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!

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UK gardener
5 years ago

I’m starting my own journey with a plastic free garden but I’m struggling with the information out there.
I thought a steel watering can would be good but can only find galvanised in stores here in the UK (so I can see for myself the size etc) but I read galvanised can leak chemicals too. Is this not true info?

Elizabeth Newell
12 years 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
12 years 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!

12 years 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
12 years 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!!)

12 years 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!

Sandra / Always Well Within
12 years 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!

12 years 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 :)

12 years 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.

12 years 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?

12 years 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.

12 years 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!

12 years 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
12 years 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!

Shannon Marie
12 years 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 :)

12 years 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.

12 years 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!

Sarah Sloan
12 years ago

Well, I’m sure other people have made this suggestion but just in case…the tomatoes simply look like they need fertilizer or plant food. If they are planted in the ground they need to be fertilized at least once a month and twice that amount if they are in containers.
The basil definitely just needs food. You’re probably watering it a lot and all the nutrients get washed away much faster than you think, especially in a terra cotta pot. Get liquid sea weed for it.

12 years ago

Good luck on all your gardening efforts. I want to recommend the Extension service as a resource for your gardening questions. I live in MS, and work with the Extension program. They have loads of resources to help home gardeners. Usually, there is a local office in your county where you can talk to a live person to get help or advice for your situation. It looks like for your area, would be a great place to start.

Good luck!

David G
12 years ago

If the basil is trying to flower you need to harvest those branches. This will cause it to grow into larger bushier plants. The first harvest usually has shorter stems and later harvest will have longer stems.

The leaf curl will not affect the production of your tomatoes. It doesn’t look good, but as long as there are no yellowing of the leaves or brown spots then it is fine. Some plants and varieties are more likely to have leaf curl.

The pepper looks like sun scald. It does not hurt the taste of the remaining fruit, but the longer the pepper stays on the plant the more it will spread. You may want to give the peppers a little shade on that side of the plant to prevent this happening to other peppers in the future.

Mary Ann
12 years ago

I see that I’m not the only one having a frustrating time trying to grow vegetables. I’ve grown basil for years, and this year something is gnawing on it. All my tomato plants shriveled, turned brown, and died. My neighbor unknowingly cut down my pepper plant and something eats every cucumber that starts growing (squirrels?). I think I’m going to stick to shrubs and perennials.

12 years ago

Don’t worry – love your basil! Basils look different from each other. Yours looks fin to me. Pick it just above a fork in the leaves and make pesto. When you pick it down, it regrows bushier!

I talk to my plants and personally water them with a watering can. That way I can water the soil and avoid bothering their leaves. I think the personal attention helps them grow. Also, I thank the plants whenever I pick. I think of use as collaborating – I get food and the plants get guaranteed offspring, protection and good growing conditions from me.

With hoses and sprayers second hand seems the way to go. Better to have a hose with some taped up leaks than buy a whole new monster.

I’ve recently begun spreading sawdust (made at home from carpentry using unpainted untreated wood) as much. I am a little apprehensive about what all that carbon might leach out of the soil in decomposing, and what critters and funguses might lurk under the sawdust. I’ve always been a “living mulch” = overcrowded complementary planting gardener.

AWESOME garden, Beth!

12 years ago

Your basil looks healthy, so you either have a small-growing variety, or you’re not harvesting enough. Either way, pick some!

Looks like you have some pest problems elsewhere in the garden. Definitely seek out advice from local gardeners. In my area, the Master Gardeners have Q&A sessions where you can get help. Photos would help them figure out what you’re dealing with.

