Picking Peppers in the Piedmont

By Lalitree L. Darnielle, EMGV

It’s high pepper season here in the Piedmont, when the fruits of the various Capsicum species are ripening in abundance. Whether you’re interested in sweet bell peppers, scorching ‘Carolina Reapers,’ or something from the vast array of choices in between, there’s a lot to love about peppers and something for everyone. And, they’re an easy garden crop to grow in our area with some sun and well-drained soil.

Just a small sampling of the wide variety of pepper colors, shapes, and sizes. (Image credit: Lalitree Darnielle)

Pepper Facts

There are around 25 species in the Capsicum genus, but three of them are the most common: Capsicum annuum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, Thai peppers, and shishitos; Capsicum chinense, including habaneros, ghost peppers, and the super-hots; and Capsicum baccatum, the aji types such as ‘Aji Amarillo,’ ‘Sugar Rush,’ and ‘Aji Mango’ varieties. Less ubiquitous but still common are the Capsicum frutescens (most famous for being the species of the ‘Tabasco’ variety) and Capsicum pubescens (the cold-hardy rocoto peppers). 

‘Aji Lemon Drop‘ and ‘Aji Mango’(both C. baccatum) supported by tall wooden stakes. (Image credit: Lalitree Darnielle)

Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of heat. You can grow tiny pebble-shaped chiletpins or nearly foot-long ‘NuMex Big Jims.’ There are stout, thick-walled poblanos and thin, super long, and twisty ‘Thunder Mountain Longhorns.’ There are smooth-skinned bells or Corni de Toro, and super-bumpy Seven Pot peppers. Ripe pepper color varies greatly among varieties – bright red, dark red, orange, yellow, peach, brown, even striped. Immature pepper color varies as well, from some that are so packed with anthocyanins 1 that they appear nearly black, to dark green, light green, and even white. 

Heat, which comes primarily from the chemical compound capsaicin and is measured in units called Scoville heat units, ranges from 0 (sweet peppers) to well over two million (‘Carolina Reaper’). Contrary to popular belief, the seeds of the pepper do not contain capsaicin and do not contribute heat. Capsaicin is mostly concentrated in the light-colored inner “ribs” that hold the seeds, as well as the walls of the fruit. So, if you want to reduce the heat level of a pepper for use in cooking, make sure to remove the ribs inside.

(Left to right) ‘Carolina Reaper’ (C. chinense) and a list of some of the most common peppers and their Scoville heat units. (Image credit: Lalitree Darnielle and Abigail Harper and Ben Philips of Michigan State University Extension)

Pepper Growing Basics

Peppers are annuals in our area, growing best when days are 70-85° during the day and 60-70° at night. They grow slowly in cool weather and need a long growing season, so if you’re growing from seed, it’s best to start them indoors in February. Pepper seeds germinate best in a warm spot, so place your seeded pots on a heat mat or other warm place like the top of a refrigerator. Be prepared to wait two weeks or even longer, as pepper seeds can be slow to germinate. Keep the seed-starting medium moist but not soaking wet. Remove the heat once the seedlings pop up, and provide bright light and good air circulation as the young plants grow. 

In late April to early May, when young plants are ready to go outside and the danger of frost is past, harden them off by gradually increasing their exposure to sunlight and wind over the course of a week or two. Choose a sunny, well-drained spot, and give plants 12-24 inches of space – peppers like to “hold hands” somewhat, but they also need room for air circulation. Afternoon shade can be acceptable, even preferred for some varieties like rocoto peppers, which are adapted to cooler mountainous regions and struggle in the Piedmont’s summer sun. Containers may also be used successfully – make sure your container drains well, and that each plant has at least three gallons of potting medium for best results. 

