Gardening Without Plastics
Yes, it can be done — but it takes creativity
I have developed a hate-hate relationship with plastics in the garden.
And as the size of the garden increases, it’s ever-so-common to see the use of plastic in the field increase as well.
Consider the case of black plastic row mulch, a staple on many farms and for good reason: it tends to be an effective way to suppress weeds on a large scale that doesn’t rely on chemicals.
And, on the one hand, these kinds of plastic mulches are super-convenient when you have the tractor attachment which allows you to lay them down rapidly over a large area.
But I’ve worked with them, and personally, I just don’t like them. In fact, I would just as soon eliminate all usage of plastics in the garden altogether. And that goes equally for the corn-plastic based biodegradable alternatives.
I just think they look — and feel — I don’t know… nasty.
Which is why I found this historical passage on the Wikipedia page about plasticulture (the method of growing vegetables using plastic mulches), so interesting:
The first use of plastic film in agriculture was to in an effort to make a cheaper version of a glasshouse. In 1948 Professor E.M. Emmert built the first plastic greenhouse, a wooden structure covered with cellulose acetate film. He later switched this to a more effective polyethylene film. After this introduction of plastic film to agriculture it began being used at a larger scale around the world by the early 1950s to replace paper for mulching vegetables.
I’m starting to look at dates like 1950's, 1940's, even 1930's and 1920's as being not quite so long ago.
I think there is this pervasive myth of progress that has invaded not just modern life, but also the modern garden. That if there is an app or some new gadget being marketed for use in the garden, we should automatically adopt it, simply because it’s new. If we don’t, that makes us “anti-technology” and a “Luddite.”
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The truth, as I see it, is that technologies which integrate themselves with the natural environment are automatically “high tech” even if they appear not to be as “smart” as, say, a so-called “smart phone.” A big strip of plastic film that shreds itself into pieces that are impossible to ever fully remove from the soil? I don’t call that high tech — at all. I say that sets us back a few decades, if not centuries while we wait for these things to biodegrade.
Which is why I’ve been searching for alternatives, trying to turn back the clock as far as techniques and materials and adapt them to what’s available now, and what we know now.
It’s not an easy task. When I went to local hardware store to ask if they had some kind of brown kraft/butcher paper for sale, they wanted to know what it was for. I told them to cover the soil. They tried to sell me geotextile, a petroleum-based product:
Hey, if that’s what you’re into, have at it. Personally, I think it’s a tedious monstrosity and wouldn’t dream of incorporating it into my garden on any scale.
But, when you’re producing for market on a surface larger than a backyard, plastic mulch sure looks like a “smart” option — because it works. Kind of. Weeds, and especially tough grasses still poke right on through. And it tears easily. It’s nowhere near foolproof (and the corn-based ones are generally even thinner/less effective).
So if it’s not foolproof and it doesn’t meet the ecological standards I’m after, what can I do?
Alternatives to plastic row mulch
Finally, I was recommended a product at the hardware store which is 100% paper, and 100% biodegradable, sold under the product name Standard Dry Sheathing. Home Depot sells a roll manufactured by BP for $21.14 (I paid $17.99 at BMR) for a roll with a width of 36" by 144' for a total square footage of 432 sq ft. In other words, a very good deal for someone looking for an alternative solution.
- No hazardous components:
- No known health risks:
In my opinion, any product or substance you’re thinking of adding to your garden ought to be thoroughly vetted like this.
And searching out examples of parallel use by other gardeners would only be wise:
No real cons listed there.
Weed Barrier - standard dry sheathing
Hi Everyone, I'm thinking I would like to try a different weed barrier in some of my new SFG's this year. I seen this…
Here we go, from that source, a user writes against it:
it seems economical — then a year later or even later that season — the weeds are growing up into the boxes — crab grasses and such — then we end up having to pull up the soil — replace the weed mat — and start over — so in the long run the time and double effort was not worth the initial savings. […] I would definitely say stay with the landscape fabric or any material you can find that breathes and drains and lasts without breaking down.
But, of course, I want something which will break down over time, because to me this is high-tech. Not the opposite. I perfectly understand the other way of viewing this, as expressed by the forum poster above, but it has done nothing to dissuade me from the course of action that I’m about to embark on.
How I will use it
The field where I will make rows using the standard dry sheathing (sold as “Paresec” in Quebec) has already been harrowed and raked out. The few days of rain we’re having will surely see a proliferation of weeds, which I’ll then hoe out (with a scuffle hoe, which will cut the tiny stems of the baby weeds), open with a broadfork, and layer 2–3" of compost down in rows. Then, lay down the paper, and go along each side with a round/pointed shovel, and weigh down the edges all along with just enough soil. Then straw in the pathways (maybe even straw under the paper if I’m feeling “wild”).
Then, when it’s time to transplant (2–3 weeks yet), I’ll cut small X’s into the paper with a utility knife, and tranplant in our tomatoes and peppers.
And that’s basically that. I’m not expecting a miracle from natural materials. I know their limits are different from synthetics, and that’s why I choose them. And that’s high-tech.
Tim Boucher is a first-year small-scale “beyond organic” farmer in Quebec, and author of “The $1,000 Farm: Agriculture for Cheapskates.”