Roots and Shoots: Gardening for the Planet

By Pamela Doan

Today (April 22) is Earth Day, and the network that evolved out of the global environmental movement in 1970 has made plastic pollution its 2018 campaign.

Plastic is everywhere and for the same reasons it is widely used — durability and flexibility — it doesn’t go away when its usefulness is complete. It is not biodegradable and its production is an unsustainable process using oil and natural gas by-products, as well as chemicals that carry health risks.

A 2017 study estimated that 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste is languishing in global landfills and the environment. Less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled. The Earth Day Network website at has a “plastic footprint calculator” that I didn’t find accurate personally, but it’s thought-provoking and I imagined how it might be applied to gardening practices.

The annual flower “cosmos” will attract many species of beneficial insects. (Photo by P. Doan)

Gardening can involve a lot of plastic. One quandary is how to manage the containers that accumulate when you buy plants. I return them to a garden center I frequent and it accepts most but that requires storage and remembering to put them in the car. I also reuse containers for plant sales and in my garden. A better practice is to start more plants from seeds and avoid bringing home plastic pots, a gardening goal that is always on my list.

Packaging is another plastic-waste generator. Picture the compost and mulch aisle in a garden center — it’s one thick plastic bag after another. Making your own compost or getting bulk delivery is one way to opt out.

Watering cans, tools, plant markers, plant tags, landscape fabric, tools, gardening tubs and containers — plastic defines the products we use to make our gardens and landscapes beautiful and healthy. Just consider what you’re buying and how it will run its course this spring.

For Earth Day, I asked gardeners in Philipstown and Beacon for stories about becoming more sustainable:

  • “I’m composting, regular and vermicomposting.” ~Zshawn Sullivan
  • “Composting and planting companion plants for good bugs.” ~Lara Demberg Voloto [Certain flowers mixed into a vegetable garden attract insects like lady beetles and parasitic wasps that feed on pests. ~P.D.]
  • “No pesticides. I’m embracing dandelions, which are good for spring detox, and using plants that attract butterflies and birds.” ~Sally Smith
  • “My rain-catching barrel saves me a lot of walking to get to the hose. I can wash my hands, water plants and conserve water.” ~Anna West
  • “I compost food scraps and garden clippings. I only use organic amendments and re-use or recycle plant pots. I support local, family-owned garden centers and don’t purchase any plant that has been treated with neonicotinoids [an insecticide that kills pollinators].” ~Philomena Kiernan
  • “I save seeds from last year’s plants and from organic vegetables purchased locally, and start seeds in yogurt cups.” ~Virginia Piazza
  • “Like others here in Beacon, I maintain a strictly organic garden and use vermicomposting. Those worms have a voracious appetite and eat just about everything. I feed them the Thursday newsprint sales flyers, facial tissues, yarn snippets, my dryer lint and hairbrush gleanings, as well as all food scraps except Allium family and citrus, which might give them a tummy ache. I get worm castings, which make my veggies jump out of the ground, and worm tea, which I dilute for my houseplants.” ~Arabella Champaq

A last thought: One thing that is getting more attention and validation from research is soil health and no-till practices. Not only is soil a carbon sink (meaning it prevents carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change), it can be a tool for reducing emissions. Minimize digging, maximize organic amendments and lower your carbon footprint this season. Happy Earth Day!

Have a sustainable gardening tip? Email me at [email protected].

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