Friday, January 29, 2010

Is Plastic a Gardener's Best Friend?

There was an email announcement in my inbox a couple of days ago for an upcoming talk (Feb. 23) on vegetable gardening in Fayette county, south of Atlanta. The announcement claimed that the guy who is giving the talk is a big proponent of plasticulture.

I hadn’t heard that word before, so it’s probably no surprise that my brain started wondering what our credit card-based society had to do with gardening. However, I looked up the word plasticulture and found that the word just refers to the use of plastics in gardening, mostly to cover the soil (as mulch) or plants (as row covers and hoop houses).

This article on Plasticulture from the University of Washington explains the uses of plastics in the garden. And these uses are mostly familiar.

For several years, various seed catalogues have offered red plastic sheeting to be used as mulch under tomatoes. The red plastic is supposed to be very beneficial to tomatoes, boosting their production. This year I noticed that one catalogue is also offering green plastic sheeting to use as mulch, with the claim that melons, especially, show improved production when grown on green plastic mulch.

I do use plastic in my yard for covering a frame over plants as a season extender, and buying more when the old has worn through always gives me a bit of a twinge, but somehow, knowing the actual word makes this practice seem worse. Even without these uses, there is a lot of plastic in gardening. Nursery pots are plastic, and lots of soil amendments and other useful products come in large plastic bags.

It would be great if gardening could be a truly “green” activity, but that dream seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. I do hope that my own bits of plastic aren’t heading out to the Pacific Ocean to join the continent-sized gyre of plastic swirling around out there, but I have no good way to know. Even if it doesn’t, my “demand” for plastic encourages the production of more, and some of that will undoubtedly be going for a swim with the fishes, eventually.

A long time ago, Joe made a little wood shelter with an old window on the top to use to protect my plants, but it is not as easy to use as the plastic that I use now. It was small, so only a few plants fit inside, and it took more time and attention to not cook the plants on sunny days (it was a good lesson in the “greenhouse effect”). In addition, it was heavy enough that I couldn’t move it on my own. Obviously, though, I need to be rethinking my season-extending tools.

I do re-use plastic pots over and over again, until they wear out, and some of my soil amendments are bag-less, hauled in the back of my little truck, but that really isn’t enough. It’s a problem.

31 Jan. edit: This Good Morning America segment contains more information about the Pacific Garbage Patch:


  1. I concur - what are they thinking? Great post, these words have to be said sometimes. Peace

  2. The plastic-whorl(s) in the ocean is an amazing phenomena. I've been wondering if it's concentrated enough to be worth 'harvesting' or using as the basis of a clean-up.

  3. Paul, I added to the blog post a youtube video from a Good Morning America segment that talks some about the Pacific Garbage Patch. Apparently, some samples from the patch contain six times more plastic than plankton. That is definitely not good for sea-life.

    I haven't found any information about whether the plastic is worth harvesting, but considering how much plastic is not considered recyclable (my town takes only a very small percentage of what come into the house), I am guessing that the unknown composition of the mix would be problematic.

    Ruralrose--Well, the words do need to be said, but then I have to get busy coming up with my own solution to the problem! Thinking often gets me into trouble ;-)


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