Bring Your Garden to Life: Tips to Revitalize and Enrich Your Space

These tips will help you and your garden grow.

Every gardener knows that beautiful flowers and bountiful vegetables depend on good rich soil, regular doses of fertilizer and protection from harmful pests and diseases. Here’s how to make your own soil, fertilizers and pesticides with a little ingenuity and no toxic chemicals.

Homemade Soil

With the proper mix of compost and fertilizers, you really can customize the soil in your planting beds for the flowers and vegetables you want to grow. To be sure that everything you do adds up to good soil, first have it tested.

Soil testing
A complete soil test, available from your local Cooperative Extension office or your state agricultural university, is the best investment you can make in your garden. The results will provide an exact prescription for fertilization, liming and adding trace elements. Knowing what your soil needs allows you to furnish your plants with ideal conditions and no wasted effort.

Seed-starting mixtures
All-natural: Mix one part sifted garden loam, one part sphagnum peat and one part coarse sand. To eliminate soil-borne diseases, place mix in a shallow baking pan with a small potato and bake at 200°F until the potato is cooked.

Lightweight potting soil: Mix thoroughly 1 part vermiculite, 1 part milled sphagnum moss, and 1 part perlite. Moisten before using.

Homemade Fertilizers

No matter where you live, good sources of fertilizer, free for the hauling, are probably available right around the corner. Is there a riding stable nearby? Does your neighbor’s child have a pet rabbit? All you have to do is ask for animal manure to enrich your compost. Here are some other possibilities:

Seaweed is actually richer in nitrogen and potassium than most animal manures. Many municipalities with beaches are glad to have you haul it away. To cleanse seaweed of salt, stack it on the driveway or another place where the runoff won’t go into your lawn or garden. Let several rains wash through it before adding it to your compost heap or digging it directly into the garden in late fall.

Wood ashes
Wood ashes from the fireplace are also an excellent source of potassium and a way to improve the hardiness of plants and the flavor of their fruits.

Coffee grounds
Coffee grounds may be applied as a light mulch around acid-loving plants to provide a mild but complete food.

For a balanced fertilizer with a 2-4-2 formula of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, mix four parts coffee grounds with one part wood ashes.

Houseplant food
For an organic food for houseplants, dump two bucketfuls of fresh horse or cow manure (or one bucketful of poultry manure) into a burlap sack. Tie the sack shut with one end of a long rope and place it in an empty barrel. Fill the barrel with water and leave the sack to steep for one week, using the rope occasionally to jerk it up and down and mix the liquid. Apply the resulting “manure tea” monthly to the soil around plant roots.

Green manure
After clearing vegetables or annual flowers from a bed in fall, sow hairy vetch or winter rye. Often called green manure, these plants thrive in cool weather, protecting the beds from soil erosion and weeds. In early spring, three to four weeks before planting them, dig the green manure right into the soil. As it decomposes, it adds humus to the soil and acts as a fertilizer for next year’s crop.

Homemade Pesticides

There are many non-toxic tricks for discouraging pesky animals around the yard and garden.

To keep a pet’s food from attracting ants, set the food dish in a pie pan filled with soapy water. To destroy invading ant colonies, mix three cups water with one cup sugar and four teaspoons boric acid. Loosely fill several small screw-top jars with cotton balls saturated with the mixture. Pierce jar lids with two or three small holes (large enough to admit ants) and screw back onto jars. Place jars in areas where ants are active but out of the reach of children and pets.

Aphids, mealybugs, mites, scales and thrips
Soap spray: Mix one tablespoon dishwashing soap in one gallon of water. Test-spray a few leaves of the affected plant; if no damage results, spray the whole plant.

Ammonia spray: Mix one part household ammonia with seven parts water.

Oil spray: Stir one tablespoon of liquid dishwashing soap into one cup of vegetable oil (peanut, safflower, corn, soybean, or sunflower). Mix 1 to 2 teaspoons of the soap-and-oil blend with one cup water, and apply to affected plants.

Fungal diseases
To control fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and black spot, mix one teaspoon of baking soda in one quart warm water. Add one teaspoon liquid dishwashing soap. Apply to leaves as a spray or drench the leaves of smaller plants with a watering can.

Inexpensive snap traps from the hardware store are quite effective when deployed in large numbers. Set baited traps at two-foot intervals along the base of walls where mice run. To kill both young and old mice, set traps out twice: once to trap the adults, and then two weeks later to trap the maturing young. Bait traps with peanut butter or with a small cotton ball. Mice pull at the cotton when they are collecting nesting material and so trigger the trap; unlike food baits, cotton doesn’t spoil in hot weather. To avoid leaving a telltale human odor, always wear gloves when handling traps.

Dump several scoops of used cat litter into the mole’s tunnel; moles find it offensive and will leave. Don’t, however, spread cat litter near a food garden because it can carry infections harmful to humans.

Protect a garden from moles with wire-mesh fencing, set into a 12-inch or deeper trench, all around the bed; such a fence will also help to fend off other ground-level pests, such as rabbits and woodchucks

Predator bugs
To attract predacious insects, the kind that eat other insects, dot your garden with sweet alyssum, asters, daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, yarrow and members of the parsley family, such as parsley, fennel and dill. These flowers offer the nectars and pollens that predacious bugs need to supplement their insect diet.

Marigolds: Plant French marigolds amid rabbit delicacies, such as lettuce and carrots, in the vegetable garden. The marigolds’ strong odor repels rabbits.

Black pepper: Sprinkle ground pepper around plants to repel rabbits; renew after every rain.

Countersink tin cans (such as tuna-fish cans) in the garden and bait them with beer. Slugs are drawn to the beer, fall in and don’t get out again. Replenish the bait beer after a rain.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest