Recently I posted about reusing empty toilet rolls as seed raising pots. It got me thinking about low waste vegetable gardening and other ways to REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, ROT and RECYCLE when growing veggies. Along with the environmental benefits of growing our own food, such as reduced food miles and packaging, vegetable gardening can also create some waste. There are also all sorts of things marketed to us as backyard (or front yard in my case!) veggie growers which can lead us into unnecessary consumption.
I thought it would be good to look at how we can reduce some of the waste involved and, from growing new plants from old to ways to mark what’s what, there are lots of things we can do to lower our impact even further when we grow our own veggies.
Seed Raising Pots
I certainly REUSE seedling trays that I have managed to acquire one way or another but I don’t have enough for raising all my seedlings. Many nurseries have collection points to RECYCLE used plant pots. I’m sure I could take some extra trays from my local nursery but there are a number of other things that can be RECYCLED to raise vegetable seeds that we collect at home. Some of these have the additional benefit that they are compostable so, like peat pots or coir pellets, the seedling can be planted in the pot to reduce transplant shock.
RECYCLE the following as seed raising pots:
- Empty toilet rolls. Fold over the sides of one end and they are quite sturdy.
- Egg cartons. They are quite shallow so better for more shallow rooted seedlings like lettuce and annual herbs. The egg shells themselves can also be used. Just make a drainage hole.
- Newspaper. A little more time consuming but quite simple. Roll folded newspaper around a suitable sized cylinder such as a piece of PVC pipe and fold one end down to form the base. There are also origami instructions on YouTube.
- Empty yoghurt pots or milk containers and cartons. Cut them to size if necessary and make some drainage holes with a skewer.
- Punnets from strawberries or tomatoes. They usually already have drainage holes and the lid creates a mini greenhouse.
- Citrus fruit halves after juicing. Again, make a hole in the bottom for drainage.
As you know, seeds do have a use-by date. The older they get, the lower the germination rate will be. If you have old seed packets, don’t throw them out straight away. See if the seeds are still viable by pre-germinating them in a mini greenhouse strawberry punnet. Line the base of the punnet with damp paper towel or cotton cloth. Spread out some of the seeds and keep them damp without drowning them. After a few days to a week, you’ll see if any of the seeds have germinated. These can be gently planted in seed raising mix and you’ll know which packets of seed to throw out and which ones have some life left in them.
Seed Labels and Markers
Another advantage of many of the above seedling pots is that you can write directly onto the pot what kind of seed has been planted in it. However, I also like to have markers in the garden to identify what is planted where and I need markers for my existing seedling trays.
Some REUSE ideas are:
- Ice cream sticks. The wooden sticks in ice creams are the perfect size to use as seedling markers and they are compostable too.
- Plastic yoghurt and milk containers can be cut into plant markers. Although they are not compostable, they are durable enough to be used again and again.
- The plastic coated cardboard of milk cartons can also be cut down to size and the plastic makes them durable enough for a season.
- Pebbles can be an attractive alternative for labelling seedlings in a veggie patch.
Seed Raising Mix
A good seed raising mix, rather than simply digging up some garden soil, is important for successful seed raising. However, every time I buy another plastic bag full of commercial seed raising mix, I do recoil a somewhat at using yet another plastic bag. While they are accepted in soft plastic recycling with RedCycle, if they can be avoided all the better. So I went in search of a recipe to make my own seed raising mix. I came across this simple recipe from Milkwood.
2 parts good quality compost, sifted
2 parts coconut coir
1 part worm castings
1 part sand
sprinkle of aged animal manure
- Mix all ingredients together, removing any large chunks.
Compost & Worm Farming
Speaking of compost and worm castings, composting is a must for the veggie gardener. Not only can you keep your organic kitchen waste out of landfill, spent vegetable plants (if they are not diseased) can be composted too. And, of course, the compost and worm castings and ‘tea’ are the best natural fertilisers for your garden saving you from buying commercial products in their plastic packaging.
Propogating plants from waste
Maybe the ultimate low waste vegetable gardening technique is to grow new plants from old. Celery, lettuce and root vegetables are good for this. New shoots will grow from the cut leftovers.
Of course, many vegetables have seeds that are easy to collect. If you have a compost heap, you’ve probably found pumpkin spontaneously growing out of it. You can save these seeds for planting out when the season is right. Look for heirloom varieties at the Farmer’s Market and this will be particularly good for seed saving. My best cherry tomatoes this year sprouted from Farmer’s Market tomato seeds in the compost I spread in the veggie patch. At the end of the season, I saved them properly!
Saving seed is a great low waste activity. By properly preparing and storing the seeds from your garden produce, you eventually develop seeds that are perfect for your conditions, save on the packaging from new seeds and the carbon emissions required to prepare and ship them.
Frost sensitive plants and those that like conditions a bit warmer can still thrive in an early spring garden if given some protection. One way is to cover them with cloches and these are easily made from soft drink bottles, cut in half.
Using The Excess
This year we were particularly over run with cucumbers. Every gardener, every year will find there is something that they just can’t eat fast enough to keep up with what the garden is producing. How can you avoid it going to waste?
Obviously, there are ways to preserve excess for the leaner months. The skills of canning and preserving were essential in time gone by when produce wasn’t shipped around the world out of season. We can reduce our dependence on supermarket produce by learning these old skills.
This year I used two different recipes to preserve my abundance of green tomatoes at the end of the season. Stephanie Alexander’s recipe for Green Tomato Pickle is more like an Indian Pickle. Delia Smith’s is more of a traditional sweet chutney. For me Delia’s wins.
What you don’t want to preserve, you can give away of course. There are also opportunities to trade your excess produce for something you haven’t got in your own garden. There are Facebook groups and other community forums where you can do this if simply sharing over the back fence is not sufficient. Websites like Ripe Near Me and Local Harvest are starting up to help people connect with other growers.
Also look out for food pantries in your local area. Some welcome excess home grown produce. Some charities may take your excess produce too. Call them to check first.
So, they are my ideas for low waste vegetable gardening. Do you have more suggestions? I’d love to hear them. Post them in the comments below. Meanwhile I wish you an abundant harvest!