Tropical apartment greenhouse and hydroponics system

How to Make Green Choices for Your Houseplants

How to Reduce a Houseplant's Footprint:

Growing plants can be very taxing on our planet's limited resources. While this might not surprise you, some of the ways in which growing plants can harm the environment might. We'll be focusing on houseplants, which, for the record, in theory, are chosen for their suitability in a 60-80 degree, low-ish humidity room with limited light, low airflow, and minimal seasonal change. That essentially describes the rainforest floor, so that's where most houseplants come from.

Organic community garden in Spokane Washington 

Nutrients / Fertilizer

Since most houseplants are from the rainforest floor, they need regular waterings. More interestingly, the rainforest floor is actually very low in nutrients, because they wash away! This means houseplants need relatively low amounts of fertilizer, and in fact over-fertilizing is a more common problem. But the fertilizer you do use has one of the largest impacts on the environment, both locally and globally.

 

The first consideration you have for fertilizer is organic vs. synthetic. We'll list a few of the pros and cons of each:

 Organic Fertilizers: PROS

Synthetic Fertilizers: PROS

-More sustainable using only by-products from animal or plant materials

-No mining, no oil (non-toxic)

-Beneficial to the soil and microbes

- Can be DIY'd (and just as effective)

- Fast-acting

- Consistent

- Effective

- Low-maintenance, easy to use

 

 Organic Fertilizers: CONS

Synthetic Fertilizers: CONS

- They can be messy, so to speak!

- Can be inconstant

- More complex, at least initially

- Water-soluble, so you have to use them frequently as they wash away

- Create multiple times their weight in toxic waste (which is sitting in may pits all over the world, and yes, it does leak)

- Runoff creates overgrowth of plants and plankton, diminishes water quality, kills wildlife and native plants, lowers water oxygen levels and creates red tides and dead zones (which are becoming larger and more frequent every year)

 

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The pros and cons are not meant to discourage you from using one or the other. Whatever you decide, one piece of advice is to not try and mix-and-match soils and fertilizers that are organic and synthetic, because they have such different mechanisms of action that they are usually completely incompatible. Regardless of what you decide to use, the plant and planet should be taken into consideration. Try lookout for eco-friendly fertilizers and companies with high standards and a low carbon foot print.

Home vertical hydroponic vegetable garden indoors

Lighting

Lighting is a consideration if you live in a northern region, or a cloudy one, if you live on a north slope, or a ground-floor apartment. If your plant isn't thriving because it's not getting enough light, you might decide to supplement lighting.

Lighting for plants is a huge topic that will be coming up in a future blog post. To keep things simple, and to stay on our subject of making green choices, here's the breakdown:

LED lights are the most energy-efficient type of lights. There are constantly more types of specified LED lights (one is called a COB light, which is even stronger and more efficient, but nonetheless uses LED technology). So an LED is never a bad choice, but pay attention to the manufacturers instructions for how far to place your plant from the light (depending on the wattage, it could be a few centimeters, so make sure it's feasible).

Next up is fluorescent lighting. Unless you're growing an indoor farm, there's no need for a fluorescent setup. Many offices, schools and homes have fluorescent lighting though, so take note! They're much stronger, so plants don't need to be as close to the light source, making them surprisingly great places for plants. They even give off UV light, so talk about full-spectrum!

Indoor energy efficient apartment greenhouse

Halogen, neon, and argon are all located between fluorescent and incandescent on the efficiency scale. Again, if you aren't looking to grow an acre of cabbage in your kitchen, skip these.

Incandescent bulbs are super low-efficiency, and they give off a lot of heat-energy, unlike the others listed. But if you have a recessed spotlight bulb in your home anyway, they can make great grow lights, especially for lower-light plants. Many "incandescent" bulbs sold are actually even LED, so give it a shot! We've been very surprised by our plants springing to life in the dead of winter by our lamps and ceiling lights. In fact, it can really mess up blooming for winter-blooming flowers!

 

Balcony gardening in containers

Soil

Soil, just like lighting, is a complicated topic and we will be doing a in-depth post on that in the coming weeks! Every type of soil has a dirty little secret, so we'll lay out how to make informed decisions.

We will cover commercial soil, peat moss, coco coir and sphagnum moss. These are some of the things we have used ourselves, but recently, we have switched from peat to young sphagnum moss entirely (and you'll see why). We'll show you how to look beyond the marketing to see where each ingredient comes from, what they're made of, and how they are prepared, because they all have an impact on the earth's ecosystems.

Pre-made soils are made using a combination of a fine, moisture-absorbing material such as peat, larger organic material to help absorb nutrients and aid in drainage like bark, and a non-organic material to supply oxygen to roots like vermiculite or perlite. These materials cause the destruction of bogs, mining of our earth, vast open pits full of toxic waste, and deforestation (which seems the most ironic when we're growing plants...).

Dead animal and plant materials (including sphagnum moss, among other things) compress over thousands of years at the bottom of bogs to create peat. Obviously this makes it a limited resource, but more importantly, in order to collect the peat, it needs to be dug up from ancient bogs (and newsflash, wetlands are one of the most endangered and fragile ecosystems). When bulldozers demolish the bogs for peat, they not only destroy delicate ecosystems, but the digging-up of the peat releases thousands of years of greenhouse gas reserves. There's a better way! Look for products labeled 'Sphagnum moss,' it is the same material for the most part as peat moss, but it's the fresh and young layer on the top of the bog which makes it much less intrusive on the ecosystems it's removed from. Still not ideal to be clear, and it does less acidifying to the soil, but there are many ways around this, such as vegan, sustainable humic acid soil supplements, or even coffee grounds. Coffee grounds supply much-needed nitrogen to plants, and it slowly breaks down into the soil, constantly supplying the plants. Tea, especially chamomile, are also much-loved soil additives for most plants, and almost impossible to overdo.

Coco Coir is probably the most sustainable and "eco-friendly" soil material you can use. It comes in three forms: ground, chunks, and fiber. These usually harvested as a by-product from coconut farms. Always be mindful of the source for plantation-based or wild-harvested tropical products- the rainforests are the most rapidly deforested regions of the world, in addition to being the most ecologically diverse and uniquely important ecosystems in the world.

Without meaning to, we may do more harm than good trying to reconnect with nature, but with new technology there are ever more ways to be sustainable! It is especially true in a confined environment, but even growing outdoors, there are so many simple ways to reduce your plant's footprint! Always read the labels and try understand where your supplies are coming from, because even the smallest change can make a huge impact for the better!

Plant shelf on a balcony growing a vertical container garden

 

Comments

Bryce Hollingworth

Hi Janet!
Glad we could help! We appreciate you visiting our blog, thank you so much for reaching out!

Bryce Hollingworth

Thank you for clarifying the Sphagnum moss/peat moss dilemma. When I needed sphagnum moss for a project, the store clerk told me that it was the ‚Äúsame thing‚ÄĚ as peat moss, which confused me.
Thanks again.

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