Q: Are terracotta pots eco-friendly? What about patio furniture? Is it best to buy wood, plastic or wrought iron?
A: Throw a lawn chair on a small patch of grass next to a flowerpot or two and urbanites can be fooled into thinking they're one with Mother Nature. But just because something is filled with earth, next to earth or "of the earth" (think clay, metal or wood) doesn't make it earth-friendly. Take terracotta, for instance. This mainstay of the flowerpot world is made of seemingly benign clay. "What could be wrong with clay?" you ask. It's been sculpted by potters and artisans since the beginning of time.
Well, like anything we mine commercially (including those cute tin planters), clay comes with plenty of eco implications. Indiscriminate mining of the stuff in parts of India has dried up local wells (leading to severe drinking water shortages) and paddy fields, once wetland habitats for plants and animals, are being dug up and dried out for the moldable mud.
Also, beware of planting veggies or edibles in glazed terracotta. The finish could contain lead that can leach into your dinner.
Fake terracotta, or any other plastic pots, aren't great either. While most are made with polyethylene (a relatives of the pop bottle), which, according to Greenpeace's pyramid of plastics, isn't horrible, they are obviously petroleum-based and contain chemical UV stabilizers. Cheapy plastic planters can easily crack, as can low-grade terracotta, so it's best to invest in better-quality containers so you won't have to buy new ones every spring.
So what should you plant your petunias in? Start by hitting second-hand stores, flea markets and garage sales, where you'll find plenty of weird and wonderful retro containers.
And think outside the pot. Old boots, wooden crates and vintage suitcases make great planters. I've even seen a rusty clawfoot tub filled with soil and topped with wildflowers.
Bill's Garden Centre on Pape has pots made out of recycled cardboard (from $5.49). Pick up baskets made of fast-growing, sustainable bamboo ($29) from Bustan Urban Gardening Essentials on Harbord. Ten Thousand Villages on Danforth or Yonge has all kinds of fair-trade planters of ceramic, wicker or terracotta (from $5). And all are made with sustainably harvested materials.
When it comes to patio furniture, we're in an equally compromising bind. Pretty, weather-resistant woods like teak are often over-harvested, and others are sealed with petroleum-based finishes that off-gas ozone-depleting VOCs. Wrought iron is really durable and lasts forever - almost as long as the impact of iron ore mining on the planet. And plastic, again, is plastic. Like the pots, petrol-based patio furniture is often made of polyethylene, so it could be worse. But it tends to break suddenly after a couple of years, giving Grandpa a mini heart attack at your backyard barbecue. (Don't feel bad, the pricey plastics would have cracked, too.)
Nevertheless, you still need a place to sit, which is why sustainably harvested wood furniture is so great, like teak folding chairs made by an Indonesian co-op ($111 from Blue Moon, now at 128 Danforth). Ten Thousand Villages has bamboo chairs (from $45), tables (from $20) and loungers ($85) handmade in Vietnam. Or get Forest Stewardship Council-certified Muskoka chairs crafted by a local non-profit group that teaches at-risk youth woodworking skills. The chair comes unstained and unpainted in a kit ($265 at Grassroots). A similar social enterprise makes patio tables ($125), lawn chairs ($85) as well as planters out of cedar, which don't need finishing sealants (available at the SEED Marketplace on Carlaw near Gerrard).
Need to soften your seat? Skip the Teflon-coated cushions and get pillows stuffed with fibres from the fast-growing kapok tree, one of the few sustainable rain forest crops (Blue Moon, $17).
If you're going to rest your ass on plastic, at least go for the recycled kind. Muskoka chairs made from old pop bottles are not only super sturdy but low maintenance ($299 special order at Grassroots), as are picnic tables and benches (from $600 and $260 at Classic Displays on Jayson Court in Mississauga).
Crafty boys and girls willing to sweat to improve their yard can also get deck tiles, deck boards and 2-by-4s entirely of recycled plastic (check out Renew Resources on Birchmount Road and Classic Displays). Home Depot carries FSC-certified SnapDeck wood, and Bustan has bamboo and reed fencing/privacy screens.
Note that until recently lumber was weather-treated with arsenic, so some of those toxin-leachers could still be on shelves. The natural oils in cedar mean no sealants or chem treatments are necessary. If you do need to treat your fence, deck or what have you, get Hempola Valley all-natural finishing oil (from $14.99 at Grassroots).
After all that hard work, you'll need some solace from the sun. But before you put your feet up, why not make your own thatched umbrella with naturally waterproof palm leaves and bamboo poles (most umbrellas and awnings are treated with the super-persistent contaminant Teflon). DIY kits are avail- able at www.safarithatch.com or www.amazuluinc.com. (Make sure to order the ones that aren't treated with fire-retardant!) Once that's hoisted, let the blender party begin! (For hand-cranked blenders, check out www.realgoods.com.)
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