The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 9, 2008

Urban Compost + Recycled Potting Soil = Good Tomato Food? We’ll see…

Yesterday, I mentioned recycling the potting soil from my dead roof garden as well as harvesting the compost (finally) from my Urban Compost Tumbler to add to the dirt in the front yard where we planted tomatoes. Back in March, I whined about how the Urban Compost Tumbler was just not as great as I’d hoped it would be. I stopped filling it because it had become too heavy to actually tumble by myself, and we switched to dumping our food waste into our curbside green bin instead, to be sent away to the city’s commercial compost facility.

Feh. I’d rather we could keep our food scraps and use them ourselves. Maybe now that we have a bit of yard, we can switch to the kind of composter that sits directly on the ground. As I mentioned in the March post, we’d had great success with one of those before. (A worm bin is not an option at this time. We have no place to put one and would probably let the worms die, anyway, just like the plants.)

So okay, this Saturday was the day to harvest the compost from the tumbler, such as it was. Michael pulled the thing forward and held that sucker down:

He is able to do things like that because he has a pair of these:

While he held it down, I slid a table under the back end to prop it up:

And a plastic tub under the opening to catch the compost:

Okay, the compost didn’t actually tumble out. I had to pull it out with a hoe. It was kinda smelly and wet, not at all like the beautiful, rich compost we’d gotten from the traditional composter a few years back. Still, I ended up with 3 bins half full of the stuff, most of which seemed broken down.

Some of the shredded paper was still intact. And a nylon tea bag. (Where the heck did that come from???) The biggest mystery was a mini glass brandy bottle, the kind you’d get on a plane. No freakin’ idea. But there wasn’t anything still recognizable as food, so I was happy about that.

The next step was recycling the roof garden. This is what I started with:

(Oh, my poor babies. Here’s how they used to look…)

See more photos here from last year.

I just now made myself really sad.

Okay, Beth, get over it. Drought Schmought. You didn’t feel like watering them, and this is what happens. Let it be a lesson to you. Don’t neglect your cats and husband or the same thing will happen to them! (Well, no, because Michael actually feeds all four of us. And loads the dish washer. And does the laundry. We’ll be making a chore wheel soon, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Right. So we carted the whole mess down to the front yard, raked up the dirt, mixed in the compost and recycled potting soil, and planted the tomatoes that Jennconspiracy had brought over in their own little coconut coir pots. No disposable plastic pots for us!

And here are the tomatoes. Can you see them? Look carefully; they’re small. There’s one at each leg of the metal cage.

Will the soil be good for them? It’s pretty chunky and lumpy. Chlumpy. How often do I need to water them? I could look it up, but it’s easier to just ask you guys. What’s the best way to grow tomatoes when you’ve already waited way too late to plant them in the soil and you have no idea what you’re doing?

Oh, and what other veggies are easy to grow starting in the middle of June? I can get vegetable and herb seedlings in biodegradable eco pots from Long’s. They’ll still come with those ubiquitous plastic identification tags, but whatcha gonna do? Anyone in the area have some to share without the plastic tags???

Oh, and lest you feel too sad about the dead plants, this is how the roof looks now with the remaining cactuses and drought-tolerant succulents that are left:

Aside from the college dorm-looking plastic crates (we won’t mention where they came from) I think it’s elegantly simple. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

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15 years ago

Everything I know about growing tomatoes comes from YouGrowGirl ( and the links on her site.

But your growing season is so much longer that ours, you might be OK.

15 years ago

I am a Brand New Gardener, and I am learning as I go. I started in January by checking out every book from the library that I could find on organic gardening, new gardens, and PNW gardens, and by March we broke ground, turning our lawn (aka weeds) over, adding compost (we have a worm bin) and organic fertilizer (expensive!) and starting from scratch.

Just this week, we pulled our first radishes – they grow pretty fast. (I think I planted them in April maybe?) They took almost no care (though we’ve had a wet season in Seattle) and they were a zillion times better than the grocery store ones – my five year old even liked them. (Pictures on my blog…check it out.) Anyway, if you’re looking for suggestions, I say radishes. Peas and beans are supposed to be easy to grow, too. We have sugar snap peas from seed and starts, and they’re climbing their bamboo poles like mad now, though not anywhere near producing actual peas.

If I can do it, you can. Head to your library and see what you can find – there are great gardening resources. At our farmer’s market there are master gardeners to ask questions, too, so you could see if you have a similar resource?

Good luck!

Rejin/Urban Botany
15 years ago

Hi Beth, your compost looks great in the photos. Funny that you dumped it in a bin that says “paper only.”

I once read an urban farmer’s account of watering his tomato plants every day, and that has worked well for me. It might also help to plant some flowers that are attractive to bees (like bee balm) so they are around at pollination time. Last year we visited an organic farm that had a wildflower area adjacent to its open greenhouses. It was gorgeous and functional.

