When you consider putting in a vegetable garden, the expense of building raised beds, fencing, and renting a rototiller can seem daunting. But all aspects of gardening are not expensive. Here are 15 smart hacks that will save you time or money in the garden.
Make your own garden soil
Make compost regularly using livestock manure, hay, straw, dried leaves, and kitchen scraps. Compost that is turned and kept damp can turn into finished compost in just 6 weeks. Left in a pile it will be ready to use as soil in two years.
Use finished compost as a top dressing on your vegetable garden. Find out more ways to grow your own garden soil here.
Use grass, hay, or wood chips for mulch on the soil surface to inhibit weeds and conserve moisture. As the mulch breaks down it increases the nutrients available to your plants. Reapply every season, as necessary.
If you are using wood chips, though, never till them into your soil. Just keep them on the surface, and add more on top of the last layer, as needed. [More on mulch and soil building here.]
Use poly row covers to extend the season.
The first frost of the season is usually followed by several more days of above 0° weather. If you protect your tender plants from the first few frosty nights you may be rewarded with a few weeks more of ripe tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers. Find out more about growing under cover here.
Add Epsom salts to the soil to increase magnesium and sulfur and decrease chlorosis.
In highly acidic soils plants struggle to get enough trace minerals. Acidic soils lock up phosphorous, which plants need for flowering and fruiting. Adding Epsom salts raises soil pH slightly, while increasing the available magnesium and sulfur for plant growth, blossoming, and fruiting. Side dress with 1 tablespoon of Epsom salts per foot of plant height, around the base of each plant. You can do this every 6 weeks during the growing season.
Stir ashes into the soil before planting root vegetables
Wood ash contains potassium which is necessary for plant growth and reproduction. Beets especially benefit from the addition of ashes right before planting. Ashes also increase soil pH so only use it on soils that are acidic.
Interplant rows of perennial fruit trees with vegetables and herbs
In commercial orchards, fruit trees are well weeded and there is nothing growing between the rows, not even grass. But this can be detrimental to good fruit set. Planting herbs and vegetables between rows of perennial fruit trees can be beneficial to both fruit trees and vegetables.
Herbs attract pollinating insects that are needed for good fruit set. Their strong scent also confuses orchard pests that find their fruit tree by smell or pheromones. Fruit set is improved by the regular watering of vegetables near fruit trees. The fruit trees create a microclimate that prevents temperature extremes and wind damage to the vegetables. When you are planning your orchard, plan for vegetables, too. Find out more about interplanting in “food islands” here.
Use diatomaceous earth to discourage spider mites, and other greenhouse pests.
Diatomaceous earth is fossilized phytoplankton. It is rich in silicone, calcium, and magnesium. It is very hard and will pierce the exoskeletons of soft bodied garden pests like mites, flea beetles, and thrips. If you’ve ever had an outbreak of spider mites or white flies in your greenhouse, you need this stuff. Just dust it on the soil surface near your plants after watering. You’ll need to reapply it if it gets wet.
Put crushed eggs shells around tender spring lettuce or broccoli transplants to deter slugs, and increase the soil fertility.
Egg shells are calcium which brassicas need to grow well. Slugs ravage small brassica plants like those expensive hybrid broccoli and cauliflower transplants, you just put in. Egg shells cut the undersides of slugs and deter them.
This method doesn’t work 100% of the time, though. Bigger slugs just slime their way over the egg shells. But add a copper screen or some trays of beer and you’ll have slugs that are too drunk to care about your hybrid broccoli.
Inoculate the garden with oyster mushroom mycelium to encourage root symbiosis and increase plant growth.
Mushrooms are magical. When mushrooms are growing in your garden beds they increase the available nutrients for other plants growing in the same soil. The mushroom mycelium draw up nutrients from deeper in the soil and feed it to the plants growing near them. You get better vegetables and you get mushrooms. Find out more about growing Oyster mushrooms here.
Spray leaves with diluted milk or diluted whey to discourage powdery mildew
Powdery mildew is not inevitable. Every fall when the temperature drops, squash plants, roses, grapes, and some berry bushes get a powdery, white mildew and start to die back, even before the frosts. As soon as the mildew comes the plants stop flowering and growth stops. Fruit that was set on the plant stops maturing.
A study in Australia found that milk diluted at 10% strength would stop the growth of powdery mildew, when sprayed on the leaves. Whey, left over from cheese making was also effective. Kefir, yoghurt, and other fermented milk products that are past their prime would work as well. A 10% solution is about 1-2/3 cups of milk per gallon of water. Plants should be sprayed every two weeks to deter powdery mildew.
Companion plant with herbs to increase yields, attract beneficials, and deter pests.
Planting herbs in the same rows as your vegetables is smart gardening. Dill planted with cabbages, kale, and broccoli mean less cabbage moth damage on your crops. Dill attracts predatory wasps which lay their eggs on the caterpillars. No more broccoli worms.
Dill planted with brassicas is just one of the many beneficial relationships you can encourage in your garden. Find out more smart companion planting techniques here.
Make a natural rooting hormone from willow cuttings
Use wild willow twigs, cut up and steeped in water to make a natural rooting hormone for rooting cuttings. Any variety of willow will work. Here’s how to do that.
Water your plants before the frost.
If frost threatens water the ground well the day before. Plants are less susceptible to frost damage if they are well watered. Well watered soil holds more heat than dry soil, further protecting your plants.
Fruit trees can often be protected from a late frost by sprinkling the trees during the night with water, until after the sun is on the leaves. The water freezes on the trees providing a protective cover.
Use cinnamon to prevent damping off disease
When starting seedlings indoors, use cinnamon to prevent damping-off disease. Sprinkle cinnamon on the soil surface when you plant the seeds. Reapply once a month to inhibit molds and bacteria.
Cinnamon is naturally antifungal and antibacterial and won’t harm humans or pets. I use the older spices that I am replacing with fresh spice at the beginning of the holiday baking season.
Plant marigolds to attract beneficial insects and to combat root nematodes.
Garden areas that are converted from grassy pasture often have one or two seasons of productive growth and then decline noticeably. The cause is root nematodes that attack the plant roots, looking for food. Marigolds are toxic to root nematodes. Just planting marigolds with your vegetables will push root nematodes away.
At the end of the season, chop up your marigold plants and dig them into the garden soil. The marigolds will take care of the damaging nematodes over the winter.