The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
July 17, 2011

Gardening Without Plastic, Part 3: Mulching and Watering

My plastic-free gardening project is coming right along. I’ve been eating chard for days! Some plants are doing well, and some are doing not so well. I have questions for you.  Please read through to the end of this post to see some of my plant problems and offer suggestions.  But first, here are my solutions for plastic-free mulching and watering.  (Catch up with Part 1 about soil and Part 2 about buying and planting seeds and plants here.)


Don’t laugh, but I honestly didn’t know what mulch was or what it was for before speaking with Eric. According to Organic Gardening:

Mulch prevents weeds from sprouting up in your garden, keeps soil moist and aerated, protects your plants from soilborne diseases, replenishes the soil as it decomposes, and keeps your yard and garden looking well tended. But which mulch is best for your needs?

Mulch can be grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, or other organic matter. Eric recommended straw, so after calling around, I took a Zip Car pickup truck to The Urban Farmer Store in Richmond, CA to buy a bale of straw.

straw bale

I now have enough straw to cover the moon. So if you live in the Oakland/Berkeley area and want some straw, let me know. I have way more than I need for mulching. I think. What I didn’t realize when buying the straw was that it’s tied together with plastic twine. So this is plastic failure #2. Still, a little twine is a lot less plastic than I’d end up with if I bought plastic bags of mulch or even plastic mulch. And grass clippings, leaves, and pine needles were not readily available in my urban neighborhood.

straw bale

Plastic-free Watering

Thinking I’d need to water my plants with a hose, I did a ton of research to find out if there were a plastic-free garden hose I could buy. The search turned out to be more difficult than I expected. And since I’d already put my plants and seeds in the ground, I watered using the plastic hose we already had for the first few days. But the experience was frustrating. Despite the billion and one different settings on the nozzle, I couldn’t find a gentle enough spray to avoid beating my plants to death and washing away my soil.

And my research on hoses was disappointing. I learned that many hoses are made out of PVC, a plastic which is known to leach lead and hormone-disrupting phthalates. Hoses made out of rubber are generally not made from natural rubber but EDPM, a synthetic rubber derived from petroleum, not natural latex. But take note: synthetic rubber isn’t marked as such on the package. The only way to know if a hose is made from natural or synthetic rubber is to call the company and ask, which I did. Multiple companies, multiple times.

I didn’t find a natural rubber hose (although there still might be one out there), but even if I had, I’d still have to worry about the metal fittings on the ends. Many hose fittings are made of brass, which can leach lead into the water. In fact, in an effort to avoid plastic, I almost bought an all metal spray nozzle…

metal spray nozzle

before I turned over the package and found that it contained lead!

metal spray nozzle contains lead

The best hose I found seems to be the GatorHyde hose*, made from 50% recycled polyurethane (supposedly a safer plastic than PVC)which has nickel-plated ends and is touted as being “drinking water safe.” If I need a hose in the future, I may opt for this one. But I ended up ditching the hose idea altogether after reading the comments on my previous post.

Forget the hose!

Several readers suggested using a watering can instead of a hose. And one of my Facebook friends explained how he waters each plant individually, ladling water from a bucket. So I’m using a combination of both methods, and I and my plants are now very happy. I water the seeds with a Behrens galvanized steel watering can. The spray is much gentler than the hose was.  And since my garden is so small, hand watering is not a big deal.

metal watering can

And I scoop water out of a steel bucket with a little pitcher to water the plants. Well, first I stick my finger into the soil to see if they even need water. Often the soil is still damp. The straw mulch keeps the water from running off or evaporating, just like it’s supposed to. Really, the straw is kind of magic.

metal bucket

I’m finding watering my plants this way to be not only good for them but good for me, too. It’s a little bit slower and relaxing. I get to spend some time with each baby in the morning, see how they’re doing, have a little chat. It’s a nice way to start my day. I’ve heard people say you should water plants at night. But according to Organic Gardening’s tips for plant watering:

In warm weather, water in the morning to give plants a chance to drink up before the hot sun or strong winds evaporate the moisture. This protects plants from wilting in the afternoon heat, too…. If you can’t water in the morning, try for late afternoon—but not too late; the foliage should have time to dry before the sun goes down so it doesn’t develop fungal diseases.

My (Almost) Plastic-free Garden


Here’s the view from my front window this afternoon. On the left side of the box: nasturtiums; In the box from left to right: Swiss chard, spinach, baby carrots, marigolds, wax beans, pepper and tomato plants. Mound number one: cucumbers. Terra Cotta pots: Oregano, rosemary, mint, basil. Mound number two: Yellow squash and zucchini.

Successes and Problems

As I mentioned, some plants are doing well, and some are suffering. Can you help?

