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Gardening Without Plastic, Part 3: Mulching and Watering

Posted By Beth Terry On July 17, 2011 @ 9:01 pm In gardening supplies | 33 Comments

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 [1] and Part 2 about buying and planting seeds and plants [2] 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 [3]:

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 [4]. Hoses made out of rubber are generally not made from natural rubber but EDPM [5], 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 [6]*, 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 [7]:

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 OrganicGardening.com 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 Amazon.com affiliate link. If you buy products via that link, MyPlasticFreeLife.com earns a small commission.

Article printed from My Plastic-free Life: http://myplasticfreelife.com

URL to article: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/07/gardening-without-plastic-part-3-mulching-and-watering/

URLs in this post:

[1] Part 1 about soil: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/05/gardening-without-plastic-part-1/

[2] Part 2 about buying and planting seeds and plants: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/07/gardening-without-plastic-part-2-planting-and-replanting/

[3] Organic Gardening: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/mulch-materials-research-report

[4] lead and hormone-disrupting phthalates: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2009/08/new-guide-to-pvc-free-school-supplies/

[5] EDPM: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPDM_rubber

[6] GatorHyde hose: http://www.amazon.com/mn/search/?_encoding=UTF8&keywords=Gatorhyde%20hose&tag=gardening-rodale-posts-20&linkCode=ur2&qid=1330067401&camp=1789&creative=390957&rh=k%3AGatorhyde%20hose%2Ci%3Agarden

[7] tips for plant watering: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/water-well

[8] Image: https://plus.google.com/+BethTerry

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