After transplanting outside, provide protection from any surprise late frosts – you can use row covers, or simply place upturned boxes or buckets over the young plants on cold nights. Fertilize new transplants lightly (according to the results of your soil test), and repeat once fruits begin to set. Provide sturdy support, since large plants that are laden with fruits have a tendency to tip over. Keep the bed mulched and free of weeds. Then, be patient! Some varieties will start to set fruit mid-summer, but it can take until late July or even mid-August for ripening to occur. Some varieties, especially some C. baccatum varieties such as ‘Aji Amarillo’, require a very long growing season and may not ripen until late September.

At the end of the season, pepper plants can be moved to pots and pruned back drastically to be overwintered indoors. Plants can be maintained in this way without need for light, then planted out again the next spring, giving them a head start on the season. Keep the soil just barely moist, and watch for pests like aphids.

Pepper Problems

Aleppo (C. annuum) cracking due to uneven water conditions. (Image credit: Lalitree Darnielle)

Peppers generally grow well in the Piedmont and have few major pest or disease issues, but they can have problems. Blossom-end rot can affect the developing fruits, and some varieties seem to be particularly prone to this. Usually this is caused by very uneven watering leading to poor uptake and transport of calcium. Sunscald is one of the main causes of blemishes if fruits are exposed to too much direct sunlight. Cracking and splitting of fruit is common if a period of dryness is followed by sudden wet conditions. Blossom drop may occur during periods of stress such as extreme heat or dryness. Root rot can occur in areas where the drainage is poor, causing stunted growth and failure of the plant to thrive. Insects such as aphids or hornworms may also feed on plants, and microbial diseases can occur as well. Usually, these issues are relatively minor. 

Harvest and Storage

For varieties such as bell peppers, jalapeños, and shishitos, it’s most common to harvest unripe green peppers, but waiting until fruits reach their ripe color maximizes their flavor and vitamin content. Unripe peppers may mature in color somewhat if held at room temperature for a few days but will not truly ripen any further. Store picked peppers in the refrigerator where they’ll keep for a few weeks, or freeze them for longer storage.

(Left to right) See the dramatic difference in color of unripe and ripe ‘Naga Smooky Rainbow’ (C. chinense) – yes that’s the right spelling! – and the stages of ripening of a ‘Trepediera Werner’ (C. baccatum), from white to orange to red. (Image Credit: Lalitree Darnielle) 

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Notes

1–Water soluble flavonoid pigments found in plants that can be black, blue, violet, or red. These colors are impacted by pH levels.

Resources and Additional Information

For more information on common types of peppers and pepper pests and pathogens, visit North Carolina State University’s following online sites:

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/capsicum-annuum/

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/capsicum-chinense/

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/insect-and-related-pests-of-vegetables/pests-of-pepper

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/blossom-end-rot-of-tomato-pepper-and-watermelon

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/southern-blight-of-vegetable-crops

University of California’s factsheet provides great additional insight on how to preserve and enjoy peppers. This thorough guide also includes several recipes.

University of California’s Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa’s 2022 Pepper Collection offers suggestions of sweet and hot varieties for the home gardener.

https://ccmg.ucanr.edu/EdibleGardening/PepperDescriptions/

Article Short Link: https://wp.me/p2nIr1-2HI

Garden Veggies Year Round: One Gardener’s Calendar

By Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

An early medley of summer veggies with beets from a fall planting. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)

It’s September. The last tomatoes might be hanging on for dear life on tired vines; the squash bugs have decimated the zucchini; if it hasn’t already, the basil has begun to bolt; a few pole beans might be producing, and an eggplant or two is basking in the last heat of summer. For me, it’s time to turn the page on a new gardening year.

Piedmont veggie gardening has two growing seasons: cool and warm. And believe it or not, in this southern climate, the cool season is longer than the warm season. In fact, there are actually two cool-weather planting periods:  September to February, and February to May. With a little planning and a small investment in reusable row covers, the Piedmont gardener can put a variety of fresh veggies on the table all year around. (Stay tuned for tips and techniques on extending the gardening season.)

September: Let the New Year Begin

My “new year” planting begins mid-to-late August. With summer veggies still in residence (but slowly succumbing to age and disease), I start cool weather leafy crops – lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and collards (which I pick leaf by leaf) in seed trays. Within four to six weeks, just as the temperature starts to moderate, they’ll be ready to transplant into the garden. I’ll also start spinach in pots on my patio.

