Although I was trained as a biologist, and I am truly a bit of a science nerd, I still believe it’s worthwhile to keep the old ways alive and to honor the wisdom of previous generations (whether it’s to put into practice or just for the history of it). And in that spirit, I’ve put together a list of garden tips and tricks that our grandparents and great-grandparents may have used in their own gardens. Now some of these old-fashioned tips and tricks are based only on anecdotes, observation, and folklore, while some tips have gone on to be backed by science. But in any case, I hope you find them to be interesting or useful in some way.
1. Plant Friends Together
This ancient system of pairing plants together in the garden has been making a comeback since the organic movement of the 1970s. Part science and part folklore, companion planting is the art and science of pairing compatible plants (or friends) together in order to create a healthier, more productive vegetable garden. Attracting pollinators and beneficial insects, and also repelling pests are only a few of the many ways that companion planting can benefit a garden. A well-known example of companion planting is the Three Sisters method of planting corn, beans, and squash which was used by Native Americans.
And sometimes, the aim of companion planting is knowing which plants not to plant in proximity to each other (non-compatible plants are often referred to as foes). This is the case with Black Walnut trees which create a substance called juglone that seeps in the soil and can kill certain plants.
2. Use Cornmeal to Sow Tiny Seeds
Sow tiny seeds by mixing seeds with an equal amount of cornmeal. This allows seeds to be distributed more evenly, and for the placement of the seeds on the soil to be more visible against the light background of the cornmeal.
3. Save Your Fingernails with Soap
Do you have a hard time scrubbing the dirt and green stains from your fingernails after a day in the garden? An easy fix for this is to scrape your fingernails over a bar of soap before gardening and they will stay clean and free of stains.
4. Use Green Manure for a Bountiful Garden
Despite the name, green manure actually has nothing to do with poop. It is the age-old practice of sowing cover crops that will later be turned over and incorporated into the soil. Green manure adds nutrients and improves soil structure. You can read more about incorporating green manure in your garden here.
5. Treat ‘Em Mean for Better Tomatoes
Back in my early gardening days, an older gardener once told me that I needed to treat my tomato plants a little mean. This may sound harsh, but what this really means is that in order to have strong tomato plants and abundant fruit, you need to avoid coddling them.
Overwatering can choke the roots of the plant and also result in a poorly developed root system. Allowing the soil to dry out a little between waterings encourages the plant to reach out and grow deep roots, making for a stronger, healthier plant. So water your tomatoes less frequently (2-3 times a week) but more deeply so that the water seeps down into the soil.
And when it comes to fertilizer, it’s possible to add too much of a good thing to your garden. Over-fertilizing and adding too much nitrogen will make your tomato plants grow big beautiful foliage, but very little fruit. You can determine the nutrient levels of your soil by using a home test kit or sending a soil sample to your local county extension for testing.
6. Use Pie Plates for the Birds
Hang a few aluminum pie tins from a fence or trellis in the garden, or from a branch on your fruit tree. The flashing of the reflected light and the sounds they make banging together help to deter birds and other critters from feasting on your garden.
7. Give the Slugs a Brew
Place a shallow pan of beer in the garden to help trap slugs and snails. Apparently, slugs are attracted to beer (who knew?!), and they will crawl into the pan and drown (there are worse ways to go!) This may not 100% solve your slug problem, but you will trap at least a few this way.
8. Bury Your Kitchen Scraps
Composting in place, also called trench composting, was more common in previous generations than was a traditional compost pile. The basic idea is to dig holes or shallow trenches in your garden and fill them with the things you would normally add to a compost pile. This is an especially good method if you don’t have the room for a compost pile, or if local ordinances prohibit them. To compost in place, simply dig a shallow trench in between garden plantings and fill it with kitchen scraps like eggshells, coffee grounds, and peelings. Cover with soil and that’s it. When you’re ready to add more, simply dig a new trench. Read more about it in this post by Morning Chores.
9. Plant Flowers for the Insects
Pollinators aren’t the only important insects in the garden. Plant flowers and herbs that attract other beneficial insects like ladybugs, praying mantises, and parasitic wasps. Find out more in this article by Penn State Extension and in this one by Fine Gardening.
10. Pick the Bugs
Don’t forget about using mechanical means of pest control. To help rid your garden of pests like Japanese Beetles and Hornworms, handpick them from your plants and drop them in a bucket of soapy water to drown them.
11. Deadhead Your Flowers
Our grandmothers always remembered to deadhead her flowers to keep them beautiful throughout the summer. Simply taking a few minutes to remove the dead or fading flowers will help to maintain the health and appearance of the plants and to encourage new blooms to form.
12. Take Good Care of Your Tools
Our grandparents knew the value of a dollar and took great care of their stuff, including their garden tools. Help to keep your tools clean and free of rust by storing them in a bucket of sand mixed with a little mineral oil
13. Use Old Pantyhose
Upcycle old pantyhose (now there is an old-fashioned word I haven’t used in a while) by using them in the garden. Soft and stretchy, strips cut from pantyhose work great to tie up tomatoes. They are also useful for storing onions after they are harvested and cured.
14. Save the Hair from your Hairbrush
Now I don’t know if this one falls into the science or folklore category, but an old-time garden tip for keeping rabbits out of the garden is to scatter some hair from your hairbrush around the garden. And even if it doesn’t deter the rabbits, it makes nice nesting material for birds.
15. Plant by the Signs and Moon Phases
Now, this definitely falls into the folklore category, but many of our great-grandparents swore by using the zodiac signs and the moon phases to guide their planting (and also food preservation – like making sauerkraut). In fact, many people where I live here in the southern Appalachians still use this system. If you want to learn more about this very interesting subject, I will refer you to these links:
If you’ve used any of these tips from Grandma and Grandpa’s day, please let me know in the comments. Either way, I hope you’ve found this list interesting!
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