Make Houseplant Addiction More Sustainable

July 22, 2023

It was inevitable that a backlash against the surge of interest in houseplants would come: there have been a slew of articles recently about “the dark side of the houseplant hobby” including this one in the Telegraph and this from The Atlantic.

In my podcast On The Ledge, I’ve been talking for the past four years about how houseplant growing can be made as sustainable as possible, including using peat-free compost, growing from seed and encouraging plant swaps.

Here’s my checklist to make sure your houseplant hobby is as eco-friendly as possible…

Go peat-free

Digging up peat from peat bogs to turn into a potting medium for plants is terrible for the environment. Peatlands store half a trillion tonnes of carbon, twice as much as the world’s forests: they are valuable ecosystems that should not be finished. That’s why I signed this letter to the UK government calling for a complete ban on the sale of peat compost in the UK before the end of 2021.
Houseplants don’t need to grow in peat: all mine grow in peat-free potting medium, even carnivorous plants!

Learn to propagate

If you can master the skills of taking cuttings, growing plants from seed, air layering and division, you will gain a far deeper understanding of your plants, and make lots of new plants to share with friends.

Get into plant swaps

One of the most exciting parts of the houseplant world are swaps – whether that’s in-person meetups (remember those?) or trades conducted by post. No, you won’t start out with a picture-perfect, full plant, but you will learn lots along the way, and have the joy of nurturing your plant as it matures.

So many of the stuff I’ve bought for my houseplants is secondhand, from the shelves they sit on and the pots they’re in, to my watering cans and glass cloches. Browse charity shops (aka thrift stores), go on Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree and the like, join local Freecycle and Freegle groups, and you’ll soon unearth a treasure trove of stuff that’s inexpensive or even free. You’ll be keeping stuff out of landfill, finding unique stuff and getting the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from searching out cool stuff.

Before you make any new plant purchases, think hard about where this new plant fits into your collection, whether you have the time and skills to look after it. Having too many plants flips the switch from plants as an aid to your mental health to plants as a cause of stress. Plus, plants that end up in the bin after a month because you don’t have time for them is the opposite of sustainable growing.

Say yes to sustainable pest control

Systemic insecticides should be an absolute last resort when it comes to controlling houseplant pests. That said: don’t assume that because something is “natural” or “organic” that it doesn’t have a potential risk to you, your pets or wildlife either. Biological controls are a great way of dealing with an infestation, but don’t assume you can do one simple thing and solve the problem forever. Most pest problems require constant vigilance and a lot of spraying and wiping leaves.

Educate yourself about plant poaching

Do you know where that wizened old cactus you bought on Etsy actually came from? Plant poaching is devastating plant communities in many parts of the world, including South Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Educate yourself about the signs to look for when buying plants so you don’t fall into the trap of buying wild-collected plants.

Cut down on plastic

From plant labels to plastic pots, gardening is awash with plastic – much of it is not recyclable. This is starting to change, but it takes a shift in culture for things to really move in the right direction. I do use plastic pots, but they get reused dozens of times: I never buy new plastic pots. I make plant labels out of old yoghurt pots (cut them up with a pair of sharp scissors), and try to buy from sellers who offer plastic-free packaging.

Support growers who champion sustainability

The lure of the inexpensive supermarket houseplant is strong, but it’s vital that we support small scale growers who are investing in sustainable approaches, going peat-free and avoiding plastic packaging.

Support plant societies

If you really want to become an expert on a particular kind of houseplant, plant societies can help you expand your knowledge, meet fellow growers and access seeds and plants of rarer species that haven’t been taken from the wild.

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