So, you’re planting in a sustainable, chemical-free way, yet your four-season garden seems to be begging for a lot of plastic, from seed cups to row covers. Plastic is handy and ubiquitous. But some plastics contain nasty chemicals, and all plastics take a lot of energy to create (not to mention a lot of petroleum) and a looooooong time to break down in landfills.

To use or not to use?

I say use plastic if:

It won’t be directly in the soil for a long time and it’s an okay kind of plastic. Here’s a quick rule of green thumb: Don’t put any plastic into your soil that you wouldn’t allow in your baby’s mouth. Why not? According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), the “use of plastics in cooking and food storage can carry health risks, especially when hormone-disrupting chemicals from some plastics leach into food and beverages.” Remember, soil is food for plants and plants are food for you. To choose a healthier plastic, whether it be for gardening, food storage, or your garden gnome, look at the recycling number on the container and remember this little ditty (courtesy of IATP): “With your food use 4, 5, 1 and 2. All the rest aren’t good for you.” For information, check out the IATP’s Smart Guide to Smart Plastics.

You can reuse it many times, as in the case of a polyethylene row cover. For rigorous thinking about the energy that goes into making plastic for the garden and why reusing it still makes sense, see “Appendix C: Do We Really Need Plastic?” in Eliot Coleman’s "The Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long." The bottom line: Until a better alternative comes along, some reusable plastics are still a good bet, energywise.

It’s not PVC. Many do-it-yourself season-extender projects, such as hoop tunnels (very big row covers), call for PVC pipe. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is one plastic you should avoid for sure. According to’s advice maven, Umbra Fisk, the manufacture, use, and disposal of PVC involves dioxin, phthalates, lead, and other stuff that can cause cancer, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, birth defects, respiratory problems, and immune system damage. On that note, if you are going to water your edible garden with a hose, or let your kids or pets drink from a hose, get a “drinking water safe” hose that doesn’t contain either PVC or lead. I get my Flexeel hoses, which are made in the United States and constructed from polyurethane, from Nature’s Tapestry. Fellow gardeners, repeat after Umbra: “No PVC for me,” and “No vinyl, that’s final.” For more advice from Umbra, go to

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From "Eat Where You Live", Copyright © 2008 by Lou Bendrick. Used by arrangement with The Mountaineers Books.

Green conundrum: Plastic in the garden
You don't have to ban the stuff from your soil. Just be judicious and use common sense.