They say every profession has tricks of the trade. Why should gardening be any different?
While it’s impossible to rush a plant’s growth, we can do many things that will either optimize conditions, or that will make our job as gardeners easier and less time-consuming.
The trouble is, searching for intelligent and sensible gardening hacks is a frustrating business. You wouldn’t believe how many dumb ideas are out there, such as “How to turn old sneakers into strawberry pots” or “How to paint little rocks with cutesy faces to mark your plants” or other ideas that were patently stupid or useless. Maybe I’m just too practical, but when I’m searching for gardening hacks, I’m not looking for tween craft ideas. I’m looking for sensible suggestions for how to make the garden flourish with less effort.
So, after trawling through dozens and dozens of websites purporting to offer brilliant tips, hacks, tricks, and shortcuts, I’ve culled it down to 14 that have some merit.
One of the biggest and most efficient “hacks” is to garden in raised beds. If your soil is fertile, friable, and you’re not plagued with weeds, then raised beds may not be necessary. But for the rest of us, raised beds (or its sister component, raised “containers,” which have closed bottoms while still allowing for drainage) may be the best solution to challenging gardening conditions including bad soil, short growing season, desert climate, or even a bad back or stiff knees.
Raised beds warm the soil sooner in spring. The soil can be specially mixed (we use a combination of topsoil, composted manure, and sand) and it never compacts (though it will settle). The dirt stays friable, and amendments and mulch are easier to apply. Weeds are easier to control, both within the beds and in the pathways between the beds (See my article How To Build and Maintain Raised Beds).
Second, in benefits only to raised beds, mulch is a garden-saver in so many ways. Mulch reduces evaporation in the soil (and thus water wastage), helps control weeds, helps protect against hot sun, protects against erosion and plant injury, and (in the case of organic mulch) can contribute to soil fertility.
Mulch can be organic or inorganic. Inorganic mulch includes pebbles, crushed rock, or plastic or rubber mats or chips. Organic mulch includes compost, straw, cocoa bean hulls, bark, wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, and newspaper. (Take it from me: never use hay as mulch; it grows.) Two to four inches is the ideal depth for a mulch layer.
Homemade Weed Killer
Most people don’t relish the idea of using chemical herbicides in their garden, and there are endless magic formulas for homemade weed killers. Do they work?
Yes, but not as fast as conventional week killer and not in the same way. These homemade sprays often kill the top of the plant, but not the root system, so it may grow back. The weed often must be sprayed again and again.
• One gallon vinegar
• ¼ cup Dawn dish soap
In a spray bottle just add the vinegar and the dish soap then shake well.
According to Plant Instructions, the vinegar draws out the moisture from the plant, killing it (they advise spraying weeds during the hottest part of the day so the weeds will dry out faster). The soap acts as a “sticker,” keeping the mixture on the plant while the vinegar does its work.
As mentioned above, this mixture may have to be applied more than once, but it appears to be an effective weed-killer.
Homemade Seed Tape
When planting tiny seeds such as lettuce or carrots, many gardeners find it convenient to use seed tape. This little marvel of ease simply consists of seeds, spaced at even intervals, placed between two layers of biodegradable tissue paper. The gardener unrolls the tape, covers it with a bit of soil, adds water, and voilà: A perfectly spaced row of seedlings.
Not only does seed tape pre-space the plants at the proper intervals, but it also saves people the difficulty of thinning seedlings that might be spaced too closely together (it’s hard to yank up a perfectly innocent baby plant!).
But it’s easy to duplicate the convenience of seed tape at home using toilet paper. Start by unrolling toilet paper the length of the row you want to plant. Then fold the toilet paper into a convenient pile–a few inches wide, for easy cutting–and cut the pile lengthwise. You now have two strips several feet long and a couple inches wide.
Make a paste using one part flour to three parts water (it should “coat a toothpick without dripping off”). On one strip of toilet paper, and using a paintbrush or toothpick (and perhaps a ruler), put a dot of paste at proper intervals for whatever seed you’re using. Drop one or two seeds in the center of the paste dot (you might try using tweezers if the seeds are particularly small).
Next, lay the second strip of toilet paper over the first strip. Roll the strips up together and seal the roll with a dot of paste. Store until you’re ready to plant. (Alternate advice calls for just misting the toilet paper with water and then placing your seeds on the strip, rather than using paste.)
In your garden, unroll the homemade seed tape, cover with a layer of soil, and water as you would any other newly planted seed. Your plants will grow beautifully spaced and without the need to thin.
Similar to seed tape you can use seed mats, which can also be homemade using paper napkins. Start with a 12×12 inch cardboard square. Using a ruler, mark a grid with lines spaced the recommended distance apart for the seed you’re planting. Make a large dot where the grid lines intersect.
Using the same flour/water paste mentioned above, unfold a paper napkin over the cardboard. You should be able to see the dots on the cardboard grid through the paper. Put a dab of paste over each dot, then add one or two seeds to the center of the paste (using tweezers if necessary). Allow the paste to dry, then write the type of seed on the napkin and roll it up until you’re ready to plant.
Homemade Seed Planter Pots
If you’re short on seedling starter pots, save up your toilet-paper tubes and use those to make seed pots.
Start by removing any clinging remains of toilet paper, then flatten the tube. Flatten it again at opposite sides to make a “square.”
Now mark the flattened tube in half with three lines: one down the middle, and the others a half-inch from each end. Cut the tube in half on the centerline. Along each corner, make a cut up to the marked line. Fold each flap inward, then tuck them so they stay in place. Voilà, a seed pot.
