10 tips for plastic free planting

Whether you’re greening your backyard, balcony or back paddock, our tips for plastic free planting not only reduce waste, they can save you money too.

1. Start with seed, not seedlings

Avoid accumulating black plastic seedling trays or punnets and save money by raising your own baby plants from seed! Seed is often sold in paper packets that can be recycled or composted – no plastic. You can even save seed from productive plants and use that to regrow for next season.

You can plant the seed straight into prepared ground – or you can raise the seeds in a seedling tray or pot first. Reuse pots you already have for this, or scroll down for plastic free DIY ideas.

A torn open packet of seeds lies on its side, spilling seeds onto rich soil.

Plastic free planting begins with seeds! Photo: congerdesign via Pixabay.

Growing from seed means you have more control over the quality of the plant, particularly their root systems. Strong roots make strong plants. And also, it’s just incredibly rewarding to witness the whole journey from seed to fully grown plant!

If you’re growing produce from seed, you’re also reducing plastic by buying less packaged fruit and veg.

2. Make pots from paper

Need pots to propagate cuttings or grow baby plants from seed? Avoid plastic by making pots from newspaper, butcher’s paper, or those paper bags from supermarkets – just wrap around the right size jar and stick one end together using a dab of homemade plastic-free glue. When your new plant is ready to go into the ground, you can then stick the whole thing in your planting hole, because the roots will grow through as the pot breaks down.

Paper pots too much effort? You could also use egg cartons, compostable takeaway cups or containers, or – you guessed it – the cardboard inserts from your toilet rolls. A classic for a reason.

On the left is shown a seedling growing in a DIY pot made from a toilet roll. On the right is an empty DIY pot lying on its side, showing how the bottom has been folded in.

Cardboard and paper pots are plastic free and cost free too. Photo: Stacie Humphreys CC BY 2.0

P.S. If you already have a stash of black plastic plant pots, you can always reuse those, just wash them thoroughly to avoid passing pests or disease to new plants. Nurseries also sometimes take them back for reuse. Worth asking – and using your consumer power to support nurseries that do.


3. Need plant tags? Stick around!

It can be hard to remember what you’re growing where, particularly if you’re raising from seed! Popsticks make great plant tags. It’s worth collecting them to reuse for this purpose if you (or someone you know) regularly get icy poles – or if your kids are using them in crafts.

Another cost- and plastic-free way to label plants is to collect a few actual fallen sticks or some old pencils, use a Stanley knife or similar to whittle a flat space at the end, then write your label straight onto that.

A close-up of some broccoli seedlings. Their varieties are written on popsticks using purple pen.

Popsticks repurposed as plastic free plant labels. Photo: Chiot’s Run CC BY-NC 2.0.

4. Guard your seedlings, plastic free

Guarding seedlings is not always necessary, but can help protect young plants from grazing, frost, strong winds – as well as accidental stomping, mowing or whipper-snipping!

There are several varieties of plastic free tree guards available to buy, and the designs are continually improving. Our current preference is the cardboard ones.

But if you only need to guard a few seedlings, no need to buy – you can turn to your friendly neighbourhood cardboard box again! Fold out the bottom, bang some stakes into opposing corners, and you’re done. When the guards get too tired or soggy, they can be composted.

A photo taken across a strip planted with seedlings that have been guarded with an assortment of plastic free tree guards.

We trialled various plastic free guards at this site in Western Australia. Cardboard worked best.

5. The matter of weed matting

Your plants will grow stronger if you take out the competition. Besides hand pulling weeds and/or scraping aside the surface layer of soil to reduce weed seed load, a good layer of mulch can do the job. But some weeds (looking at you, kikuyu) won’t be put off by just that.

Not to worry – you probably have plastic free weed matting alternatives in your house right now. Just remove any non-degradables like sticky tape from (you guessed it) a cardboard box, flatten it out between your plants, wet it with a hose, throw mulch on top, and it will hold off most weeds for a while. Layers of wet newspaper work the same way.