Spinach starts in a pot. Some will remain; others will move to the winter garden bed. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)

I don’t find it practical to grow cool-weather heading plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) from seeds. They typically require cool temperatures, which would mean growing them under lights in air conditioning in the summer or in a cooled environment in the winter. Additionally, because of the Persephone Period, it’s advantageous to have the stronger, more mature crops available at garden centers for a September planting.

The Persephone Period1 is the time of year when daylight falls below 10 hours. During this time, plant growth pretty much comes to a halt. According to the US Naval Observatory,2 the Persephone Period in Durham lasts between November 17 and January 16, and if you want to pick broccoli for your holiday dinner, it’s wise to get the largest plants you can.

With transplants, days to maturity starts at the time of transplanting. Depending on the variety you choose and the size of the plant, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower each take between 60 and 100 days to mature. So, plants put in September first could conceivably be ready mid-November or at some point through January. As soon as these veggies hit retail shelves, they go into my garden, even if it means planting them under the last thriving eggplant. (If this plant, in a shadier environment, grows slower than the others, I consider it season extension.)

(Left to right) This cabbage, harvested on New Year’s Eve, was planted in September. A section of Napa cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy, planted in September and harvested in November. (Image credit: Kathyrn Hamilton)

Then, I fill the space remaining with my favorite root veggies — beets, carrots, and turnips. Spinach gets planted in pots on my patio. If I can squeeze it, I’ll also add some lettuce.  And, if there’s still a bare spot, I’ll toss in some old lettuce seeds on the chance they will sprout and can then be transplanted into pots extending the lettuce harvest.

February:  A Second Winter Crop

The second cool season begins in mid-January when I sprout snow peas between paper towels. At the same time, I’ll warm the soil at the ends of my beds with a combination of water and plastic. (Water under plastic conducts heat better than plastic alone.) Once the soil is warm enough, depending on the year it could be as early as January 31, I’ll plant the sprouted peas.

(Left to right) Snow peas sprouted in paper towels. The tails are the beginnings of roots. The same sprouted snow peas about two weeks later. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)

As soon as broccoli and cabbage are back in stock, mid-February, I’ll get them into the garden, and depending on what root veggies have been harvested, I’ll seed more beets, turnips, and carrots for continuous harvest through early summer.

March:  Getting a Jump on Summer

Cucumbers get started mid-March so they can go into warmed soil early-to-mid-April. This can be dangerous, as frost is always an April threat. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to cover tender plants. However, these cucumbers will start producing in May and go into early July when they’ll be replaced with a succeeding crop.

Tokiwa Japanese cucumbers started indoors transplanted on April 2. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)

May: The Summer Garden Begins

Once the peas are done at the end of May, beans will take their place. I’ll plant bush beans in one bed and pole beans in the other. The bush beans will mature first, and the pole beans will follow.

Once the snow peas are finished at the end of May, beans are planted. (Image credit: Kathyrn Hamilton)
Carrots planted during a warm January spell harvested at the end of May. (Image credit: Kathryn Hamilton)

If the stars align and the weather cooperates, broccoli, cabbage, and the remaining root vegetables will be harvested by mid-May, and tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and eggplants will take their place. Again, if I must, I’ll tuck the tiny tomato plants next to the cabbage until it’s ready to harvest.

