Potting On: Biodegradable or Plastic?

At Pig Row over the last few years I have reviewed various pots. We tend to use plastic and terracotta in the garden, reusing them year in and year out and then recycling them when they have gone past their best.
I have over the years used everything from food cans to yoghurt pots to toilet rolls. Though toilet rolls as we know them will soon cease to exist and the budget gardener may need to look for something else to sow their beans in. I am always interested in the principal of biodegradable pots. These are pots you can sow direct into or pot on with and then plant, pot and all, in the ground. Over the years I have tested the best and the worst. There have been pots that have melted away before they've gotten in the ground and pots, that once in the ground, have refused to rot. This is because most of these pots were based either on recycled paper, peat or recycled hemp/vegetable matter. Though these pots have come on in leaps and bounds over the years, they all have the same problem as traditional pots. They take up too much space. When space is a premium in the glasshouse at this time of year I don't want to be tripping over pots that have been discarded. The Utility Shed is fit to burst and there is simply no more room in it until I clear it out in autumn. So, pots have been stacking up in the glasshouse and in crates on the path. The first blustery day and these pots will be strewn across our hillside and I will be picking them out of bushes for the next few months. Though this game of 'hide the pot' may be amusing to you, it isn't to my neighbours who are constantly handing them back to me. I don't want to stand there shuffling my feet, eyes gazed down as I mumble an apology for prematurely dead heading their ornamental chives yet again.

That's why when I was approached by the British Plant and Nursery Guide to review their new range of biodegradable pots 'Becausewecare', I was a little cautious due to prior experiences with compostable pots. As many gardeners know, when compostable pots are watered, they soak up the water and can, in some cases, start to rot or harbour various viruses that eventually kill the plant. However the 'Becausewecare' line doesn't suffer from this problem, the pots are like a thin rubber, easy to handle, easy to store as they take up less room. 25 pots in a packet take up less room than a standard pack of 4 inch plastic pots. The pots are manufactured by the Australian based company 'becausewecare'TM but are exclusive in the UK to the British Plant and Nursery Guide. This doesn't surprise me, this organisation is leading a renaissance in reinvigorating our love of British nurseries so it seems natural for them to do the same in the way we sow seed and pot on. These new pots are designed to be sown in, potted on in and then planted directly into the soil once the plant is hardened off. In that way they are similar to the traditional peat pots. However, Pig Row no longer use peat products as we do not want to be associated with an unsustainable product. Is a sobering thought that peat bogs make up only 3% of the world's land and that these bogs that have taken thousands of years to develop are being destroyed in months. The continued destruction of peat bogs for horticulture and fuel has been linked to climate change. Peat is not a product that can be reused, once gone, it's gone and its nutrients, biodiversity and carbon catching abilities gone with it.

Like the old peat pots, the 'Becausewecare' pots release nutrients as they rot but the difference is that they are made of corn. Now many readers may think that this is just replacing one form of environmental destruction with another but that is not the case. The corn used to make these pots is waste corn, corn that has fallen from the husk. Corn like this in the past was normally ploughed in and any new growth sprayed off with chemicals. This 'waste corn' is not fit for human or animal consumption. Therefore, up to now, had no commercial value as a crop. The corn itself is grown in an area of high natural rainfall limiting the need for irrigation. Now, remember that many of the crops you eat today are grown in the desert. Crops such as green beans, tomatoes and other water guzzling vegetables are grown in hot, arid climates for faster germination. They get around the problem of watering by tapping into water tables, pumping the water up and speeding up the desertification process. Many of our crops, from cotton to oil, to the food we put in our fridge is unsustainable. We have all heard that all environmentally friendly products can have this dark side but other than shipping, fuel costs and land use there are few problems with the ethos of these pots. This is the refreshing part of the idea behind this product, take waste, reuse it, recycle it and create jobs in the growing green sector. This product taps into the boom of Grow Your Own and those of us who want to be truly organic gardeners. Remember if you are an organic gardener, plastic pots may be a stalwart friend of yours but oil reserves are dropping and the plastic pot you have in your hand now will still be around long after you have composted down. There is also the question of what leaches out of plastic pots. BPA (Bisphenol A) is still found in many plastics and though it is an organic compound, it is still has a weak but detectable, hormone-like properties that is endocrine-disruptor. This can initiate early onset of sexual maturation and is associated with heart disease and diabetes. However, the quantities needed are mammoth but when you start to add together bottled drinks in plastic, takeaway boxes in plastic, sandwiches in plastic, milk in plastic, food wrapped in plastic and then add your plastic plant pots to the equation you start to see that this could undermine anyone's organic principals.

So, maybe it is time to reach for such products as 'Becausewecare' pots, not only for our own health but because plastic is unsustainable. However, do they work? Do I buy into the rhetoric that they are better than those old, failed peat pots? There's only one way to find out. Use them. I decided to pot on two Courgette Bolognese. I chose courgettes as they are more susceptible to die back, viruses and other nasties when potting on. They are also one of those plants that will take on the taste of the soil, if your soil is polluted, or contains heavy metals, you will taste it in a foul tasting courgette. So, we will see if the final courgette tastes of corn instead of courgette. I doubt this will happen but these are the kind of things that must be dismissed if we are to move towards products like 'Becausewecare'. I only say this because when I was an expert at Grow Your Own a gardener wrote in complaining that the toilet rolls he used to grow his runner beans in had made them take on a rather peculiar taste. In the end, it was not the loo rolls that were to blame but the fact that his new garden, on a new estate, was on the site of an old metal works.

At first, I thought the flexible nature of the pots would be a problem. However, using a new compost scoop from DeWit made things easier (pictured at the start of this post). I found as soon as the compost filled half of the 4 inch pots they became stable and easy to handle (though I do advise that you lift them by the body and not by the rim as some people may do with a plastic pot). The potting on time was faster than a plastic pot, I don't know if this is down to the tactile nature of the pots themselves or the fact that they do seem to fill easier. I think it is mainly down to the fact that they also don't stick together like plastic pots do when stacked. This is definite plus side, as I have spent many frustrating moments trying to pry pots apart. After the pots were filled, I placed them on the staging and noticed something different from other 4 inch plastic pots. 'Becausewecare' pots are deeper. This is no bad thing, and allows for the formation of a stronger root run and strong roots make healthy plants. I suspect this depth of pot has something to do with the amount of time the pot takes to rot down when in open soil. At Pig Row, we will time this process when we come to plant the courgettes out early next month and will let you know. However, this little touch of making the pots deeper shows a keen eye for design and an understanding of growing in pots. 'Becausewecare' are making the pots fit for purpose compared to the old peat pots which echoed traditional pots in depth. These old peat pots for me often took too long to rot down, creating root bound plants that never really got away. I will be interested to see whether the 'Becausewecare' pot will do everything the producer says it can do. I'm also interested in hearing off readers who have used 'Becausewecare' before or off readers who won't be giving up plastic. Either way, I'd like to hear your views, your stories and your concerns about the future of propagating in the garden. I am already a convert if it means I can have a shed free of plastic pots that inevitably stick together. 

We were given 'Becausewecare' pots free of charge for review. The DeWit tool (£10) was purchased at Gardeners' World Live 2012 and is presently not available on their website.


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