Having grown up in a small apartment on a busy, treeless avenue in Brooklyn, New York, I was an embarrassing 40 years old before I first dug my hands into a pile of dirt. Sustaining plant life had always seemed complicated and overwhelming to me.
Three years ago, when I moved into my new home with my husband, a friend gifted me a pair of pretty green gardening gloves in honor of my first backyard. I had no idea how to put her thoughtful gift to practical use.
As it would happen, a session with my therapist and my burgeoning interest in eco-friendly activities collided to lead me to plantable seed paper and newfound gardening knowledge.
How seed paper works
Plantable seed paper — also known as biodegradable eco-paper, sprouted seed paper and tree-free paper — is usually derived from recycled or upcycled materials, with the seeds immersed during the papermaking process. It requires soil, water, warmth and sun, just like typical seeds. When planted, the paper decomposes in soil, and the seeds begin to germinate.
Although plants grow and mature at different rates, you should typically see sprouts within a couple of weeks. Full blooms often take two to three months, depending on the surrounding conditions.
Plantable seed paper is often touted as a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to many traditional paper products. “We take paper waste from local sources, such as envelope cutoffs and discarded business documents, and turn it to pulp,” said Heidi Reimer-Epp, co-founder and CEO of Botanical PaperWorks, a Canadian eco-paper business.
The company embeds seeds into the paper waste, then forms the concoction into sheets. To ensure that the paper has a high germination rate, the sheets are dried naturally to avoid pressure and heat, which can kill the seeds.
Bluecat Paper, a tree-free paper company based in India, offers options that include cotton, lemongrass, flax and even elephant waste. Bloomin, a Colorado-based company, boasts a line of products made of 100% postindustrial recycled paper.
There’s also a sentimental appeal to the product. “People like the idea that someone might plant their wedding invitation,” said Don Martin, owner and president of Bloomin.
Having grown up with only a couple of houseplants that my mother tended to, I was curious about whether the product was suitable for those living in urban areas — particularly those without any gardening experience. “I think this is a very user-friendly, non-intimidating product,” Reimer-Epp said. “If you have a small patio or balcony, or sunny corner, you can plant it indoors.”
In turning to seed paper products, Reimer-Epp believes that people are driven by sustainability concerns and the decline of our planet. “First and foremost, when you use this paper, you’re not using plastic or virgin paper that winds up in a landfill,” she said. “That’s a big driver.”
I asked gardening and plant science experts to weigh in on product claims about sustainability, which include improving soil, wetlands, water quality and animal habitats. Experts were hesitant to debunk such claims, and indeed, planting vegetation of any kind has the potential to improve the environment. But even if the touted benefits of plantable paper are a bit overstated, a recycled paper product that naturally decomposes is a net good.
“No, it’s not going to change the world,” said Melinda Myers, gardening expert, author and host of the gardening course “How to Grow Anything.” But “if it’s 100% post-consumer recycled paper, that definitely means they’re not cutting down more trees to make the product.” Myers pointed out that receiving a recycled greeting card or invitation that you can then plant often feels better than having to dump it into the recycling bin or add it to the landfill.
There are other concerns about seed paper that consumers also should keep in mind. “I want to know what the specific seeds are, and I want to make sure it’s going to be suitable for the growing conditions. Are they noninvasive and disease-resistant?” Myers said. Seeds that do well in one area may not do well in another.
You should also consider that nonnative plant species can alter a habitat, with potentially devastating implications.
“You wouldn’t want to plant aggressive nonnative seeds,” said Lori Imboden, a consumer horticulture educator at Michigan State University. “You want to know what you’re planting and what the consequences are” for your location.
And, of course, not all paper is plantable. Dyed and glossy cards typically can’t be broken down into environmentally friendly pulp. Those wanting to recycle old greetings should instead turn to their recycling centers, and perhaps reconsider those purchases moving forward. (Paper designed with glitter and other non-recyclable materials typically enters the landfill.)
A way to grow
With consumers turning to seed paper for items such as holiday cards, wedding invitations and memorial cards, it’s clear that there’s an emotional component to the product, too.
“The fact that there are perennial wildflower seeds that come back every year, it really does create that sentimental memory of whatever it is you’re wanting to commemorate,” said Martin of his line of seed paper cards and gifts.
When I found myself still mourning the death of my childhood dog, a mutt named Jack, years later, my therapist suggested I write him a letter. “It may help you heal,” she said.
That’s when I happened upon plantable seed paper. When my order arrived, I locked myself in my basement and wrote my letter to Jack. I told him how much I loved him, how lucky I was to have him in my life and how sorry I was that I never got to say goodbye. I cried until I couldn’t see. Then I followed the instructions that came with the paper: Soak overnight, and cover with soil. May take eight to 12 weeks.
The instructions promised that the paper would grow wildflowers with proper care. I was skeptical — not of the product, but of my ability to successfully garden from scratch. My track record and lack of experience taunted me. Besides, was writing a letter to my long-gone dog really supposed to help anything? The suggestion seemed far too out there for my tastes.
Purple wildflowers now grow in my yard where I buried my letter to Jack two years ago. When I see the blooms, I think of the dog with whom I shared my childhood and who followed me into adulthood. And I think of myself, a woman who can’t master homegrown basil but who has learned how to make something grow.