(I also thought of you when I read about the plastic balls in the reservoir… We are fighting an uphill battle.)

15 years ago

Beth, with regard to composting, have you looked into having a worm bin? The worms do a lot of the work for you and produce a finer quality of compost much more quickly. They work well for apartment dwellers such as ourselves who generate more in the way of kitchen scraps than things like yard clippings. Kitchen scraps make great worm food, and I’ve used shredded junk mail and the like for bedding! You can even have a bin indoors, although a (shady) spot outdoors is a bit better because sometimes there’s a little fruit fly issue. But really and truly, it’s a better way to go for small spaces and works very well without the hard work of handling a big tumbler. Have you looked into it?

Signed, a worm fan

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hey Terrible Person, guess what we’re gonna water them with on June 21:


terrible person
15 years ago

Hey, now that California is officially in a drought, we should maybe put that bucket back in the shower to catch extra water, and use that on the tomatoes. Of course, it’s on the other end of the house, a pain to carry around. Maybe we could set up a whole “gray water” system. Unfortunately, gray water is hard to do legally in Oakland.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Life Less Plastic! You noticed my little fishie! I actually didn’t notice your little flower until just now. It’s super cute, too.

Yeah, Christy B, the Green Cat and Terrible Person also told me about the black balls in the reservoir. WTF, right?

Axelle, am I allowed to tell them about your open studio?


christy b
15 years ago

Okay, totally off topic but I had to share/vent:

In Los Angeles “they” dumped plastic balls into a reservoir that provides drinking water, to keep the sun from reacting with the water and creating a dangerous chemical.

I am guessing that the dangerous toxins released when plastic water bottles get warm is different if the plastic is in the form of a ball?!

You can read the story here.


15 years ago

I’m not sure I have anything else to add about gardening, but I have to comment about your new favicon. It’s super cute!

15 years ago

That’s awesome that the compost worked! We are still a long way off from getting compost, I think.

I am the same way about plants — I just don’t feel like watering them sometimes. Growing veggies is a little easier — if I can eat it, I’m more motivated. I also understand all too well the whole being on a roll thing. :)

If you’re replanting the tomatoes anyway, bury them up to the lowest set of leaves. It makes them stronger.

15 years ago

Beth..that’s very cute – I won’t call you a silly city girl, just someone who hasn’t gardened much. It looks like a couple people mentioned the tomato cage issue. Just think of it this way — the purpose of the cage is to provide support (by providing support on all sides) to the tomato plant once it gets taller (so you’ll be fine for a little while until they get bigger)…as it grows and produces fruit, the plant will become to heavy and fall over unless it has support. Tomato cages are a very nice way to support the plants, but not the only way. You can always rig something up with bamboo stakes, or even sticks and twine if you really want to. If you can get some off freecycle or craigslist, that’s great, but if not you could always rig up something as necessary…and if you really like growing the tomatoes, maybe you can buy some cages on sale at the end of the season.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Am I an idiot or just a silly city girl? This is why I NEED you all. I thought the cage conveniently had 4 legs for each of the 4 plants. I didn’t know I was supposed to put one inside and buy 3 more. Too expensive. Will have to post an ad on Freecycle or Craigslist to find more. Should have done it to begin with, but when I thought I only needed one, it was just so convenient to get it from Long’s.

And Jenn, I actually debated whether or not to plant the tomatoes in the pots or take them out. And I should have called you. But when I’m on a roll, I don’t want to stop. I just wanted to get the whole thing done, so I made an executive decision. Which was wrong.

The jade plant is still up on the roof. It just didn’t make it into the picture. The leaves are red. Maybe I will bring it down and plant it in the yard.

Robj, don’t even think about it. Michael is mine.

Condo Blues
15 years ago

I’m trying to grow tomatos in an upside down planter. They dry out quickly so I’m supposed to water it every day but I usually manage to water it every other day.

I got a tip that tomato plants love Epsom salts! You can mix it in the soil before you plant the tomato or dissolve it in water and then water your plant with it.

I just planted basil in pots on my patio. It does well in semi-arid dirt. Mint also thrives on neglect. My kind of gardening!

15 years ago

We don’t have a green bin (can you believe it?) I have a composter that sits on the ground. Theoretically I just dump food scrap and yard clippings in and stir around every so often, then magic happens!

But in reality, the scrap gets quite heavy too. I try to use an aerator to mix, but it’s not always effective. At the bottom layer, I still have yard clippings from last year that are only 30% decomposed. I guess I just have to assume a “someday-it-will-happen” attitude.

The amazing thing about food scrap composting is that rotten/decomposed food takes so little room. It’s been more than a year, our composter is still only 2/3 full. Our family of 4 eats a LOT of produce every week, so our food scrap is defintely above average.

15 years ago

PS The big composter could be used for hand-washing dainties or for Suit sand Area’s annual bath.