12 years ago

Although it is a good idea to ask for advice, remember that nobody has all the answers and there are so many things that come into play when gardening, that even the most experienced gardeners get it wrong sometimes. Don’t despair and keep trying different things until you find what works for you and your growing site!
Your cucumber seems to have cumcumber mosaic virus ( see . If that is the case, you will get a poor crop ( if any ) and it will spread to other crops such as pumpkins or courgettes, so you might consider just getting rid of it (burn or bin any plants affected by viruses, you should not compost them). Mulching with straw is not always a good idea; it sometimes creates humidity at the base of the plants and makes them prone to viruses. I never mulch and I never had problems.
Carrots are notoriously difficult to grow. If you buy a packet of carrot seeds, don’t bother keeping half for the next year ( they are only viable for a year). Make sure you remove as many stones as you can from your site ( stones make carrots fork), add sand if your soil is mainly clay. Consider the time of day when you plant your seeds ( if it is too hot, your seeds won’t germinate well). You might also want to learn about carrot fly. As for the tomatoes, if the smaller one starts changing color, it might be blight. Tomatoes need regular watering and feeding. If you have a fruit that does not look like it is edible, don’t keep it on the plant; cut it off so the plant redirects its energy to produce other fruits. Your pepper plant looks like it needs water. (pepper don’t like scorching heat. I live in the south of France and I grow mine in pots in the shade and spray with water when it gets too hot.). Finally, beans require a specific soil preparation because it is not enough to feed them; you need to dig a trench, add layers of vegetable peels, cardboard, paper,lawn clippings, cover with soil and let it decompose for few weeks prior to planting.
I hope all this has helped you. Give me a shout of you have more questions.
Good luck and enjoy your garden!

Reenie R
12 years ago

Good gardening, Beth! We bought a white marine hose, but I need to see if it has a brass/lead end. I read in Jennifer Taggart’s book, Smart Mama’s Green Guide that brass keys usually have lead in then; she says don’t let your children/infants play with or chew on keys for this reason. About your carrots, I don’t know but is the soil appropriate for carrots? Sometimes adding some sand if the soil is really rich, along with other soil amendments/compost, is helpful. I have friends who use a moon guide …planting root crops at a certain time, and leafy plants at other times. This year we planted cukes and they are very misshapen, small and C shaped, so we figure they were mislabelled and were probably pickling cukes. Soil condition, watering, sun hours, seed integrity, plants that may have had a trying time before you ever purchased them; there are so many variables. But just keep planting. Plant more carrots if it isn’t too warm; they are a cool weather crop. I encourage you to grow as a gardener—such a wonderful gift you give yourself. And read about Luther Burbank if you want. Best!