By August, my gardening year will end and in September I’ll start all over again. And while the following is not a full list of all that can be grown in the Piedmont throughout the year, you can find that here.3

My Veggie Year-at-a-Glance

TimingActionVeggies
Mid-AugustStart cool-weather leafy veggiesArugula, chard, collards, chard, kale, lettuce, spinach
Mid-SeptTransplant heading varietiesBroccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collards
Mid-SeptSeed root veggiesBeets, carrots, radishes, rutabaga, turnips
Mid-JanuarySproutSnow peas
End JanuaryTransplantSnow peas
Mid-FebruaryTransplant heading varietiesBroccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collards
Early MarchStart seedsCucumbers
Early AprilPlantCucumbers
Early AprilStart seedsTomatoes, eggplants, peppers
Mid-MayTransplantTomatoes, eggplants, peppers
Mid-MayStart seedsSquash, zucchini
JuneTransplantSquash, zucchini

Notes

1–https://lee.ces.ncsu.edu/2018/10/persephone-period-for-planning-perfect-winter-produce/

2– The US Naval Observatory offers an online tool that allows readers to view the duration of daylight and darkness on a one-year calendar based on geographic location. https://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/Dur_OneYear

3–https://extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/NC-Vegetable-Planting-Guide.pdf?fwd=no

At publication date, it’s too late to start the brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli) from seed. Find the strongest plants you can at retail. Goose them with some fish emulsion and plant them as deep as the first set of leaves.

This is an excellent time to seed beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, Swiss chard, kale, and spinach right in the garden. Read the seed packets for tips on increasing germination. Many of these plants will make it clear to May. Another option is to re-seed a couple of times during the year as you harvest.

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Additional Resources and Information

Master Gardener Tip: Did you know? You can find all research on a specific topic from North Carolina State University by googling:  subject+NCSU. Here are some of the links related to vegetable gardening.

North Carolina State University’s Central NC planting calendar provides a comprehensive guide to veggie planting

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs

North Carolina State University’s index of vegetable gardening resources

https://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/gardening-plants/vegetables-2/

North Carolina State University’s Vegetable Gardening 101

https://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/03/vegetable-gardening-101-3/

For more on the Persephone Period, see the University of California Master Gardeners of Napa County’s factsheet

https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=28043

Article Short Link https://wp.me/p2nIr1-2F1

Upcoming Program Reminder

Kelly Norris to Speak at Durham Garden Forum September 20 Lecture

By Karen Lauterbach, EMGV

Want to learn more about an ecologically sound vision for the next generation of home gardens?  If so, join the Durham Garden Forum (DGF) online on Tuesday, September 20, at 7:00 pm to hear Kelly Norris, acclaimed horticulturist and author, speak at the fall 2022 kick-off of the DGF 2022-2023 lecture series.

Norris is the author of New Naturalism:  Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.  He will discuss converting turf to vibrant garden settings to increase biodiversity.  He will use his personal half-acre garden as an example.  It contains more than 120 plant species and a growing list of birds and insects.

Norris is an award-winning plantsman, and in addition to authoring several books, his work in gardens has been featured in The New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, Organic Gardening, Fine Gardening, Garden Design, and in radio, television, and digital media. He is the former director of horticulture and education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and was a 2015 Chanticleer Foundation fellow. Norris’s gorgeous aesthetics “mimic the wild spaces we covet,” and his natural planting style “supports positive environmental change and leads to a more resilient space.”1

The Durham Garden Forum is an informal group that meets once a month to enrich gardening knowledge and skill.  Meetings are on the third Tuesday of the month from 7 – 8:30 pm.  Meetings will be via Zoom through the end of 2022.  Members have access to a video library of presentations, and they also receive discounts at Durham Garden Center and For Garden’s Sake

Durham Garden Forum (DGF) memberships cost $25 per year.  You can access the membership form here (scroll down).  If you are a DGF member, you will receive invitations to register for each month’s meeting. 

Times and topics for upcoming 2022 DGF lectures are:

  • October 18, 2022; 7:00 pm – Leave the Leaves
  • November 15, 2022; 7:00 pm – Direct Seeding Spring and Summer Flowers
  • December 13, 2022; 7:00 pm – Proper Selection and Use of Growing Media

You can choose to attend individual lectures for $10 each.

Questions?  Contact durhamgardenforum@durhammastergardeners

https://durhammastergardeners.com/tag/durham-garden-forum/

Notes

1–New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden. Cool Springs Press.