Old carpet, burlap sacks (try asking at a local café), and clothes too worn for donation also work! Check they’re made from a natural fibre that will rot down first, like wool, linen or cotton, and don’t forget to remove any non-degradable bits like zips, buttons, clasps, elastic. How quickly the clothes rot can also help you check how healthy your soil is.

In a backyard with fruit trees, a man spreads mulch in the background. In the foreground, a layer of wet cardboard is visible, not yet covered with a layer of mulch.

To discourage weeds, add a layer of wet cardboard, newspaper or even old natural-fibre clothing before adding mulch. Photo: A Thinking Stomach.

6. Upcycle tired clothes into plant supports

As your plants get bigger, they might need a bit of support – particularly in a windy spot. To secure them to support stakes, canes or frames, you need something soft with a little give so the plant can move naturally without damage to its stem.

Rather than zipties or other plastic fasteners, you can cut old cotton, linen or other natural-fibre clothing into strips and use that as ties. Choose the material based on the size of your plant and the support it needs. It could be better to use something thin like a T-shirt, or thicker like jeans. You can reuse these ties until they get old and tired, and then they can be composted.

7. Get it in bulk, not bags

Need compost, potting mix, soil or mulch? Buying in bulk is plastic free, and much cheaper than buying bagged!

Call or visit a landscape supplier to get your bulk order delivered, or collect it yourself in a trailer. You could also try your local council: some offer free or discounted mulch/compost. Alternatively, head to MulchNet and see if any local tree contractors are offering free mulch.

Only need a small amount? Why not check in with your neighbours about sharing the load? Community spirit, zero waste, happy plants… all we’re seeing is wins.

A wheelbarrow stands beside a large pile of mulch.

Buying in bulk is cheaper and reduces plastic use. Photo: Manfred Richter via Pixabay.

8. Buy tools once, repair them forever

Our tips so far have generally been cheap as well as plastic free – this tip is about when it pays to spend more. If you need to buy or replace a tool, it is worth shelling out for good quality ones made from materials like metal and wood that can be used, repaired or reclaimed over and over.

The cost-per-use works out much cheaper for these higher quality tools than buying multiple low-cost plastic versions that quickly become brittle with sun exposure and shed non-degradable debris into your soil.

Quality tools can be repaired over and over. For advice on repairs, try a local men’s shed, community workshop, or repair cafe. Photo: Cindy Shebley CC BY 2.0.

9. Get worms to work for you

Rather than buying compost and other soil improvers in packaging, a plastic free option is to try making your own, enlisting the help of worms and other decomposers! A healthy compost heap is a great asset, transforming your food waste into a nutrient-rich resource for free.

You don’t have to use a plastic compost bin. There are lots of free instructions online for building your own compost bay from wood or metal materials, or you could use the trench method.

No room for a compost heap? Worm farms and bokashi bins are more compact, indoor-friendly options for turning food scraps into soil improving goodness. You could also try making weed tea.

A bowl of food scraps can be seen on the left, and then two hands, one holding worms, and the other vermicompost.

Composting turns food scraps into fuel for plants. Photo: Oregon State University CC BY-SA 2.0

10. Sharing is caring!

If you have excess cuttings, seedlings or produce, why not offer these for free to neighbours or friends? Or join or set up a neighbourhood plant/seed swap? Or if there’s a plant in your garden you want to remove, why not see if someone else wants to come and collect it? (Wrapping the roots in wet newspaper is a great plastic free way to make the transfer.)

Sharing or swapping your extras with friends or neighbours not only reduces the amount of plastic used and waste overall, you’ll be building important community connections too.

A basket full of cherry tomatoes.

When you have more than you can handle – share or swap to help others ditch plastic too. Photo: Sharon Ang via Pixabay.

Your turn!

These are just a few tips to get you started – but we’re sure you can come up with quite a few of your own plastic free ideas for greening Australia. Why not share this article with your friends and get a conversation started?

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