During lockdown, many people who had once relied on supermarkets for all their food, turned into wannabe gardeners, tending to flowers, herbs and growing some of their own food. This idea is nothing new during a crisis. During World War One, Americans were asked to plant “Victory Gardens” to prevent food shortages. In the UK, during the Second World War, a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign saw us growing food at home and in public spaces. Over recent years, however, most of us have relied on shops to feed us and have become pretty far removed from how our food grows and where it comes from. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons we have so much food waste – we see food as a disposable commodity and don’t understand all the embedded energy in a simple meal.
But now we seem to be coming full circle. The pandemic has certainly shown us how quickly supermarket supplies can run out and scientists are telling us we may soon face food shortages worldwide. It’s not all doom and gloom however.
Even before the pandemic hit, urban farming has been rising globally. Whether it’s vertical gardening, a windowbox, balconies, roof tops or a rise in the amount of people renting allotments, growing your own food is not only good for your physical health, but it’s been shown to support mental health. AND it’s good for the environment too!
I don’t grow anything like the amount I’d like to, but we all have to start somewhere. Here are some of the things we’ve done to garden a little more, whilst keeping waste to a minimum.
Get a greenhouse
Our goal this year is to extend our growing season. It’s great to get a glut of something that you can then harvest, preserve or barter, but it’s even better if you can grow crops for more months of the year. If you have room for one, a greenhouse means you can grow heat loving plants, which might not fare well outdoors. While you can grow peppers and tomatoes outside, we get a much better crop when protected from the elements in our greenhouse. It also means that crops which might sulk during a frost can grow for longer into the colder months.
We were lucky, and managed to get a second hand one, but if you don’t have access to this, you can create your own with a DIY steel building kit. The parts you’ll get are already measured and cut, so you’ll only need to assemble them; which means no waste. This is important to take into account, as the construction industry is one of the most wasteful sectors across the globe.
Once you’re ready to get your greenhouse working for you, consider making shelves from repurposed wood. Neighbours tend to give us offcuts of wood for our wood burner, and anything that is too good to burn is salvaged and used to make other things that we need. You might be able to source wood from a local Facebook noticeboard or gifting site such as Freecycle.
Plastic (free) pots
Plastic pots can be a nightmare for a Zero Waste gardener. They can’t usually be recycled, can break easily and end up in landfill. Fortunately, some forward-thinking garden centres are addressing this with a take back scheme. In one of my local nurseries there is a ‘help yourself’ container filled with plastic pots of all sizes. You are also encouraged to donate your old pots.
For seedlings, it’s easy to make your own ‘biodegradable pots’ from toilet roll inners. The beauty of these, is you can plant your seedlings straight into the ground, which is ideal for plants which don’t like their roots to be disturbed.
Throughout the year, you can be saving old yogurt pots or cream pots which make ideal gardening containers. By finding ways to reuse things around your home, you’re moving up that important waste hierarchy. And if you do need to purchase new, opt for more sustainable materials such as terracotta.
Depending on what sort of space you have at home, you’ll likely have grass clippings, hedge prunings, weeds and dead plants. All of these are valuable ingredients for home made compost. There is a belief that it’s ok to throw biodegradable materials away. The trouble is, in a landfill site, which is devoid of oxygen, biodegradable materials produce methane; a potent greenhouse gas.
Not only that, but buying bags of compost invariably means thick plastic bags, which can be difficult to recycle in some areas. By composting, you’re closing the loop in your own back garden, plus it’s such a feel-good thing to do.
You can also divert other materials from your home into your compost pile, such as shredded paper and cardboard, egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable and fruit peels from food preparation. My book on compost will tell you everything you need to know!
Recycle your water barrel
All plants need water, and once you start growing your own food, you’ll be amazed just how much water some plants require. According to this site, one serving of salad requires 21 gallons of water. When you consider that water falls out of the sky for free, it makes sense to capture as much of that as possible, so that you can water your plants during drier weather.
We’ve been really lucky with our rain barrels. We’re able to buy old juice containers, which are used for transporting vast quantities of juice to bottling factories across the country. One forward thinking company local to us, buys these barrels, attaches a tap and voilà – the perfect recycled water barrel! We now have three of them dotted around the garden.
If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a second hand traditional wooden barrel or why not opt for an antique stone trough, which you may be able to pick up from an auction house or salvage yard.