By Patrick Sullivan
Plastic use on most farms and gardens across Vermont is ubiquitous. Because caring for the environment is one of our core principles at Ananda Gardens in Montpelier, it is a complex and contradictory issue. We have been exploring caring for the environment since we started growing food more than a decade ago, particularly regarding the use of plastics.
From our small home gardens to apartments overflowing with plants, plastics have followed us and filled critical roles. Our philosophy is not to use plastic when possible, use it minimally, or reuse it at least three times. This generally means using more expensive plastics, whether it is a garden hose, seedling tray, or plastic tote. Cheap plastic breaks down many times faster, and you end up spending more and using more plastic as a result.
Plastics are very widespread in greenhouses. Starting the season early is crucial for a farm’s profitability in our semi-arctic spring, and greenhouses help us accomplish this. In our home gardens, we made “mini-greenhouses” using windows and storm doors. We would build a simple wooden frame and place the repurposed glass on top to create a warmer microclimate inside. Commonly these are called cold frames, and they are a great way to start plants in the spring in your gardens without using plastics.
It would be prohibitively expensive to cover our large commercial greenhouses with glass, so we have moved to plastic. However, this is not a roll of plastic you get from the hardware store. It has been treated so it will not shatter into tiny pieces, as would happen with a tarp left outside under the sun for too long. When it is no longer useful as a greenhouse cover, we plan to reuse this plastic to cover our soil. Although windows and doors are a great choice for cold frames, if you do use clear plastic for your next homemade greenhouse, make sure you get plastic specifically made for greenhouses.
Another area of farming in which there is a tremendous amount of plastic use is packaging. We are attempting to eliminate altogether single-use plastics on the farm. To do this, we only package what we absolutely have to. Carrots in plastic, not a chance! But greens without plastic wilt within hours. We view “bioplastics” as part of the solution to the problem, but you must look closely: Many “biodegradable” plastics are plastics that have been treated with a chemical so they will break into tiny fragments very quickly, like mini sun-battered tarps. These “biodegradable” plastics may make consumers feel good, but they are no improvement for our environment.
We found BioBags—a corn-based produce bag [featured in the Feb. 6 issue of The Bridge]—two years ago. We tried them enthusiastically, and you may have even gotten some salad from us in the unmistakable green bags. Although we were optimistic, our trials ended early both seasons. BioBags breathe too much, letting air escape from the climate inside the bag. Our greens lasted only a few days, while in other bags they can last up to ten days.
We returned to our trusted half-gallon zipper lock bags as the best alternative. While much more expensive than the polypropylene bags greens are generally sold in, they can be reused, and this was key for our philosophy. In our house, we may wash, dry, and reuse a zipper lock bag many times before it goes to the waste basket.
This year we are excited to try a NatureFlex cellophane bag made from wood pulp. It doesn’t breathe as much as the green BioBag, you can see what is inside, and it breaks down in any home compost.
Last, on our farm we use silage tarps to cover part of the garden each year. This allows us to protect an area that will be planted later in the season, or to incorporate crop residues without disturbing the soil. Keeping the bare earth covered as much as possible is critical to farming. Greenhouse gas emissions from modern farming have been devastating to our climate. Roughly two-thirds of soil carbon has already been lost from our planet’s cultivated soils, according to Dr. Rattan Lal, professor of soil science at the Ohio State University. As the soil is excessively tilled, carbon is released. On the other hand, soil covered by living plants, a silage tarp, or a thick layer of mulch locks in greenhouse gases.
This is called climate-friendly farming, and as a bonus produces healthier crops and more drought-resistant soils. Like greenhouse plastics, these tarps are heavy duty and can be reused for many years. If you want to take part in the no-till gardening revolution this summer, on a small scale we recommend straw, leaf, and compost mulch, but whatever you do, don’t leave a regular tarp out all summer to shatter into tiny pieces. Put the Rototiller away and cover your soil.
Patrick Sullivan is the owner of Ananda Gardens.