Gardening Wisdom from Grandma: 50+ Tips
By Stacy Tornio
Do you have memories of the scents and tastes of Grandma’s garden? It was filled with gorgeous blooming plants, always seemed to be green, and the veggies and fruits it produced—whoa—they tasted better than anything!
Whether you are trying to replicate your family garden memories or aspire to make your garden memorable for your own kids and grandkids, turning to the gardening tips of yesteryear—before garden stores stocked 14 types of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides—might yield the best, most effective advice for gardening organically, efficiently and frugally. We searched high and low to put together the best gardening secrets from all of the grandmas out there. Thanks to all the readers who chipped in with ideas and advice. Hopefully this valuable wisdom will live on for years.
Success in the garden starts with planting. Use these tips to grow more plants in less space for less money.
MAKE YOUR ROWS CROOKED: Don’t be concerned about making perfect, straight rows in the garden. After all, when they are crooked, you can squeeze in a few more plants here and there. You could also try the square foot gardening method (planting veggies in square-foot plots) to get more in less space.
SOAK SEEDS BEFORE YOU PLANT THEM: If you soak seeds overnight before you plant them in soil, they germinate faster. Go ahead and try—it definitely can’t hurt.
LABEL YOUR PLANTS: It doesn’t matter whether we’re Grandma’s age or as young as a spring chick, it’s easy to forget what we planted where. Plus, you want to make sure to keep track of all the varieties. Make a chart or label plants directly in the garden.
VALUE NEWSPAPER: This is the cheapest garden bed you’ll ever make. Simply put newspaper down in the area where you want to have a new gardening bed, on top of the soil and grass. Don’t be skimpy on the number of layers—the more, the better. You can either dig holes through the newspaper for planting, or give it a few months to break down before planting. It naturally kills the grass and weeds beneath and makes a great garden bed.
REPURPOSE CARDBOARD: Like newspaper, cardboard can make a great base layer in the garden if you’re starting a new bed. Just follow the same directions as using newspaper. You can also use it as a free, recycled mulch or even grow plants in a cardboard box. Yep, growing potatoes in a cardboard box is always a good idea.
STAGGER PLANTINGS: You can extend your harvest of quick-growing veggies such as greens if you plant new seeds every couple of weeks. Stagger your plantings for a time-released garden harvest.
SAVE SPACE: Just because you’re tight on space doesn’t mean you can’t grow a productive food garden. Vining veggies such as cucumbers and melons can grow up on a trellis, some tomatoes do great in hanging pots, and potatoes and strawberries can grow in barrels or boxes.
PLANT THE RIGHT AMOUNT: You don’t want to run out of cucumbers a week into the harvesting season, but you also don’t want to be so overwhelmed your fruits rot on the vine. Plant just a little more than you think you can use, but don’t go crazy. This will ensure you can manage your crops, have enough to eat, and have some extra to preserve for winter.
Caring for the soil and providing plenty of nutrients for the foods we grow is among the most crucial of gardening tasks. Use these tips to frugally feed your soil, in turn feeding your plants, in turn feeding your family, all for little money.
GIVE BACK TO YOUR SOIL: Healthy soil is the best, most fundamental requirement for a healthy garden. We can’t expect to keep taking from our soil and not give anything back in return. The food we eat requires nutrients from the soil to grow, so add it back in the way of organic compost. Organic compost is incredibly cheap and easy to create, and it’s the ultimate organic fertilizer. Most people can create exceptionally healthy soil using no soil amendments besides good organic compost.
SAVE THOSE COFFEE GROUNDS: Coffee grounds make an excellent addition to compost bins, and they can also be used as a direct mulch or side dressing for nitrogen-hungry crops such as tomatoes and squash. Don’t layer too much coffee straight into beds, however, as it could lead to mold growth. Many local coffee shops will give you their excess coffee grounds for free if you’re trying to cover a large area.
COLLECT TEA BAGS: Like coffee grounds, tea bags can make an excellent addition to your compost pile. Many gardeners say leftover tea and tea bags are especially helpful with azalea plants.
ADD KITCHEN SCRAPS DIRECTLY TO THE GARDEN: The old-fashioned version of composting involves digging holes around the edges of the garden and “planting” kitchen scraps—no composter required. This method still works just fine today, and the natural nutrients food waste offers plants are fantastic.
ADD EGGSHELLS: Crushed eggshells have been used for years to encourage plants to grow big and healthy. Simply crush them up and add them around your plants’ root base, or add them to the compost pile.
