photo of Alys Fowler

Plastic-free green gardening
tips from TV’s Alys Fowler

Plastic-free gardening?

I’m not perfect but I try to take a plastic-free challenge in my garden and on my allotment.

One alternative to plastic plant pots is to use biodegradable ones. I particularly like Vipots (they look and feel like regular pots but are plastic-free) – if cared for they last several years. When they do finally crack, they can go straight on to the compost.

Another option is to re-use kitchen plastic like yoghurt pots, takeaway containers – perfect for seedlings. Afterwards you can recycle them in the council system.

Diverting plastic from landfill is well worthwhile. Plastic plant pots are hard to recycle, but local horticultural groups or garden centres might take them. Companies like TerraCycle and Filcris are also good for repurposing old plastic and other materials into products that are useful for the garden.

If you have enough space for a greenhouse you can grow year-round salads and greens. Try eBay, Freecycle and Gumtree for preloved plastic-free ones. Metal greenhouses are easier to put up than wooden ones in my experience, but the latter are easier to bodge.

Good gardening starts with the soil

Good gardens are defined by good soil. When loved and cared for, soil creates a home for everything else.

It may be difficult clay or thin sand in places, but garden soil is a precious resource – containing billions of microbes, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other tiny but essential life forms.

Any green gardener’s mantra must start with making compost to feed your soil. Compost also stops biodegradable and organic material from ending up in landfill. Compost heaps and bins are an important wildlife habitat: all sorts of things can live beneath the bin lid, including slow worms, frogs, beetles and bees.

If you don’t have space for a compost bin in your garden, then an indoor Bokashi bin (a Japanese composting method that pickles your food waste) can be ideal.

Garden ponds and wild areas

After a compost heap, a garden pond is perhaps the next most important habitat you can create. It could be as small as an ordinary bucket sunk into the ground, but as long as it contains clean rainwater and has a way for insects and amphibians to get out (a brick or plants at the edge for them to cling on to), then it’s doing a vital job.

Undisturbed places are essential for insects to overwinter, nest and reproduce, so consider creating a dead hedge (a pile of dead, woody material that is left alone to rot down). Or leaving some deliberately neglected spaces, say, behind the shed, under some shrubs or at the back of a border.

Growing without peat and pesticides

Peatlands are endangered habitats that absorb greenhouse gases and support plants and animals that can’t survive elsewhere. It makes no sense to destroy them just so people can use peat in the garden. Especially when there are some fine alternatives: SylvaGrow is my absolute favourite peat-free compost (its handy 15 litre bag can be lugged home on the bus).

Good peat-free compost is still not as readily available as it should be, and there are some awful substitutes made from green waste that make growing things really hard work. But you can always make your own using either sieved home-made compost or shop-bought peat-free mixed together with sand, fine grit, leaf mould and – if you can get it – loam. The ratio is roughly 2 parts homemade compost, 1 part sand, 1 part loam, 1 part leaf mould/composted bark.

For pesticide-free, peat-free "plugs" (baby plants), I’ve found Organic Plants to be one of the very best suppliers. I also like Rocket Gardens for its brilliantly packaged veg plugs that you can use for everything from balconies to allotments. And Growers Organics has a good selection of plants, including herbs and fruit.

Homemade leaf mulch and fertiliser

You can't buy leaf mould and yet it’s some of the most magical stuff for the garden. Leaf mould is merely autumn leaves rotted down for at least a year. At this point it makes an excellent mulch (loosely placed on the soil surface to keep in moisture and suppress weeds), particularly around fruit trees, shrubs and bulbs. It might still need to break down further in order to use it in your seed mix (two years is best).

Biodegradable leaf sacks are a very good way to store those autumn leaves.

Comfrey leaves rotted down in water make an easy, natural liquid fertiliser for all garden plants. Simply stuff the leaves into a bucket, top up with rainwater and leave to rot down with a lid on it. The result can then be diluted (1 part comfrey solution to 15 parts water) and used to feed your plants. Go for Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’), which doesn’t self-seed so much.

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