The nasturtiums are beautiful. In fact, I’ve got nasturtiums coming up in places I didn’t even plant them. Isn’t this pretty?


But the basil is scrawny. It’s growing, but I can’t figure out why the leaves are so small. I’ve been picking off the flower buds, but still, the growth is slow compared to the basil plants I see at the farmers market.  I have not harvested any of it yet.   (I bought this as a seedling and put it in this terra cotta pot on April 24.)

scrawny basil plant

The squash plants are growing like crazy.


But the cucumber, which is on a separate mound and was planted at the same time in the same gardening soil, is dying.


I have beautiful marigolds, which I planted from seeds!


But next to them, the wax beans are just turning yellow, then brown, then dying.

dying wax beans

I planted a row of baby carrots (also on April 24), and so far, only one plant has decided to show itself. Several people on Facebook suggested the row needs to be covered up, so today I put straw over the whole row. Maybe I should plant more seeds too?

why won't my baby carrots come up?

I have one tomato plant that has grown over my head!

tomato plant

But the leaves on the other two plants are curling up. All of them have tomatoes. Should I be worried?

curled leaves on tomato plant

As I mentioned, the chard plants are growing like crazy! I’ve been eating chard for several weeks now.


I have a few peppers coming up, but I’m a little afraid of what I might find when I open the one in the front. Has something gotten into it? And also, should the plant be bigger by now? It’s only about a foot tall with four peppers on it.

chili pepper

When I first started this gardening project, Eric Hurlock from Rodale’s advised me to keep my expectations low but my hopes and spirits high. I’m trying to look at this project as a great experiment, but I have to admit it’s disheartening to watch living things in my care curl up and die. I’d love any suggestions from the gardeners in the group!

*Disclosure: The GatorHyde hose link in this post is an affiliate link. If you buy products via that link, earns a small commission.

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34 Comments on "Gardening Without Plastic, Part 3: Mulching and Watering"

Anti-Plastic (Fan)tastic |
9 months 8 days ago

[…] and is an inspiring look into what is possible, and where our biggest challenges lie. Read about Gardening without plastics, delivered in three parts, or about plastic labels and fruit packaging, a possible alternative for […]

Grow Your Own « Observations of a Backroad Traveler
3 years 9 months ago

[…] more green gardening info, check out this post from My Plastic-free Life (more info in the comments and links to part 1 and […]

Elizabeth Newell
3 years 9 months ago


You probably found this out already, but you need a thicker layer of straw, at least once your plants get going a little. I can still see dirt through your straw. So maybe you don’t have so much extra as you thought.

If it is any consolation, the plastic stuff used on the bales is VERY strong and useful. I remember seeing an article in a horse magazine about how to braid practically unbreakable horse halters and straps to pull your truck out of the mud with it. So, if it is OK in your book to use up such incidental plastic, you can reuse it.

Completely plastic-free alternatives to straw (and often free) are wood chips from local tree trimmers (they usually wanna give you a huge amount, but maybe you could split with someone.), pine needles, and fall leaves saved from the previous year. You might want to let the wood chips age a bit before using them to burn off any excess nitrogen. It will steam, but unless you have a huge pile will not combust.

Oh, and you might want to check out the new squarefoot gardening book for tips on how much to plant and how to get the most out of a small space. You don’t have to do it all his way, but I tried some of it this year and liked it. Some useful ideas.

Good luck.

Melina Rudman
3 years 10 months ago

Hi Beth, My tomatoes also suffer from blossom end-rot. I’ve used epsom salts, just dissolve them in your watering bucket. They come in a carton, which may be plasticized (or not), but you may be able to find them in other containers. Epsom salts are all natural and won’t harm anyone or anything that I know of. Good luck!

3 years 10 months ago

1) I have lived in Oakland. The weather is cool (generally) and the sun is often covered by fog. Most garden plants love full sun and hot all day.
2) Tomatoes like consistant wetness with no drying out, otherwise the first clue is leaf curl. You can also tell when the leaves look dry or they don’t have those tiny golden dew balls on the stems and leaves
3)Steer manure mixed into the soil is the best fertilizer.
4) Cut worms need to wrap their bodies around the stem, if there was 2 or three toothpicks placed against the stem, blocking that curl, they wont cut. The cucumbers look like it could be cut worm or lack of sun/heat.
5) Earwigs also make holes that look like snail or slug holes. I place a tuna can with a dolup of bacon grease and some vegetable oil about a 1/4 inch deep and the earwigs drowned in it. They feed at night, so place this at the base of the plant at night. Some earwigs are good, they eat softbodied insects. Earwigs live in mulch type areas. Earwigs will not eat established plants, they like new or baby growth.
6) You have the perfect weather for growing spring or fall plants. So look for plants that are planted and harvested in spring and fall and you’ll be able to grow them ALL summer. Lettuce, salads, herbs like mint and cilantro. I can’t think of anymore because I can not grow these things. :)

Eve Stavros
3 years 10 months ago

Great effort and lots of good comments! I always learn so much from you all!