12 years ago

I grew up in Iowa with backyard gardens and have lived in the Bay Area for the past 6 years and have found gardening here a bit difficult (okay, the first year I didn’t believe it really wouldn’t rain at all during the spring, summer, and fall), and think you’re doing great.
Oddly, though I’ve always considered string beans a spring crop and think the weather here is always spring-like I’ve never had them thrive in my garden. I’m not sure what is wrong with yours, but I am also in need of advice of how to get beans to be big producers in Berkeley. If your tomatoes do have blossom end rot, as suggested, I’ve found that crushing a lot of egg shells and placing at the base of the plant helps. A lot of gardening advice tells you that blossom end rot can be helped by calcium (usually in the form of lime, which comes in plastic bags) and even watering. Though it seems to be dismissed as a folk remedy, as the amount of calcium extracted from eggshells by water is rather insignificant (and as a scientist I am doubtful) I have, on several occasions, observed a tomato plant where the first couple of tomatoes have had BER, then I add a lot of eggshells near the base, and the rest of the tomatoes are disease-free. I haven’t had the problem here since I’ve started putting most of my eggshells under my tomatoes. I think you might be a vegan, but I’m sure you can beg some shells off a friend. And I’m impressed by your pepper, despite the damage. As mentioned above, tomatoes and peppers are hot weather crops, which we have little of in the area. In fact, my Serrano pepper produced one pepper last fall, but I let it overwinter (unheard of in any other climate I’ve lived in) and it is producing several peppers this summer. It’s possible your pepper also has blossom end rot (from my google search). Again, treat with calcium and even watering.
Your basil looks quite healthy. There are several varieties of basil (I can’t believe I just linked Wikipedia as the best factual source, but there it is, altogether) and you may just have a small leaved variety. My memory of Genovese basil in Italy is as a much smaller leaved variety than in farmer’s markets here. Someone linked to a post on harvesting basil. I didn’t click yet, but I assume it tells you how to maintain big, bushy basil plants by harvesting regularly. Basil plants are sweetest before they have even a glimmer of flowering, and if you snip above each new quartet ready to form you’ll have happy, bushy basil. Just to be clear, at a pair of leaves, look down the stem and you should see two pair of very tiny leaves on either side of the stem. Cut just above these tiny leaves and they will develop into two new branches of large leaves.
The cucumber is probably getting eaten by cucumber beetles. I saw a bunch when I planted cukes in Berkeley. The usual organic way to control them is row covers, which are generally fine screens (plastic!) over the row to be protected. If you only have one plant perhaps you could get a cheesecloth to fit–just make sure the buggers can’t get through the cloth. Or try one of the other methods listed here, though most of the non-chemical solutions besides the row covers listed in that article I’ve found to be largely ineffective. Also, in my experience the same beetles can infect squash (especially summer squash) crops, so I’d protect them too.
For the carrots you planted a row of seeds? I’ve had much worse luck getting things to grow from seed here than in my native Iowa, but as the Facebookers suggested, covering the row (I usually do this with a board–there is an extra 1×2 laying around in my yard) until the seeds sprout. This is mostly to concentrate the moisture so that sprouting will occur, and not be interrupted by drought. It also helps to pre-soak the seeds in water overnight to make sure they’re ready to sprout.
I like your chosen watering method. At my first apartment, the bucket watering method was actually the most efficient of all methods, as on the 3rd floor of an old Victorian, the shower water took a ridiculous amount of time to heat up from the water heater on the 1st floor, so all that cold water got caught in a bucket (plus a little extra from the shower) and dumped on the garden every morning. I currently keep all my herbs in barrels on my patio, and water them exclusively with water from my salad spinner when washing other greens.
And if you still have a bunch of straw left over I’d be happy to have it. I can borrow my friend’s sedan and bring 3 of the old blue recycling crates to put it in. Or a sheet in the trunk? Let me know and keep up the good gardening.

12 years ago

Basil likes it warm, so maybe cold nights are getting to it? The fact that your greens are not bolting means it is sort of cool and peppers and cucumbers like it warm too…I lived in Northern Ca. many years ago and never had luck with carrots but beans did fine, so that is a mystery. You shouldn’t have nutrient deficiencies since it is your first year, and it would be impossible to find a soil test kit without plastic! Gardening is always trial and error, and sometimes you just have to go with what works in your micro climate or try things in different parts of the garden. As you add compost to the soil, it keeps getting better. Nasturtiums leaves and flower are great in salads!

12 years ago

You should be harvesting the basil, it grows better that way! Here’s a handy post on it. Other than that, I’ve got no idea, I’m a gardening newbie, too.

12 years ago

Hi Beth! I desperately wish that I had some gardening words of wisdom for you… However, I am in awe by your tenacity and am amazed that you can get things to grow! :) Someday when I move out of the city I hope to have a garden too and know where to come to when looking for plastic free supplies and ideas. Also, after reading your posts am feeling inspired to attempt planting another window box (after my first failed attempt).

12 years ago

Hmmm… well, I don’t have all the answers for you, but here are a few thoughts.

1) When you use the hose, the easiest way to get it to spray lightly without blowing away the plants it to ditch the nozzle and just use your thumb. You can also turn down the flow at the faucet so it doesn’t spray so hard.

2) I’ve never seen cucumbers like that, but the holes in the leaves are a dead giveaway that something is eating them. Cucumber beetles perhaps?

3) The green beans look like they could have some sort of blight or maybe even they’re getting too much water? Hard to tell…

4) I’m shocked that you can grow spinach in July! Here in Denver, spinach season runs about October – June. Once hot weather hits they just bolt and go to seed.

5) I’d pick that damaged pepper now. You might be able to salvage some of it, but leaving it on the plant won’t help the pepper and whatever it is could spread to the rest of the plant.

6) Do your green tomatoes have brown spots on the bottom? If so, it’s blossom rot caused by inconsistent water.

Good Luck!