September To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

The ACG’s resilient gallardia is still going strong. (Image Credit: Gary Crispell).

I’m baaaack!  A huge thank you to Melinda for filling in for me last month.  I more or less missed August altogether.  A family beach week sandwiched between two hastily-planned trips to Houston, Texas pretty much ate up the whole month.  But now it’s September.  New month.  New start.

Right, September, the month of weird temperature swings, totally unpredictable precipitation, and the ever-present possibility of a tropical visitor with a violent nature.  Wheeee.

The Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) is abysmal.  It looks like no one has cared for it in over a month, which come to think of it, is pretty accurate.  I mean, the rain gods didn’t even visit much.  Most of the plants have given up any pretext of looking cheery let alone pretty.  There’s one bedraggled clump of rudbeckia (R. fulgida), a few sad zinnias (Z. elegans ‘Canary’), a marigold or two (Tagetes patula), two forlorn purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and one brave cosmos plant (C. bipinnata).  Elsewhere, in the ACG are the tenacious gallardia (G. pulchella), the spreading garden mum I have yet to identify. You’d think after four years I would at least have a clue.  Nope. Therefore, it shall remain Chrysanthemum don’thaveaclue.  The stonecrop (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’) is showing color and will soon grace us with its lovely pinkness.

Yellow ginger lily in September, extending the summer-blooming season with gorgeous sights and sweet smells. (Image Credit: Gary Crispell)

My favorite flower right now is in back beside the deck.  It is a yellow ginger lily.  We brought a piece of rhizome back with us from Hawai’i ten years ago.  I have divided it numerous times (there’s three pots of them here), and now they are ready again.  If anybody has a couple of 5 to 7 gallon nursery pots sitting around, I’ll split the ginger lilies (Hedychiun flavescens) up and put some in the spring plant sale.  Just sayin’.  Anyway, it has the most delicate and exquisite scent that just hangs in the air on a humid morning or evening and makes sitting on the deck most delightful.

I suppose it is time to get around to what I have been informed is the main purpose of this communique. I have my own opinion, but they didn’t ask me.

LAWN CARE

Time to rejuvenate cool season lawns (tall fescue, bluegrass, perennial rye).  Unless you irrigated this summer, they probably look rather sad.  We assume that you did avail yourself of the FREE SOIL TEST service from NCDOA this year and know how much lime and N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizer you need to add to your soil.  (Click HERE for more info on soil testing). So, there are basically three approaches to rejuvenation.

They all start with spreading the lime and fertilizer over the yard.  The first method is for those of you who only have some relatively small bare patches.  Loosen the soil in the areas to be reseeded, scatter seed on the loose soil and tamp it down (Not stomp…just walk over it firmly.).  Spread a light covering of wheat straw over any patches larger than one square foot.  Keep moist until germination and then water thoroughly as needed to give it about an inch of water per week.

Method two involves a core aerator.  Spread chemicals as above and core aerate the lawn twice in perpendicular directions.  Spread seed over entire lawn and cover large bare areas with wheat straw.  Water as above.

The third method is drastic.  It is used when your lawn looks like my backyard…totally nekkid.  Spread lime and fertilizer then till up the whole yard.  Spread seed and roll yard to achieve optimal seed/soil contact.  Cover yard with wheat straw and water as above.  The book says all this should be done by the second week of October.  The book ain’t wrong.  A little conservative maybe, but not wrong.

Do not fertilize any warm season grasses (Bermuda, zoysia, centipede) anymore this year.  They are getting ready for a long winter’s nap and unlike bears, they do not need to fatten up.

Grub control efforts are still worthwhile until the middle of the month when the grubs, too, are going into hibernation (having already fattened up on your lawn’s roots).

PRUNING

Nope.  Nicht.  Non.  Nyet. No!  Sharpen the pruning shears and loppers and oil ‘em up then hang ‘em up until Black Friday or Boxing Day even.