If done assembly-line fashion, the seed pots can be made much more quickly than doing them one at a time. Because of the folded flaps, the base of the seed pots isn’t very stable when standing by itself, so it’s best to brace them against each other in a plastic flat.
Seedlings can be transplanted directly into the soil without removing the cardboard, which is biodegradable and will dissolve quickly.
Similar in principle to using toilet-paper tubes is making newspaper seed pots. These are clever and easy-to-make pots, but take a bit of origami. Rather than attempting to describe the necessary folds, watch this video. Or you can purchase a pot maker to make newspaper pots, which is a quicker option.
Corks can be used as seed spacers in several ways.
For example, try spearing a cork on the tips of pitchfork prongs. Pitchforks have four prongs, so depending on how close you want to space your seeds, you can either use two or four corks. Then stab the pitchfork into the dirt at even intervals to determine where to plant your seeds.
Another method is to screw corks to a board at evenly spaced intervals, then pressing the board into the soil to create holes for seeds.
For a larger hole more suitable for transplanting seedlings, a muffin tin pressed firmly into the dirt will also create cups in the soil.
A bicycle-rim trellis (for growing beans or other climbing plants) can be made in one of two ways. The simplest is to put the bicycle rim (with the spokes removed) over a T-post so it rests on the ground, then run string or wire from the bicycle rim to the top of the T-post. This makes a pyramid shape for growing plants.
The second way uses two bicycle rims. Place a steel rod in the middle of two bike rims. Take some garden twine and tie lines from one tire to the other, at least two inches apart. Stand these vertically in the garden and plant pole beans or morning glories.
For those plagued with slugs and snails, there are a number of ways to kill or repel them.
Beer is the easiest and most well-known of slug traps. For whatever reason, slugs can’t seem to resist beer. Placed in a shallow bowl, slugs will crawl in and drown. (What a way to go!)
It’s better not to nest the bowl into the soil since that might kill ground beetles which eat slugs. Instead, place a tuna can or a cake pan (not a pie pan; you want steep sides) on the ground (ideally the rim is one inch above the soil) and fill it with beer. The slugs go for a sip and fall in. Beer traps only work on slugs a few feet away, so you’ll need to place traps about every three feet. Slug traps are not 100 percent efficient. Many slugs will drink and leave without drowning.
Many animals eat slugs, including toads, ducks, frogs, snakes, birds, lizards, and ground beetles. Salt is a famously effective slug-killer, but the last thing you want to do in your garden is salt it.
If you have a very heavy slug or snail infestation, you may have to remove mulch since these gastropods enjoy hiding in mulch.
Wood ash can deter slugs–it appears to have the same desiccating properties as salt–but can also affect plants if applied directly. Putting a circle of wood ash around (but not touching) plants may help keep slugs and snails away.
The Power of Raking
In early spring, long before it’s possible to plant vegetables but when weeds begin to poke their heads above the soil, vigorously rake your garden beds. And I mean, be vicious. Rip those weeds right out.
This doesn’t take long–maybe a minute or two per bed of shredding the top layer of soi–but the results can be amazing in terms of weed control. Last year, out of 20 raised beds, I raked 10 and left the other 10 alone. The 10 raked beds had about 75 percent fewer weeds than the un-raked beds.
Some weeds will re-root themselves, so giving the beds another vicious raking a few weeks later–and a third raking just before you plant your vegetables–will save you a lot of weeding as the summer progresses.
Fluorescent Flagging Tape
One of the best friends for farmers, gardeners, loggers, or anyone else who works outdoors is fluorescent flagging tape. This comes in a variety of neon colors–pink, orange, green, blue, yellow, etc.–and there’s no finer way to find a fallen tool than to tie a glowing pink or orange ribbon to the handle. The item is instantly distinguishable on the ground amongst leaf litter, mulch, branches, or other natural detritus.
Fruit Picker Baskets
If your fruit trees are taller than you are and you don’t relish the idea of standing on a ladder on uneven ground to reach pears or apples, your best option is a fruit picker basket. This is a vinyl-coated wire basket with clawed prongs along one edge and a foam cushion at the bottom. The baskets are cheap–under $10 each–and come with a clamp to attach it to a pole. I have two baskets, attached to poles of two different lengths, for harvesting unreachable fruit.
Dragging hoses all over the garden can cause damage to plants. Even in raised beds, it’s too easy for a hose to slip over the top of the bed and get dragged through precious flowers or vegetables. To avoid this, hammer a length of rebar into strategic corners of the garden, about three feet high. Over the top of the rebar, slip a length of PVC pipe (Martha Stewart recommends copper pipe, cha-ching!). The pipe spins as the hose is dragged past it, preventing damage to plants.
When to Plant in Trenches
For most people, raised beds or at least raised rows is the usual way to plant vegetables. But raised beds drain quickly. In areas where water is scarce, you need to maximize the chances of your plants getting adequate moisture. In these cases, planting in a hollow or trench will allow soil moisture to concentrate around the plant’s roots longer.
Apply Compost in Autumn
For an easy way to mix compost without digging, apply a layer over the garden in the late fall after the harvest is finished. Cover with winter mulch such as chopped leaves or hay. By spring, the melting snow and soil organisms will have worked in the compost.
If you want to do something crafty in the garden such as painting rocks or planting in old shoes and boots, fine, go ahead. I won’t stop you. But if you want practical tips that actually work, try some of the above methods. Hopefully, your vegetables will thank you.