture also enables them to retain water and so they are great for improving soil structure. And they won’t burn plants, as some chemical fertilizers do. Castings are also suitable for seedlings. Worms also produce a liquid that needs to be drained – worm wee! (Or more technically, leachate.) Some tips on using worm wee are provided below.

And keeping worms is fun! It’s free, they require very little maintenance, meaning you can go on holiday for weeks and they will still be alive on your return – how many pets can you say that about?

Tips & Tricks

So I’ve made the case for reducing fossil fuels, reducing landfill, improving your garden and having fun…so what’s keeping you from getting your own worm farm? Is it any of these?

1. Worm Farms smell.

Actually, they don’t smell if you look after them properly. Castings have an organic smell similar to the earthly smell of soil. The main cause of smelliness is too much food. It can be tempting once you set up your worm farm to add every single scrap of food to it immediately, but worms only eat their body weight in food every day, so you need to start small and increase the food once the worm numbers build up.

2. I don’t have a garden.

Neither do I! The worm farm takes up only a very small amount of space, and it will take several months to fill up the worm farm with castings. You can use them with house plants or pot plants and even if you don’t garden, you are bound to know someone who does so just give them the box of castings once it is full.

3. I don’t have time.

Seriously, how much time do you think you need?! Once the worm farm is set up, all you do is empty your food scraps that you would have thrown in the bin into the worm farm. It helps to have the worm farm nearby – if it’s located at the bottom of the garden you are far less likely to make the trip.

Problem-Solving

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully covers some of the more common problems that you might encounter.

My worm farm smells

Likely cause: too much food

Solution: STOP ADDING FOOD! Give the worms a chance to eat what they already have. Anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) can also cause this so give the top layer a stir to aerate.

My worms are escaping

Likely cause: If it is only a couple of worms, there is probably not an issue. If there is a mass exodus, then there may be too much moisture or too much food.

Solution: Add newspaper to reduce the moisture levels, and stop feeding if there are large amounts of uneaten food.

I have other pesties in my worm farm

Likely cause: Not all insects in your worm farm are problems, and you should expect to find other creatures making their home here. But some pests indicate problems.

Solution: Burying food should keep unwanted pests at bay. Flies indicate there is too much food, so reduce the feeding. Ants indicate that the conditions are too dry, so add water.

Other Things to Know

  • You need to use composting worms for your worm farm – varieties such as red worms or tiger worms, as these are adapted to the conditions of a worm farm, whereas ordinary earthworms are not.
  • Worms prefer cooler conditions so on a very hot day, add an ice pack above the worm blanket to keep the inside of the worm farm cool. However, freezing will kill them! (This is not a problem we have here in Perth but may be an issue in cooler climates.) If you are expecting a frost, bring the worm farm indoors.
  • Worms do not have teeth, but suck in food. The smaller the food particles are, the more they can eat. Blending or chopping helps, but if you can’t be bothered, freezing the food then allowing to thaw will help break down the cell walls and make it easier for your worms. And if you can’t manage that, just try to bury your food so it doesn’t attract pests.
  • Worms don’t like acidic conditions and don’t like acidic food such an onions and citrus. Avoid giving these to your worms.

Worm Wee vs Worm Tea

You may come across references on the internet to both worm wee (leachate), and worm tea. The two names are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they refer to different products. Leachate is what drains from the worm farm. Worm tea is a product made using castings, water and molasses, which are “brewed” for 24-48 hours. The main difference is that worm tea is aerobic, and so great for plants, whereas leachate can be anaerobic.

Leachate is fine to add to compost, but if your leachate is anaerobic it may harm your plants. I learnt this the hard way, diluting my leachate to a 1:10 ratio (1 part leachate for 10 parts water) and pouring on my seedlings, which caused them all to go yellow and die.

The way my worm farm is designed, my leachate does not have much contact with air and so will always be anaerobic. If your leachate drains freely into an open container it will probably be aerobic. You can try to aerate your leachate by diluting and exposing to air for a couple of days before using. However, always exercise caution when using on plants. Make sure you dilute 1:10 with water, and avoid using on seedlings, house plants or other temperamental plants.

How to Build a DIY Worm Farm

One of the first things I noticed once we stopped buying plastic packaging was that our rubbish bin was now filled almost exclusively with organic waste – vegetable peelings, fruit skins and cores, leaves and the like. In the UK our local council had provided a brown bin for organic waste, which was industrially composted, but here in Perth Australia it was heading straight to landfill.

This meant someone was driving a truck to our flat, picking up our organic waste, driving it to a landfill site, dumping it into a hole in the ground and covering it with rocks. With fuel and machinery costs, wages, increased pollution from vehicle emissions, and the resulting contaminated land, it seemed like a lot of energy (and effort) was being wasted dealing with something we could potentially deal with at home.

And so I built a worm farm! I use the term ‘built’ loosely, as there was no actual building involved. In fact, it is dead simple. Additionally, we spent ZERO! Nothing! Zilch!

How to Build a Worm Farm

What you will need: two polystyrene boxes, a skewer, scissors, junk mail or shredded paper, some worms, an old towel

We salvaged two polystyrene boxes with lids from our local supermarket. I just went to the Fruit & Veg section and asked a member of staff. In Australia, vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are delivered in these, and once emptied of stock, they are simply thrown away. The boxes need to be the same width and length, but the same depth is not necessary.

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Two insulated boxes, courtesy of the supermarket. The bottom box doesn’t need a lid as the other box sits directly on top.

The boxes will be stacked on top of one another, so if they are different depths, choose the shallowest to sit on the bottom.

The top box is for the worms, and so needs drainage holes. The bottom box will be used to collect liquid that drains from the other box, so no holes in this one! To pierce holes in the bottom of the box simply use a skewer, making the holes approximately an inch apart.

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Drainage holes allow liquid to drain away, and stop your worms from drowning. The liquid collects in the bottom box.

Place a layer of cardboard at the base of the top box so that the worms do not fall through the holes. Next, add some shredded paper to make bedding for the worms. This is a great way to get rid of those annoying supplements and catalogues that come in the newspapers, or in the mail.

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If you don’t have a shredder (I don’t) then you can make strips of paper for bedding by cutting slits in a newspaper at 1cm intervals along the spine, and then tearing.

Using a litre of water (ideally rain water of filtered water, if you have) pour carefully over the bedding to ensure it is wet. Any excess water will drain through to the bottom box.

And then…worms! I got mine from a friend but many community gardens offer them either free or for a small fee. You can also find them on gumtree or freecycle. If all else fails they can be purchased at the big DIY stores but be aware that these will have potentially been sitting on the shelf for a long period of time and may not be in very good health, so will take longer to get going.

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The worms in their new home : ) One fistful of worms needs one fistful of food per week. It’s important not to overfeed them as this means a stinky worm farm and can also attract other unwanted pesties who want in on the action.

Finally, cover the worms with an old towel, sack or carpet, or if you don’t have these to hand then use cardboard. This cover keeps the worms dark and damp, and keeps flies out. If you’ve used cardboard or something biodegradable you will eventually have to replace this as it will disintegrate over time.

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An old flour sack acting as a worm blanket, as I don’t have any old towels.

Lastly, replace the polystyrene box lid, after piercing a couple of holes for air, and place in a shaded spot. My worm farm lives on my balcony but it would be fine to keep indoors in a laundry or kitchen…if you wanted to! Do not feed the worms for a few days to give them a chance to settle into their new home.

And there you have it – a DIY worm farm that didn’t cost you a penny!