SPRAYING

The same culprits that you were saying bad things about in August are still out there—all of them—and most likely in the same places they were then.  They are tenaciously pernicious.  Get them!  I shall forthwith reveal their identities and their likely hideouts.  Woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) will be creeping around hemlocks while spider mites are not so discerning.  They will lurk on the underside of any coniferous evergreen’s needlelike leaves and on most other plants that might be under stress.  (They have no mercy.) Tea scales (Fiorinia theae) will be found on euonymus and camellias.  These will either have to be sprayed with a horticultural oil to smother them or you can pick them off individually and smush them.  Well, not necessarily with your bare fingers.  That is rather yucky.  Lace bugs (Stephanitis pyrioides) will be hanging out on pyracantha and azaleas, especially those growing in sunny locations.  (Azaleas are an understory plant, after all.)

As always, continue any rose maintenance program.

(Left to right) Woolly adelgids are concealed by white, fluffy secretions; camellia leaves showing symptoms of tea scale; tell-tale stippling on leaves indicating lacebugs’ handiwork. (Image Credits: JR Baker, UGA extension, SD Frank)

PROPAGATION

Here is your chance to get dirt under your fingernails.  I know you want to.

Dig up spring-flowering bulbs and tubers and rhizomes and divide them.  Daffodils really like the attention as do irises and day lilies.  The reward you get in the spring will more than compensate for having to get your nails done again. (Real men aren’t afraid of the manicurist.)

(Left to right) Bearded irises in full bloom, their overcrowded rhizomes ready for division, and a newly-divided iris being replanted. (Image Credits: Tom Flemming_CC BY-NC 2.0_Flickr and Bumcombe County EMGV Extension).

Peonies that need transplanting can receive that attention now.  Dig a big hole and a big root ball.  Just be aware of not planting too deep.  Only as deep as the hole they came out of.  Cut back any old stems and mulch well.

OTHER STUFF TO DO SHOULD SEPTEMBER TURN OUT TO BE ABSOLUTELY SPECTACULAR

It could happen, you know.  It’d be a shame to get to October before you realized that September had been spectacular.  Stay aware.

It’s not too late to plant a fall garden.

Go camping with the grandkids. 

Get the fire pit ready for that first crisp fall evening.

Just go outside and revel in the goodness and wonder of nature.

Remember:  FALL IS FOR PLANTING

Resources and Additional Information

North Carolina State University’s TurfFiles (https://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/) offers a user-friendly and comprehensive guide to establishing and caring for your lawn. The following links offer tips on fall lawn renovation:

https://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/2021/08/fall-renovation-seed-part-1/

https://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/2021/09/fall-renovation-agronomics-part-2/

Bumcombe County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer blog site offers a great guide to rhizomes and bulb care including division and planting with advice on everything from irises to daffodils.

https://www.buncombemastergardener.org/category/flowers/bulbs/

For more information on garden pests woolly adelgids, tea scale and lace bugs, these links show great photos for identification, signs, and symptoms.

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/hemlock-woolly-adelgid

https://extension.uga.edu/programs-services/landscape-pest-management/Nursery-pests/tea_scale_fiorinia_theae.html

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/azalea-lace-bug#:~:text=They%20are%20called%20%E2%80%9Clace%E2%80%9D%20bugs,into%20a%20varnish%2Dlike%20shield.

Article Short Link https://wp.me/p2nIr1-2DG

Plastic Plant Pots: Planting is Green, But so is Keeping the Use of Plastics to a Minimum

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The Problem

It seems plastics polluting the environment has reached a crisis level. I first heard about floating plastic waste islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean many years ago and microplastics in cosmetics finding their way into the largest freshwater bodies in the world–the Great Lakes. And now more than ever, the issue is frequently in the news of how plastics are ubiquitous because they are not biodegradable and are harming wildlife and the environment [1]. Apparently, we unintentionally ingest a plateful of microplastics (less than 5 mm in diameter) per year[2]. Some sad and alarming photos were recently published by the BBC of birds living with plastic waste and other garbage[3]. Local organizations like Don’t Waste Durham want to start banning Styrofoam,[4] and the Haw River Assembly uses innovative ways to keep plastics out of our waterways like a Trash Trout™, which is a stormwater litter trap.[5] I even found in my yard a small bird nest that had fallen to the ground after a summer thunderstorm that was made with black and green plastic netting.