MULCH, MULCH AND MORE MULCH: Wood chips, organic mulch and straw—all of these naturally add nutrients back to the soil. Mulching also helps hold in water, keep soil a more even temperature and prevent weeds. Quite simply, mulching is one of the wisest and most cost-effective things you can do to ensure good garden soil for years to come.
MAKE YOUR OWN COMPOST TEA: Have you heard of worm poop tea or cow manure tea? You can find all kinds of “recipes” online, but it’s basically mixing water with cow manure, so you can hydrate your plants and also offer nutrients. If you’re looking for manure, look up a farm near you and give them a call. Chances are, they’ll have some to spare.
Fighting pesky garden pests is incredibly frustrating, especially when our gardening efforts end up feeding slugs and bugs instead of us. But don’t turn to chemical pesticides, which can kill beneficial insects and pollinators and are harmful to human health, to boot. Instead, use these old-time tips for fewer bugs with less effort.
MAKE YOUR OWN INSECTICIDE: To make your own effective, DIY insecticide, simply mix 1 tablespoon of liquid soap with 1 gallon of water. Pour it into a spray bottle and spray on plants’ leaves and stems. This will help repel pests such as aphids and spider mites. Be sure to reapply after it rains.
EMBRACE BUGS: Many more bugs are our allies in the garden than the ones that are pests, so finding ways to work with bugs is a smart strategy that was an absolute necessity in Grandma’s day. Plant the types of flowers and herbs that attract beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies and wasps, which help control unwanted visitors such as aphids and certain beetles.
PICK OFF PESTS: Although you can read about many tricks online, sometimes it’s best to just pick off pests with your own two fingers. This is especially true of Japanese beetles and squash bugs: Pick them off and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. It’s time-consuming, but it is the best solution. Keeping a watchful eye and heading off problem bugs before they can multiply is also key.
PROTECT YOUR ROSES: If you have trouble with Japanese beetles, especially on roses, try growing Allium family plants including onions and chives along the border. Gardeners claim this helps keep them away.
PLANT MARIGOLDS: For years, gardeners have planted marigolds near tomato plants to keep bad bugs away. There’s some controversy as to whether this is actually true or not, but who cares? It adds color and beauty to the garden.
GIVE SLUGS BEER: Slugs can be a major problem in the garden, but you can tame them by appealing to their bacchanalian side. Put out stale beer in a shallow dish or container. Slugs love beer, and they’ll climb in and drown—hey, there are worse ways to go!
USE SOAP SHAVINGS: Rumor has it that soap shavings can keep away animal pests such as deer. If you have a deer problem, then you know you’ll try any solution. Just spread the shavings out around the plants you want to protect, and see if it keeps the deer away.
Once the garden is up and running, it’s time to maximize your harvest and minimize your efforts with smart, efficient maintenance tips. Of course in Grandma’s day, the garden was just one of many chores in the long day, so maximizing efficiency and resources was a must-do.
WATER IN THE MORNING: This seems obvious, but many people still don’t follow this advice. Morning is by far the most efficient time to water, as less moisture evaporates from the heat. If you do only a few things on this list, make this one of them.
WATER NEW PLANTS PLENTY: New plants need extra help getting established—water them at least every other day, giving them a good long drink. This is the case for trees, too. Water them more thoroughly in the first year so they can really take root.
WORK WITH THE WEATHER: Gardeners of old had to keep a close eye on the weather, and you should do the same. If you’re going to fertilize or add compost, it’s best to do so just before a rain. It’s also best to do planting on overcast days without a lot of wind. Keep an eye on that seven-day forecast and plan your garden activities accordingly.
KEEP A GARDEN JOURNAL: Even if you don’t keep a journal every year, try keeping one for a year or two. Write down details such as which varieties you chose and how well they did; when the last day of frost was in your area; when certain plants emerged; what plants had pest problems; and other tidbits like this. It’ll help you plan more efficiently in future years.
PULL WEEDS EARLY: Keeping on top of weeding is the most efficient way to protect your garden. Don’t wait for weeds to seed and bury deep into the ground. Nobody likes the chore of pulling weeds, but dealing with them early is the way to go.
DON’T FORGET TO DEADHEAD: Know why Grandma’s flowers looked so good? There’s a good chance it had to do with her loyalty to deadheading old blooms. Deadheading is the most important technique you can use to improve the health of your blossoms and keep flowers blooming longer. Learn it. Embrace it. Do it.
KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS: Before we had so many resources at our disposal, our grandparents had to rely on strong community ties to help improve their lives. If you notice that one of your neighbors is an avid gardener, talk to her. Chances are, your neighbors have similar soil and can offer you an incredibly valuable perspective about the plant varieties that grow best in your area, pests to watch out for and much more.
