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

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

Hi, 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… Read more »

Melina Rudman

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!


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,… Read more »

Eve Stavros

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!!)


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… Read more »

Sandra / Always Well Within

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.… Read more »


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 :)


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… Read more »


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?


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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

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

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 :)


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.


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… Read more »

Sarah Sloan

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.


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

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… Read more »

Mary Ann

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.


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… Read more »


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.


Hi, 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… Read more »

Reenie R

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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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.


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).


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… Read more »