Trash Trout stormwater litter trap prevents plastics and other human-made trash from entering a main waterway in NC. (Image credit: Emily Sutton, Haw Riverkeeper. Used with permission courtesy of Haw River Assembly)

In fact, in the United States, plastics production contributes 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, and by 2030 plastics production is expected to outpace all US coal plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. There is even a newly-recognized geological time interval called the Anthropocene or ‘Age of Man’ to acknowledge the extensive changes to processes and conditions on Earth made by humans that is distinct from the Holocene Epoch, which followed the Age of Continental Glaciation, and includes such phenomena as the ‘global dispersion’ of plastics contributing to a new distinctive strata according to the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene/).

My efforts to reduce our use of single use plastics such as bags, containers, and wrapping by buying in bulk and purchasing less wasteful products is improving, but plastic is the material of choice for packaging, and it is hard to find alternatives. We have grown accustomed to the convenience of these cheap disposable containers and packaging in our throwaway society. In the United States, the mass production of plastics has skyrocketed from less than a half a million metric tons by weight in 1960 to over 32 million metric tons in 2018[6]. In 2019, the United States, as the largest producer of plastic waste, generated about 42 million metric tons, and 1 to 2 million metric tons of that ended up leaking into the oceans and environment[7].

As gardeners, there are a few things we can do though to lessen the environmental impact of plastics. I usually accumulate about a wheel barrow full of plastic pots of both small and large sizes and a few trays each year when I buy annuals for my flower pots, vegetables for my tiny garden, and perennials and trees for my landscape. This may not be as much of the total plastic I purchase throughout the year for such items as yogurt, shampoo, laundry detergent, garbage bags etc., but plastic pots can be large and do contribute to the overall increase in plastics in the waste stream of our society that usually ends up in landfills (73 % of all plastic waste)6 which is bad for the environment [8]and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Collection of plastic pots from my 2022 spring planting season.
(Image Credit: Wendy Diaz)

Worldwide, only 9 % of plastic waste is recycled[9]. In 2019, the United States only successfully recycled 4%, although an equally small portion of 4% was mismanaged or counted as uncollected litter. The US has an extensive waste management system that includes incineration of 19% of the plastic waste[10]. Everyone has heard of the 3 Rs, Reduce, Reuse (repurpose) and Recycle, but it is worthwhile to remind everyone of the waste management hierarchy in that reducing is better than reusing and reusing is better than recycling and all of these are better than throwing them in the garbage and worse of all littering.

Partial Solutions

The best option for gardeners is to reduce and avoid purchasing plants in plastic pots in the first place. Then we don’t have to find a place to dispose of them so they don’t end up in our waterways and eventually into the oceans. But until there are new policies for and innovations in the packaging and container industry such as Extended Producer Responsibility schemes or EPR,9 there are only a few things we gardeners can do to not add to this global problem. 

Reduce

Instead of using plastic pots to start our seeds, one strategy we can employ is to use the Soil-Block method and tools. This technique involves making your own soil block forms using wet seed starting mix where seedlings ‘self-prune’ by air between the soil blocks instead of becoming root bound in traditional plastic pots. The added benefit is that they more quickly adjust to transplanting and establish quicker because the seedling’s roots don’t encircle a pot and they don’t have to learn to unfurl.[11]

(Left to right) Various handheld soil blocking tools; the white circular tool on the top right is a handmade version. These are readily available online. Prepared soil-blocks with seeds in their reusable propagation tray. (Image credits: Penn State Extension and Collin Thompson, Michigan State University Extension)

Reuse

Plastic pots do not have to be a ‘single use plastic’ container and we can wash them and donate them for reuse. I also save both small and large plastic pots for my personal use to:

  • start my own cuttings of plants or seeds;
  • transplant ‘volunteer’ tree seedlings for my tree nursery;
  • pot perennials in the fall that I have split for pass-a-long plants for neighbors and friends,
  • scoop soil or worm castings from bags while planting,
  • collect and store small pebbles I find while weeding for future use, and,
  • place over tender plants for frost protection[12].