GROW FOOD WITH KIDS: It’s important for kids to see where their food comes from and how easy it is to grow. Get them involved every step of the way from planting to harvesting. You can also give them a sense of ownership by giving them their own crops or area to tend—start easy with something almost guaranteed to succeed so they gain confidence. Consider easy-growing blooms such as sunflowers, nasturtiums or four o’clocks. Gardening with kids is a good way to preserve our garden knowledge and share our important connection with nature.
MAKE MISTAKES: Everyone should experience a little trial-and-error. It’s part of being a gardener. So be adventurous and push the limits in your own backyard to discover your next favorite plant.
GROW WITH LOVE: Here’s a quote from one of our Facebook readers, passed down for generations in her family. We think it’s excellent advice to follow. “What you seed with love and nurture with love will grow with love.”
Grandma’s garden was likely frugal by necessity. Follow in her footsteps—and help decrease your overall food budget—by using these cost-saving tips to help you grow more crops for less cash.
SAVE SEEDS: One of the thriftiest things you can do when gardening is to grow open-pollinated plants from seeds (rather than buying seedlings of hybrid plants) and to save those seeds from one year to the next (as you can’t save and regrow seeds from hybrid plants). Using this technique, you can grow a whole food garden for years on just a few bucks. Also consider seed swaps to increase your garden’s variety with no investment. Contact your local extension office for information about local seed swaps, or visit Heirloom Seed Swap to learn how to swap heirloom seeds online.
USE RECYCLED SEEDLING CONTAINERS: When you’re starting seeds in spring, don’t waste money on fancy seedling pots. You can turn lots of household items into a perfect home for baby plants. Here are a few things to try—toilet paper rolls, eggshells, yogurt cups and berry containers. (The berry container can act like a mini greenhouse, too.)
UPCYCLE MILK JUGS: Milk jugs have so many uses in the garden. You can turn one into a watering can, a birdseed scoop or a miniature greenhouse. Cut off the bottom of a jug, then place it over fragile seedlings to protect them from wind, hail, heavy rain and cool temperatures.
USE PILL BOXES TO SAVE SEEDS: This one is definitely a classic. You know those pillboxes with different days of the week? They can double as perfect seed containers. Don’t forget to label the top of the box with what you put inside.
INVENT YOUR OWN CONTAINERS: Have you visited the container section of a garden store recently? Large containers can be $50, $60 or much more! Instead, invent your own containers by recycling household objects such as old wagons, cracked birdbaths and more. Look around your own home, or visit garage sales and thrift stores with upcycled planters in mind.
SAVE YOUR LINT: Lint from the dryer can get a new life in the backyard. It’s great in a suet cage where birds can collect it to use as nesting material. You can also save it to line the bottom of your planting containers to help hold in moisture.
MAKE YOUR OWN GARDEN MARKERS: A Sharpie marker scrawled on a collection of rocks make easy, charming and resilient garden markers.
OVERWINTER YOUR ANNUALS: Here’s another money-saving idea—try overwintering your annuals to see if you can get them to survive indoors through winter. You have nothing to lose. Simply dig up the whole plant including its roots, being careful with stems, and transfer it into a pot, ideally layered with potting mix and compost. Make sure it has good drainage. Using this technique you might be able to get annuals such as geraniums and pansies to stay alive until you can replant them outside come spring.
TAKE CUTTINGS: Many houseplants can be started with a cutting. Simply cut off a leaf at its base, dip in rooting hormone and put the end in a mix of good soil. You can also try rooting a cutting from a dogwood tree: Dig up a sucker that has grown around the dogwood or snip off a few branches, making a cut just below the little “bump” you see on the individual branch.
MAKE YOUR OWN ROOTING HORMONE: If you want to increase your chances of having a cut plant live, use a rooting hormone. Of course, you can buy one from the store, but you can also try a homemade rooting hormone. Some people use a honey and water mixture while others swear by apple cider vinegar. Apply rooting hormone after you take a cutting and before you put it in soil.
SHARE WITH FRIENDS: Most perennials benefit from being divided every few years, and it’s also a great way to share plants with friends. If you have black-eyed Susans, daylilies, coneflowers, phlox, daisies or any other perennial, split them up and share with friends. The plants left will come in healthier and stronger. (For veggies, save the seeds and share with friends.)
PASS DOWN YOUR PLANTS: It’s special when you know you’re growing seeds from your grandparents or keeping their 50-year-old houseplant alive. When you pass down plants from one generation to the next, it adds to all the garden benefits you already experience and helps connect you with friends, family and generations past.
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