Nurseries & PropogationWaste Systems & Recycling

Zaytuna Farm Permaculture Plant Nursery Paper Pots

Photos © Ingrid Pullen

A permaculture plant nursery will contain the three ethics of permaculture design — Earth Care, People Care and the return of system surplus to the first two ethics. Part of earth and people care is the reduction and eventual replacement of non-biodegradable plastic plant pots, trays and bags.

The use of fossil fuel based plastic plant pots, trays and bags is the norm in the conventional plant nursery industry. Plastic pots and trays used in the plant nursery cause considerable work in their changing pot size, cleaning and time spent stacking for storage. Plants kept in pots for too long a period decline in health and have poor root development. The transplanting of plant seedlings from plastic pots into the soil can cause transplant shock and set back growth. The use of paper pots for vegetable and herb plants overcomes some of these disadvantages.

A paper pot maker kit consists of a dolly and a mould. A strip of paper is twisted around the dolly, the extended paper is folded down and the dolly is placed in the bottom mould. A twisting movement of the dolly tightens and compresses the paper, thus forming the paper pot. The paper pot is carefully removed from the dolly and filled with potting mix, up to a few millimetres from the top of the pot. Seed or seedlings can be placed in the potting mix in the paper pot. A mulch of vermiculite can be placed on top of the potting mix. This will protect the seed or seedling from any soil borne bacterial diseases in the potting mix.

The paper for the paper pot can be made on site from waste paper material. Soil conditioners, fertilisers and paper strengthening agents from natural material can be added to paper making mix. The treated paper will act as slow release fertiliser. The seedlings can be grown to a larger size than in plastic pots as the paper pots are directly planted into the soil.

Is the time and care taken to make paper pots well spent? Do plants have leaves?


The use of paper pots at Zaytuna Farm continues with lessons being learnt along the way. The first planting of paper pots containing vegetables has occurred at Zaytuna farm.

The type of paper used will dictate the durability of the paper pot. A supply of the defunct IPJ (International Permaculture Journal) magazine has proven to be the most suitable type of paper to date. Trialling paper suitable for paper pots will continue, as will the development of a propagation paper, a paper like substance that enhances plant growth.

The use of mulch material such as vermiculite on seed trays and seedling pots can reduce the death of plants. I have secured the safety data sheets and extensive technical information for the use of vermiculite. The base material for vermiculite, mica is obtained from small open pit mines which are rehabilitated after the extraction process is completed.

The death rate of seedlings from soil borne bacterial disease can be very high in plant nurseries. In some commercial plant nurseries very dangerous materials such as methyl bromide were used to sterilise soil potting mixes, tools and equipment.

The use of non-toxic materials and physical methods to greatly reduce seedling death in plant nurseries will be included in my book being written, Horticultural Skills for Permaculture Practitioners. One very promising ongoing line of research is the use of wood with anti-bacterial qualities as a substitute for plastic in plant propagation trays.


  1. I own a small permaculture plant nursery. It’s very hard to get away from using traditional plastic pots since they hold up so well to being moved about. I love the idea of newspaper pots but can’t imagine them working well in a retail situation… I’d love to be proven wrong, however. I wish I had a better option than plastic. We re-use pots as many times as possible but eventually they all end up discarded. Ack.

    1. I’m in the same boat as SurvivalGardener/David the Good. My experience with paper pots and peat pots has been that they dry out too quickly in arid settings and require more frequent watering and attention than plastic pots making them impractical for me at this point. my rule of thumb for potted plants is that if I have to water more than 2x / day, it’s too much work. My general solution to this is plant into the soil a quickly as possible and grow out for sale as bare roots and divisions. I still use many plastic pots for seedling propagation. we have also built many wooden flats of various dimensions modular to our table sizes and manageable size for carrying and weight. These work especially great for germination, but become expensive at scale (ideally tapping the waste stream or woodlot processing system). we prefer re-used unpainted fenceboards.

    2. Have you tried the toilet roll holders? the inner rolls might last a bit longer.
      I take a couple and place them in a low-sided bucket and plant inside the rolls. The fact that you pack them together strengthens each other… just a thought.

  2. I have been making/using newspaper pots for several years I make different sizes depending on the need. There are disadvantages. I have decided to try making them lighter and they do not hold up as well but it may not necessary for them to do so. If the paper is left on the ring above the soil line can wick away moisture dehydrating the plant. Multiple layers of news paper do not break down fast enough even if dipped in urine. They also require more watering in the greenhouse.

