Shall we be honest? I mean really honest? The kind of honest that makes you cringe a bit at the reality of your answer. The kind of honest that makes you want to not quite tell the truth? Uncomfortable honesty? Shall we?
Well I think we have to be because if you walk into any garden centre, the amount of plastic there is to buy, with gardening things within it obviously, is enormous! Forget for a moment about the pots the plants are grown in and the compost bags, and lets look at the paraphernalia.
Seed sowing equipment is all made of plastic and in many cases plastic that although isn't sold as single use, really is. Cheap module trays which we are all guilty of picking up and using to be slightly frustrated but the fact they fall apart when you take a seedling out, being the prime example. But also often these trays are covered in plastic wrap, for no plausible reason I can see!
And then look at cheap watering cans. And be honest. How many have you bought in your lifetime? Picked up at the beginning of the season and left outside in the frost to find them split and broken the following season; how many do you buy in a lifetime? Probably enough to buy one expensive metal one that will last a lifetime and then go on to be a planter?
And when we buy bulbs why are they encases in plastic? That awful thin and crinkly stuff or plastic bags, all of which are single use, throwaway plastic that isn't needed. Why can't we go back to the good old days when we bought bulbs individually in paper bags, with nothing more than a photo in the bucket we picked them out from?
And why.....again and again.
For me this brings up the the issue of sustainability in gardening. Despite 2020 only being 2 years away, we are nowhere near the voluntary 80% reduction in peat used in horticulture that was called for by government in 20111, and so in no way are we, as an industry going to be peat free by 2030 as was originally mooted. Whilst many people are working with wildlife in their gardens we still enter most garden centres to see shelves of chemicals available to the gardener at home, many of which are really harmful to the environment. Still the little blue slug pellets are sold, despite the ongoing fears about bird and hedgehog populations collapsing where they eat the slug that has eaten the pellet. Still plastic twine is sold, plastic labels are cheap and treated as throwaway and even the garden magazines at the till have a plastic wrapper.........
And yet I remember when things were different. As a child my biggest thrill in the summer holidays was going to Smiths Nurseries in Otley, West Yorkshire, to buy new bulbs and next years sweet pea seeds with my Grandma. We often would tootle off, just the 2 of us, on the bus, and the outing took almost all day. We would arrive in Otley, have lunch at a local cafe, and then walk swiftly to Smiths, where each summer there was a huge range of bulbs, all in cardboard boxes, raised up, with one photo, often of dubious quality, to show what the flower would look like, and a little bit of info about heights. In inches! Picking your bulbs meant just that-picking them from their boxes and placing them in paper bags that we then took to the till. Because they were all priced according to species, you were expected to know how many bulbs were in each bag and the person at the till could recognise the species just by looking at the bulbs. Mainly by this time of year most other stock had been sold so there weren't bright displays of anything herbaceous, but there were hedging plants and some winter shrubs I remember as well as a big notice to say they were taking orders for bare root trees, shrubs and roses and herbaceous perennials and that you could order on site or visit in late January and February when they would have a good selection of bare root plants to buy. There was compost, manure and terracotta pots to buy, as well as a range of hideous chemical (it was the 70's after all) and a selection of sturdy Bulldog tools, at that point still made over the Penines in Wigan. And that was it.
No houseplants because you went to a florist for them. No magazines because they weren't a newsagent. No trinkets. And no Christmas tat because they shut after the bulbs had gone to concentrate on the following season, redirecting the staff to potting on what was left from the previous summer, moving shrubs and trees into larger containers and planning the early spring, when we would no doubt visit again for a rose, or a shrub, or seed potatoes and rhubarb.
The plants were locally grown, the staff were local and they taught their staff as they went along. A local business supporting it's local gardeners and it's local community.
And yes there were plastic pots but they were recycled over and over. And yes they would sell you compost and manure in plastic bags but you could have it delivered by the ton and most gardeners did.
So what has happened? How did we, in the space of less than a lifetime, get to this stage where in many ways gardening seems to be as much about acquiring stuff as it is about actually gardening? Well I guess that's the story, in many ways, of globalisation, and in many ways globalisation is no bad thing. But in the way it encourages us to buy stuff, without really thinking about the impact of that stuff, it can be dangerous. So what do we do? Can we go cold turkey on plastic? Or even should we?
My thoughts are this, and they are only thoughts from a lifetimes pondering on my own impact on our earth and are definitely not scientifically proved!!
Avoid buying single use plastic and if it's there and you can't avoid it, remove it from whatever it is you are buying at the till and ask the retailer to throw it away. If enough of us do this they will need to listen because it costs money to get rid of waste and that isn't something most retailers want to spend profit on.
Find a place that will recycle your plastic pots once they are so exhausted they are no good to anyone. Some independent garden centres and nurseries will do this and it's really worth seeking them out. If you are in Bristol, Cleeve Nursery does this, but there are different schemes appearing every day right now.
Buy bare root plants in the winter and request they re wrapped in paper. Bluebell Cottage Nursery have just announced all their mail order will be plastic free from this year so it can be done by mail order specialists too. Ask anyone you order from regularly to do the same.
Use your compost bags as planters, to line things, cutting drainage holes in first if needed, or buy in bulk. This is tricky as most garden centres and nurseries don't have this as an option, but organisations such as Compost Direct will see direct to gardeners and allotmenteers, and whilst their dumpy bags are plastic, they are of a grade that will see them useable for years. Or ask them to take them back once they are emptied and you are ordering more.