Greener garden shopping
Most people, when they want their retail shopping fix, head for the high street. But racks of shirts leave me cold: and I’ve never quite understood the allure of spending an afternoon hunting for the perfect pair of killer heels. In fact the first and last time I attempted to wear killer heels I spent most of the evening gripping the nearest piece of furniture in a desperate attempt to stay upright. Not a sexy look.
Nope: when I need a spot of retail therapy, I head straight for my nearest garden centre. Give me a bench full of plants to pick over, or a wall hung with garden gloves, balls of string and watering cans and that’s my happy place, right there.
But as I’ve become more aware of the impact my gardening can have on the planet, shopping for the garden has become a much more circumspect, careful affair. I still go to the garden centre: but nowadays it’s as much about what I won’t buy as what I will. I refuse to buy anything wrapped in plastic: I walk away from plants grown in peat (sadly, that’s most of them).
There’s more a planet-friendly gardener can buy than there used to be: a much better selection of peat-free composts, for example, jute sting and bamboo plant labels. But there’s also a great deal of greenwashing: biodegradable pots wrapped in single-use, unrecyclable cellophane, ‘pollinator-friendly’ plants grown in peat or sprayed with pesticides, and ‘organic’ pelleted poultry manure made from intensively-farmed battery hens.
We all need stuff for the garden: but you can have everything you want and stock up on all you need for a flourishing veg patch while also actively helping reduce your impact on the environment.
Make it yourself I make all my modules from newspaper and quite a lot of smaller (10cm/4”) pots from cardboard, rescued from the recycling bin and repurposed into open-topped boxes stuck together with paper masking tape for repotting everything from tomatoes to cucumbers.
There’s no need to buy liquid fertiliser when you can make your own by cutting young nettles or comfrey and steeping it in water; I make much of my own potting mix too, so I can use multipurpose compost without having to wonder what to do with yet another plastic compost sack.
Buy it second hand When I need larger pots, I head for my nearest reclamation yard. These are rather dangerous places for gardeners who are easily led astray: you go for a box full of terracotta pots and come out with several metres of oak floorboard, two tin baths and a stone fountain for the pond. Still they’re enormous fun, and because everything you buy is preloved you can go mad without using up any extra resources or increasing your carbon footprint. You also get that lovely aged look that sits so well in gardens, without having to mess about painting it with yoghurt.
Salvage yards are also great for picking up second-hand paving and bricks, so even when you’re doing hard landscaping you can keep your carbon footprint to rock bottom. Give existing patios and paths a glow-up by lifting the stones and re-laying the best ones: then fill the gaps with matching or contrasting stone bought in from a reclamation yard. Or make contrasting areas of cobbles, old tiles laid on their ends, or simply planting pockets filled with creeping thyme, mind-your-own business (Soleirolia soleirolii) or creeping mint.
Other happy hunting grounds if you want larger stuff for the garden include Ebay, Facebook Marketplace and local auction houses with general sales where you can pick up everything from ladders to wheelbarrows and garden tools for a song.
Buy it local If only new will do, source it from as close to where you live as you can manage. Look for small businesses near you which turn locally-grown materials into lovely things for the garden: rather than buying jute string, which is made in south Asia and shipped to me here in the UK, I like to buy Twool garden twine made of wool sheared from Whiteface Dartmoor sheep living in Devon, one county over from me.
I’ve already talked about coppice workers and the wonderful woody products they can make for your garden from local woodland managed using centuries-old traditions: they’re a great source for garden materials from beanpoles to boot jacks to green oak pergolas and summer houses.
But there are lots of local craftsmen and women in your area who can help with other things, too. Find your nearest blacksmith and you’ll have a bespoke gate unique to your garden, or iron plant supports for peonies and sweetpeas which last a lifetime. Sievewrights, tool makers, willow sculptors, trug makers and leatherworkers – they’re all there, working quietly away nearby. All you have to do is ask them to make you something.
These are not, as a rule, cheap items, it’s true. But they are worth saving up for. Yes, you can buy a bargain basement softwood gate off the shelf for next to nothing. And when it rots out, or falls apart, you’ll buy another one, and another, each one shipped across the world in a container ship from the other side of the world with all the carbon footprint that implies. Or you can buy just one, and it’ll be hand-crafted by someone you’ve talked to, and you’ll love it, and it will last forever, and it will have cost the environment very nearly nothing. Your choice.
And if it does have to come from the garden centre… It’s all about choices. Choose the metal watering can, not the plastic one; the organic fertiliser with the Soil Association logo on it (so you know it’s genuinely free of synthetic chemicals), packed in a cardboard box not a plastic tub.
And ask questions: lots, and lots of questions. You have far more power as a consumer than you think: so if you want to buy bamboo plant labels, say, but the only ones at the garden centre are wrapped in plastic, ask why, and whether they’ll be stocking labels which aren’t wrapped in plastic in future. If they don’t know you want change, they’ll just carry on doing things the way they always have. And the time has come to do things differently.
Do let us all know if you have any good tips for finding second-hand stuff for the garden, or tell us the story of any wonderful craftspeople you’ve come across. The other lovely thing about shopping greener is it brings you into contact with all sorts of people and places you would never otherwise have found – so it’s a lot more interesting. More fun, too!
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One place I've found invaluable - not least because you can source stuff really local to you is FreeCycle - https://www.freecycle.org/ - its amazing what people are throwing away and I've sourced a lot of stuff from pallets to old water tubs for my allotment. Worth a look (although beware.... the "ooh that might be useful" thought happens a lot!)...
Like you, I prefer all things garden vs. shopping for clothes, shoes etc. I am only in my second year of growing my large garden and I'm of the mindset that since I don't spend on clothes, make-up, going out to eat-buying high quality gardening supplies (made in the USA in my case) will help reduce waste. It is quite more expensive while getting my garden established, but will pay off in the end. I also have a close relationship with some of my neighbors who garden, so we share resources at times as well.