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Plant miles and us: How sustainable are our houseplants?

Lockdown had us all craving a hobby; like many others, I’ve picked up one or two (or ten) houseplants to brighten up my space and bring in some oxygen to the dark, depressing state of the world. Tiktok certainly hasn't helped either, with big creators posting houseplant tips every hour like @theplantprodigy and @1sneakypete, who have grown a combined following of over 1 million.

Like many other sustainability veterans I was consumed with guilt (what some might know as “eco-anxiety”) late one night when my little Fiddle Leaf Fig Plant was looking at me with its wide spanning shiny sad leaves.

I got the plant from a well known Swedish retailer only recently on a trip to get an ironing board and it cost me £4.50.

Whilst I was laying there I thought to myself - where has my little Fiddle Leaf come from? What has it seen? It seemed pretty happy on my windowsill which gets pretty cold at night, and since I got it from a well known flat-pack Swedish retailer, I thought it was most likely from Europe. When it eventually flew into my mind again and I checked the plant passport, usually found on the side of the pot, I was surprised to see it had come from Cameroon, where Ficus grow up like giant trees and can be home to an entire ecosystem of life.

Image: A ficus lyrata growing in Florida, showcasing its massive span and growth. (source)
Image: My little Ficus, who I affectionately call Bambino. If he sees the previous photo he will get a complex so don’t tell him about this article. The fame will also go right to his head.

The soil that Bambino came in was dense and dark; I didn’t know the origins of it, and I don’t know how Bambino was grown. One of the largest problems with this is that you have no way of knowing where the soil came from, what it had included in it, and whether it was a sustainable choice. It’s not something that was advertised on my plant, and, usually, if a brand isn’t capitalising on its sustainability for profit, it probably knows it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. There was certainly no mention of my Bambino being sustainably grown on the side of his pot, so I can assume this Swedish retailer knew it had nothing to brag about.

Bambino made a 3,000 mile journey to come here and look pretty, and it’s probably seen more of the world than I have, and it cost me £4.50. It’s been argued before that when worked out per-plant, overseas deliveries have lower carbon-emissions than the emissions of using a car, but it begs the question: is there a more sustainable way to do this?

Sustainable alternatives

Peat soils, which can be seen in most garden centres such as in the well known Miracle Gro Repotting Mix, hold stores of carbon which release when harvested. Peatlands soils hold up to a third of the world’s soil carbon, and as the demand grows for potting soil, so do demands for harvesting the ancient and carbon-rich peatlands. What is surprising too is that a quick shallow google search reveals that peat mosses are often sold as a “sustainable” option due to their fast growth, which creates the image that they are a renewable source. A very convincing argument was made in The Washington Post in 2017, which raised the argument on both sides; however, it has generally been agreed upon that peat bog farming cannot be compared to other forms of harvesting, such as deforestation in the Amazon, because most peatlands are unable to be repaired back to their original states as they have been forming for around 12,000 years in some cases, whereas a rainforest can slowly (at least conceptually) be restored with effort. It also cannot be argued that the atmosphere is in need of 12,000 years worth of carbon on top of the carbon we already have. Peat farming has a certain cultural consensus towards it, where most of us are in the grey region of trying to understand whether it is good or bad, but mostly generally know it is not good as the same way all mass farming is not good. There is so little information out there that is not either at degree or master’s level learning, and there is not an easy second option.

Some of the brands I have explored, and tried myself, rely on other forms of soil to lock in moisture for our plants. The most successful and common by far seems to be coconut coir.

Image: a block of eco-friendly coconut coir. (source)

Beards & Daisies “for peat’s sake!” block is 11.5 litres in size for £10.00, so it is not only environmentally commendable but is also very economically commendable too. I have used 5 litres of a coir block and it managed to fill the pots of all eight of my house plants comfortably, so 11.5 litres should be enough for most plant parents. They also have a 3 litre “one pot wonder” option if you need something with a little less commitment.

Coir has been said to retain and slow-release water at a much better and slower rate than peat soils, which means less plant-drowning as well as less watering; by utilising rainwater where we can (i.e. something as simple as leaving a jug outside all week until it fills up), water use itself can be reduced as well as plant health increasing.

There are also several coconut coir options online, such as Soil Ninja, which come as little hockey pucks or bags, but grow into several litres of compost with only a bucket and water. Whilst some do come packaged in plastic and come with their own implications of industrialised farming on coconut plantations, it’s important to remain conscious even when going for this choice. It seems that as far as soils go, this is the lesser of two evils. Happy potting!

Further reading


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