For basil lovers – my BEST basil has been the ones I planted in some old ceramic African violet pots (I kill AV’s), and keep them in my sunny greenhouse window. The nested pots must just be perfect for watering these thirsty plants. I stuck 3 seeds into each pot, and have had 3 harvests so far (enough for pesto – yay!!)

Recommended Reading, 07.25.11 « TanGreen
3 years 10 months ago

[…] “Gardening Without Plastic Part Three: Mulching and Watering” (My Plastic Free Life” […]

3 years 10 months ago

You can get straw that is twine tied or wire tied. Bailing machines do one or the other but are not equiped to do both. The reason the twine is plastic, is to keep the mice from chewing it in the barn. They like to munch the hemp twine, it is treated to resist rot and rodents and smells funny. Mice love straw, it is warm and dry and makes a good nest. Imho, wire tie is the best. Mice won’t bother it and the wire is handy stuff to fix almost anything. Farmers use it to cobble together all sorts of things. I keep a strand or two in the back of my truck at all times.
Straw is the stems of the wheat plant that are left over after the wheat has been thrashed. The combine mows the wheat, gathers it, thrashes it, and removes the chaft. The wheat goes into the hopper and the stems are conveyered out the back of the machine via straw walkers. The farmer rakes together the stems/straw and bales it. So, straw is a by-product of wheat production. It will have some residual wheat seed in it, more if the combine was not adjusted properly. Wheat is a grass. There are two kinds of straw. Clean straw that was baled without being rained on and mulch straw that has been rained on before being baled. Clean straw is better bedding for animals and is yellow. Mulch straw is greyer and is clumpier. For your garden, just get what’s cheaper.

You can use wood ashes to increase soil ph and deter bugs from eating your plants. The ash tastes bad, so they go somewhere else. You must re-apply each time is rains. Just a nice dusting will do. Maybe a neighbor has a fireplace? You might try handing a bird house. They will help eat your bugs.

ps You should be proud of rough hands, you’ve been working. You can talk about food feet, take that multinational industrial food!

3 years 10 months ago

Yikes, lead in the hose nozzle! Glad you caught that. What’s going on with this world! Seriously, I didn’t know what mulch was either. I tried using leaves, but they never seem to fully decay and they get moldy. Straw looks interesting.

I don’t water at night due to slugs here.

I wish I had some advice for you. I find the best thing is to read up on the requirements for each plant. They are all different. I would pick that pepper fast too before anything spreads. It makes less stress on the plant to remove bad parts too. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to gardening so I like the advice you share here not to have high expectations, but keep the spirits up!

3 years 10 months ago

[…] My Plastic-Free Life gardens without plastic. […]

3 years 10 months ago

Wow! Lead in a water nozzle! How is that even legal?

I am so excited about your garden. The nasturtiums are pretty, but watch out they can take over. They are yummy and pretty in salads.

Amy :)

3 years 10 months ago

Gardening in CA (at least along the coast) is different than the rest of the U.S.! I have found that attending free gardening classes at our local, family-owned nursery has been the best way to learn the specifics for HERE.

Also, joining a CSA turned out to teach me/us more than we expected in the gardening arena.

We grew our carrots from seed much earlier in the year and they did well. I chose two varieties and the smallest ones did the best.

I’ve never gotten basil to do well and I am much further South (San Diego). I get one good harvest and that’s it.

My Tiny Tim tomatoes are in a pot and did very well last year despite the cool summer and have come back this year, but haven’t really produced much thus far. A friend gave me several different varieties of the last of each six-pack of bigger tomatoes last year. I put them all in a pot together and used a makeshift cage (all metal). I managed to keep the plant alive and green, but it has only produced one red, ripe tomato so far. Ironically, a volunteer tomato plant of unknown origin (doesn’t look like any of the others) has sprouted up over our fence and has 40+ mid-size tomatoes on it!!! I’ve been harvesting it for over a week and the tomatoes taste DELICIOUS!!! I’m going to transplant the potted large varieties to the ground and see what happens. One instructor said when a tomato plant cups its leaves, it is asking for water. I’ve been told to water the soil, not the plant itself. Tomatoes take a LOT of water.

My sweet pepper plant just started growing again last week. No peppers, yet. Last year was too cool for peppers and tomatoes and watermelon, I heard over and over again in classes. We still got a half-dozen peppers that were yummy. I hope the plant produces again this year…

I water by hand, also. I learned in class to stick my finger in the dirt, like you do. When they need watering, water containers until the water runs out…then wait 15-20 minutes and water again until the water runs out. In the ground, just water when the soil feels not quite moist and adjust based on the finger test.

