Planting seedlings in the garden is fun. Dealing with the resulting pile of unrecyclable black plastic containers? Not so much. I have trouble bringing myself to throw plastic away, so the containers stack up in my garden shed until I have a chance to take them back to my favorite local nursery, where they're reused. Luckily, things are changing. Many nursery operations, and even big box stores, are turning away from plastic and toward biodegradable containers. The containers are made from a wide range of materials, including recycled paper, cow manure, wood pulp, rice hulls, and coir (coconut fiber), and they quickly decompose in a compost pile.
If you start your own seedlings indoors, you can purchase these biodegradable containers (brand names include Cow Pots and DOT Pots) or make your own DIY version. It is easy to create paper pots out of a sheet of newspaper or toilet paper rolls. I also like to start my salad greens in tofu containers. Just wash the container well in hot soapy water before poking a few holes in the bottom, filling it with potting soil, and sowing some seeds. After you plant the salad greens in the garden, you can rinse out the tofu container and return it to the recycle bin.
Many commercial container brands recommend transplanting seedlings, biodegradable container and all, into the ground, but I don’t advise this. It is true that these containers decompose, but not quickly enough to allow the plant’s roots to extend fully out into the soil. To remove a biodegradable container from around a plant’s root ball, simply peel it away carefully. Don’t skip this step, even if the roots are beginning to grow through the pot, because seedlings left in their biodegradable pots often become root bound and stunted. And, unlike plastic pots, you can toss the remains of the biodegradable container into your compost, where it will soon disappear!
Willi Galloway is the author of Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, and she writes about organic vegetable gardening and seasonal cooking on her blog, DigginFood.