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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!

How to Make Zero Waste DIY Newspaper Pots

I’m all for small and low cost (or free!) solutions, particularly when they mean zero waste. We’re in the midst of sowing our autumn and winter seeds for our vegetable garden right now, which means we need lots of seedling pots. (Sowing seeds directly into the ground tends to mean the little seedlings get munched by pests before they have the chance to grow big.)

I don’t want to buy new. I’ve learned (the hard way) that reusing the tiny plastic cells from the garden centre (the ones they sell punnets of seedlings in) doesn’t work too well. They are too small and they dry out too fast. We don’t have enough of the bigger plastic pots to use those…plus they take up a lot more space.

Instead, I’m making my own zero waste seedling pots out of newspaper.

You don’t need any fancy gadgets for this. Even the pair of scissors is optional. You just need two hands, and a bit of patience.

Even though I can make these without thinking now, I’ll admit that when my friend (who is a very good teacher) first showed me how to make these, I had a full-on tantrum! (How embarrassing.) If you get frustrated the first few times, just remember it’s only newspaper, and no-one has died. You’ll grasp it soon enough!

If you don’t read the newspaper, I guarantee that your neighbour does, or someone at work, or a family member. Maybe  a local cafe will have a mangled, well-read one.

The other great thing with these is that newspaper breaks down easily, so they can be planted directly into garden beds. No need to disturb the plant roots by removing from the paper. You can always tear the base before planting if you’re worried it will restrict growth.

How to Make DIY Zero Waste Seedling Pots (With Pictures)

Start with a single sheet of newspaper. For seedling pots, I cut a double sheet like this in half.

All you need to start with: a sheet of newspaper, and some scissors. Although you could do without the scissors, if you can tear neatly ;)

Cut the newspaper sheet in half along the fold. Put the sheet to the left to one side. We will only be working with one sheet at a time.

Turn the sheet of paper so that the longest side is horizontal.

Fold the newspaper in half from left to right (the fold is on the left hand side).

Fold the sheet again from bottom to top (the new fold is on the bottom).

Fold the newspaper one more time from left to right.

The paper in front of you will be folded a bit like a book, and each flap has a front and a back. You want to take the right-hand corner of the front flap, and fold it towards you, pulling it open as you do so to make a triangle shape along the “spine” of the “book”.

You can see (marked by the blue spot) that the bottom right hand corner has moved to where the spine was, and is opened to form a triangle.

Now that you’ve folded this side, turn the newspaper over (180°) and do the same on the other side. It will be mirrored, so the corner will be on the left hand side.

Once both sides have been folded, your newspaper will look like this. There will be a triangle-shaped pocket on the front and the back, and a gap in the centre seam above the two triangles.  Now turn the right hand side of the paper, like the page of a book, to the left (180°) so that you can see one continuous triangle.

Flip the newspaper over and repeat with the other side so that both sides now look like this.

If it is correct, the paper will look like this from above.

Lay the paper down flat, and fold each of the front flaps into the centre fold.

Fold these two flaps in half again, into the centre fold. (Don’t worry if it’s very flappy when you remove your fingers, that is absolutely fine.)

Now flip the newspaper over, and do repeat on the other side.

Fold the flaps into the centre…

And then fold these flaps inwards again…

Your newspaper now looks like this. Fold the top flap down towards you along the newspaper line.

Repeat on the other side.

Now you can gently pull the two flaps outwards and open your pot!

Push your fingers inside to straighten out (and flatten out the bottom).

Ta-da! A zero waste newspaper seedling pot.

The flaps can be useful for lifting the pots, or labelling what you’ve planted inside the pot. If you don’t like them you can fold them inside. Once the pot of filled with soil they won’t flap about. I wouldn’t recommend cutting them off as the folding is what keeps it all in place.

Next step… to go forth and plant things!

Now I’ love to hear from you! Have you ever made these before? Do you have a different method? Are you feeling inspired to grow stuff? Do you want to make some and then share a photo with me so I can admire your handiwork? (Answer – yes you do!) Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!