3 years 10 months ago

Oh, I forgot. I think you are doing great. I have been gardening for six years and still can’t figure out certain plants. It takes time and lots of mistakes. Just keep plugging at it. Can you ask Eric why I can’t grow eggplant?

3 years 10 months ago

The Basil needs water. I am not a big terra cotta fan since I find that the clay absorbed the water. Make sure you have good drainage in the pot. Tomatoes are heavy feeders so you should fertilize once every month. It is cold for tomatoes in your area.

Cukes like heat and 60s is not hot. But they also look like they need water. The straw will helps. Also cukes like to climb so you might find cages or something for them to climb on.

Growing carrots for me is hard and I tend to start them inside. The seeds need light to germinate and need to be kept moist. You have to lightly cover them with straw and mist them every day so they don’t dry out. They like it cool.

Beans like it warm too.

Last thing, straw is great but it has weed seed in it. You might start seeing grass growing. Just pull it.

3 years 10 months ago

my two cents ;) coffee grounds to amp up the soil and more compost to give it vitamins, your tomatoes are malnutritioned, so feed ’em so the tomatoes in turn taste good…your basil looks great but you GOTTA harvest it or it will go to flower, plus it grows faster if you pick it regularly (if you don’t eat a lot of it, put it on cookie sheets at 200 for 10 min, and bam! dried basil for your wintertime pleasure! carrots – yes keep throwing seeds out there…all kinds of birds out there – i sprinkle a ton out there and no, no mulching needed, and eventually you’ll have more than you need, and will need to thin. sweet peppers can be a challenge – bugs love em, but it’s worth it just to have a few :) btw on the tomatoes – prune them, little known secret, you don’t want bushy plants, cut off at least half the branches that don’t have blossoms, they suck up all the energy that needs to be going to the tomatoes themselves…cucumbers, i always plant the start in a pot next to fence so it can climb (gotta let ’em climb or they wont grow straight!). re: avoiding plastic with mulch is easy – just get it delivered (or go somewhere you can get a truckload if you have a truck! i get dark hemlock – it’s chocolatey and you can walk on it barefoot with no slivers! and that bark stuff at the big box store? most is, grossly enough, DYED! ew!

3 years 10 months ago

Your garden looks great, Beth!! And, it looks like you are having a lot of fun!! Basil is tough to grow in Berkeley/Oakland because it is too cold. My basil plants always look meager. I have better luck with Thai basil, so you might want to play around with different varieties. Also, my friend recently suggested making a small greenhouse out of an old window for my basil plants. I haven’t had the time to try it yet, but I loved her idea!

Benne' Rockett
3 years 10 months ago

Beth, I didn’t read through the many comments, therefore, I might repeat what has already been said. On the basil, many potted plants need more water than usual and that means they are leaching nutrients. Even mulch and a saucer might not retain the water the way your planted vegetables will. I would start the carrots again in early September. Cover them with mulch. I put all of my kitchen waste down my garden rows and toss on some leaves or hay. This returns nutrients to the soil. Looks great and sounds like you are have loads of fun!

3 years 10 months ago

Thanks for the info on the hoses! And your garden looks great! I have had similar issues with some of my plants the past couple years. Some things I jjust haven’t figured out yeet but I guess it takes patience :)

3 years 10 months ago

Regarding the straw, the extra will last for years and years if you can keep it dry. I would keep it and use it on your garden next year.

Also, most hay and straw here in the midwest is baled with sisal twine instead of plastic twine. ( Next time you need straw, ask whether it’s baled with sisal or plastic twine.

3 years 10 months ago

looking good! i am glad for the hose info, thanks for all your careful research, as always. i read through the advice above and think there is a lot of good stuff there (eat more basil! :)) the one thing i didn’t see which seemed classic-no brainer to me was- yellow leaves (beans) tend to indicate a nutrient is lacking. this is tricky territory, firguring out WHICH nutrient it is, and how best to supply it (especially trying to do it plastic free). nitrogen is a good bet though, since it’s been a wet year it just may be that lots of the soil has already lost a fair amount of it (even though the poster who mentioned- it’s year one, you shouldn’t have nutrient deficiency yet, is what i would have guessed as well- but signs say otherwise). OR it could be that your pH is a little low, which can lock up other nutrients (i think calcium is one) in which case a little lime/dolomite is a good idea, and i’ve gotten that in cardboard/paper boxes, so i know it can be found sans plastic. if you don’t want to mess with ph, you can just try adding excess calcium (the egg shell idea). my cucs bit the dust way earlier in the season, if it helps to have some company, but i’m loving the peas this year- seems like a good year for fava beans too. :) keep hope alive! you’re doing great!