15 years ago

I knew a woman who lived in the Elmwood whose back yard got good sun. She decided to plant tomatoes in August and, by golly, she had tomatoes in October. I once put tomato plants in a sunny garden in LA in May. They were still going in November. I used no cage, no compost, no nutritional enhancements. They were over-and under-watered. I had no idea what I was doing and those plants grew and grew and looked like tropical trees. However, the tomatoes were completely tasteless.

Nice musc’s, Michael.

15 years ago

Like they all said — and remember that tomatoes loooove water. When it’s hot, daily water. If they don’t get enough, they will not produce fruit. Next year you can start stuff from seeds – for this year, go for seedlings. And I don’t live out there but here you can get seedlings at the farmer’s market and those folks are game for recycling anything — I’d ask if they wanted the markers to reuse. Definitely stop by Crunchy’s today to see her tomato watering ideas. ;)

15 years ago

Tomatoes love heat and a good recycling idea I heard about was to take an old tire and place it around the plants. The black tire heats up with sunlight and raises the temp for the toms. If you have a drill, drill some holes in the side of the tire that will be in contact with the ground so that water will drain and not provide a breeding place for mosquitoes.

Speaking of neglecting plants, we recovered a cactus that had been sitting unwatered in a cool, dark basement for a year. It is now budding. So add cacti to cockroaches, rats and bacteria on the list of survivors once plastic has done in humanity.

15 years ago

OMG — you are so cute! The tomato cage is supposed to go over the tomato plant and you plant them *in* the coir pots so that any roots that have developed don’t get pulled away (they grow right through the coir).

Did you jade plant come through ok? Plant it in the front yard – I bet it will be very happy! They are alright with dry-ish soil (a small pot will overheat).

Your compost looks AWESOME! If you have too much, I’ll come over with a few buckets and take some off your hands. You can improve the soil in that front yard a billion bazillion times if you keep up that composting!

Don’t forget – we have a hella long growing season here – even if those tomatoes are 60-75 days (if I remember correctly) that basically means you’ll have tomatoes in August or September, maybe October — and it’s still plenty warm here then. I was still getting tomatoes in November from plants I put in April last year.

For the compost – if you have Big Strong Michael get a big section of metal mesh at Home Depot and nail it onto a frame of 2 x 4s, it can be used to sift the compost — then you throw the teabags and paper shreds back into the composting bin with more veggie scraps. :)

I can’t wait to see when you start getting tomatoes – you’re just gonna go crazy over it!

15 years ago

I agree, don’t worry too much about the late plants. Last year, first summer with a house, we only scooped up some sorry sorry things on clearance at a big box store over the July 4th weekend and planted them in 2 gal. (too small the experts say) pails; we got good tomatoes considering. Last year we used Terracycle wormpoop (plastic bottle but recycled). This year I’ve got tomatoes in 10 gal containers and in the ground so we’ll be using chicken manure pellets, maybe homemade compost tea, and maybe some free nitrogen a al Cruncy. I’m using one cage per plant and/or stakes and also tie to my deck rail. I think you could try using your one cage as a stake and tie the plants to it, but as they get bigger (if they are the kind that get really big and gangly as opposed to bushy), you may need to supplement the system. I’d water the ground thoroughly at least once a week, but probably not more than two — your climate, results may differ.

Also, the beefcake is real nice.

15 years ago

Check out Crunchy Chicken today. She has a GREAT idea about how to water your tomatoes.

Also, when they get bigger, you will need one cage per plant.

15 years ago

Okay…when exactly did this become a beefcake blog?

I am very jealous of your garden space. The good news is it is never too late to get it looking the way you want.

And Beth…we all know your life is stressful…but sneaking up to the roof and drinking tiny little bottles of brandy is NOT the way to solve it. You need the full size bottle.

15 years ago

Dont beat yourself up too much about your late plants. You cannot control the weather. Perhaps you can invest in a Rain Barrel and take advantage of the free water when the drought ends.
A neat trick for seedlings is to start them in toilet paper rolls(tubes)
I now have a man-crush on Michael- Impressive guns!

Jane (in London, UK)
15 years ago

My tomatoes are in containers, they get water when the soil looks dry and I’m just starting to supplement that with liquid food once a week now they’re starting to fruit. But this is my first season growing tomatoes so if someone with more experience comes along, I’d take their advice over mine.
Oh, and plants without tags – how about planting from seed? (I assume they come in paper packets in the US too.) I have lots of dwarf pea seeds I can send you if you think they’ll make it through US immigration. Or requests via Freecycle (you could offer to reuse those coir pots) as people might be thinning out about now?
Best of luck

15 years ago

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure there’s supposed to be one tomato plant per cage. In fact, I think it’s supposed to go inside the cage.

Lovely garden, Beth!

Nice guns, Michael!