  3. What if the paper was home made and incorporated strips of scrap fabric? Or if you used resusable fabric ‘jackets’? Or a couple of rounds of string or cotton thread? Or reusable ceramic pots that the paper pot sits inside of … A bit loosely though? What about wax dip coating… Or spray on bees wax? My patrents used milk cartons for their rose nersury cuttings back in the 90’s… Lasted long enough to sell the young grafted shrubs in the same carton the cutting had been put into.

  4. I’m quite surprised that your article talks about the use of vermiculite as although now considered safe to use it is imported from countries like Africa and China and the cost in mining and importing the product

  5. Sorry pressed the submit button to early I do work in a nursery and understand it’s benefits but would like to hear from other people thanks

  6. Some people are using biochar as an alternative to vermiculite. I like this paper pot design quite a bit for use in veggies and herbs as described, because they don’t stay in the pot too long and are planted out on site rather than being sold. in the long term we need bio-based plastics (made from perennial plants of course). I believe we’ve also seen the bamboo pot model here on PRI.

  7. Experimented with this for a while. Love the idea but still looking for a solution for what i will call “soggy diaper syndrome.” The bottoms saturate and blow out making it difficult to move for sales or transplant.

  8. Off topic but this link is too good not to share. It’s a book about tree crops that is in the public domain.

    On topic.
    The best solution to my mind would be pots made from hemp plastic. These paper pots are as others have pointed difficult to keep ‘wet’ and they suffer from the same problems ‘jiffy’ peat pots do that once dried they are difficult and sometimes impossible to re-wet.

  9. I use empty biscuit boxes. They´re much stronger, already shaped and help get a deep root system going as they are longer than traditional plastic pots. I can pack more of them in a tray as they are square and if they are too long for the seed I just cut them to size. What´s more, there´s no root disturbance when planted. Of course I don´t own a nusery, so I don´t need that many of them….

  10. I have developed a system of paper pots for my pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba)
    these trees have a long tap root and few root hairs when young
    this makes transplanting, holding or selling difficult
    my system is to build a pot from brown paper (newspaper would also work)
    one sheet thick. sized to match the plant’s root system.
    I staple it together
    I then cut a sheet from a plastic grocery bag and staple around the paper one
    punch a few holes for air and drainage
    fill in you choice of soil mix and (trans)plant and water
    these pots retain moisture well but don’t get soggy
    the paper holds the roots and soil together
    the plastic gives enough strength to hold the pot together
    and to be handled

    dig the hole, remove the plastic as you plant
    the paper hold things together enough so there’s less root disturbance
    but is already starting to break down
    the plastic sheet could be used again or recycled

    this is the first year for this system but I’ve had some
    in these pots over two months with no problems

  11. For those saying they use plastic, is there any concern about the leaching of chemicals like BPA and other endocrine disrupters into the soil and then the crops? Especially for those who plant in IBCs.

  12. You can slso successfully use the inside of toilet rolls. Make three incisions equal distance apart and fold them in

    1. Tried this one in my youth. Problem was the rim of the roll sits proud of the compost and it acts as a wick which dries the compost out very quickly.

      It all depends where the ‘wealth’ is to be found. Is it in the contents of the pot or the pot itself?

      Before plastic there was terracotta so why not accept plastic is here use them if they are to hand until they disintegrate and then recycle wisely thus getting the contents of the pots into the ground time after time all the while seeking out a ‘better way’ even if that means going ‘back’ to terracotta.

      Here on the island of Britain it is relatively easy to do a leaflet drop or a door knocking day to collect pots of all descriptions people have lying around their gardens/sheds/greenhouses and garages. Refuse nothing take the lot and I’ll lay odds after one day you would have more than enough plastic and terracotta pots to see you through the next five years of raising new plants.

      One other thing I have tried with great success is to get hold of some plastic down pipe, or household waste pipes and cut them into pieces. Stood on a bench or in a seed tray you end up with sturdy long lived open bottom pots.
      When the plant is ready to move on it is a simply matter to push it out from the bottom causing minimum disturbance to the young roots.
      Or for those who really like things easy get hold of some scrap guttering. Cut into four or five feet long lengths. Sow the seeds direct into compost in the gutters. When ready to transplant out take the gutter to the bed with a pre maid ‘gutter sized groove in it.
      Lay the gutter in the groove and slowly push the plant out whilst pulling the gutter back.

      1. I like your gutter idea. I am starting a small backyard nursery dedicated to native plants. I think this is a time to experiment and come up with new modes of business. Reusing plastic is good as well. Thanks for the thoughts!

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