Nevertheless, I always end up with more than I can reuse so I donate them to our own local Briggs Avenue Community Garden. Sometimes, the Master Gardener plant sale needs certain size pots for their annual spring plant sale fundraiser. Your local nursery may also take your plastic pots for example the Durham Garden Center has a ‘Give and Take’ table near their checkout where home gardeners can leave their pots. Our pervasive use of plastics is even influencing artists[13] such as Susie Ganch whose work explores “the interconnectedness of the human experience and the environment.” Although, not practical unless you know an artist who works in waste plastics media, it is an interesting way to repurpose single use plastics.

Recycle

In Durham, where I live, it can be confusing of where you can recycle plastic plant pots. At the time of writing this article, our local Durham County Solid Waste Convenience Site did not recycle plastic pots, and I was told they throw them in the trash dumpster so they can be transferred to the landfill. Whereas, the County of Durham allows for the recycling of plastic pots, even black ones, according to the online tool Waste Wizard[14] as shown below on their online site.  (Black pots can be a problem for some local facilities because they contain pigments which make them undetectable to the sorting machinery.) Local big box stores advertise that they recycle plastic pots but when I visited by local store the staff was unaware of plastic pot recycling.

Plastic plant pots and trays are allowed in the biweekly curbside reclycling bins in Durham County based on the Waste Wizard tool on the Durham County Website. (Image Credit: Durham County NC) https://www.dconc.gov/county-departments/departments-f-z/general-services/solid-waste-recycling-and-litter-control

Nevertheless, the City of Durham will take them in their recycle bin and most plastic plant pots are made from the most common and most ‘valuable’ polymers of plastic. The black plastic pots are labeled ‘2 HDPE’ for High-Density Polyethylene and hopefully it is recycled and used in the manufacture of picnic tables, fencing and detergent bottles for example. The colored pots are generally labeled ‘5 PP’ for Polypropylene and are stiff and can be used in the manufacture of battery cases and bins. The small multi-plant trays labeled ‘6 PS’ for Polystyrene are weaker and can be recycled into more packaging. Remember to rinse the soil out before you put the pots in the recycle bin; clean plastic pots have a better chance of being recycled and not discarded during the sorting process.

What gardener doesn’t want to make the world a little ‘greener?’ You can do it by planting more plants and by not throwing away the containers they come in. Let’s not force the birds to do our reusing for us.

Bird nest made with black and green plastic found in my yard in July 2022.
(Image Credit: Wendy Diaz)

Notes


[1] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220711-do-single-use-plastic-bans-work

[2] https://graphics.reuters.com/ENVIRONMENT-PLASTIC/0100B4TF2MQ/index.html

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-62407026

[4] https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article212683574.html

[5] https://hawriver.org/trash-trout/

[6] https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data; https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#Generation

[7] https://earth.org/plastic-pollution-statistics/

[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-42264788

[9]https://www.oecd.org/environment/plastic-pollution-is-growing-relentlessly-as-waste-management-and-recycling-fall-short.htm

[10]https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data

[11]https://www.johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/methods-tools-supplies/seed-starting-transplanting/soil-block-makers-eliot-coleman.html

[12] https://www.trvst.world/waste-recycling/recycle-plant-pots/

[13] https://susieganch.com/section/343666-Recent-Exhibitions.html

[14] https://www.durhamnc.gov/878/Waste-Disposal-Recycling-Center

Learn more about leading a less wasteful lifestyle by exploring the following links:

  1. Plastic Free July by Plastic Free Foundation https://www.plasticfreejuly.org
  2. Don’t Waste Durham  http://www.dontwastedurham.org
  3. Keep America Beautiful

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