My full metamorphosis into my father is basically complete. (Although I am still keeping the mustache at bay …)
I am now into my third year of maintaining a beautiful backyard vegetable garden and my third year of taking care of that garden in the most cost-effective way possible: by reusing all the crap I refuse to throw away. I use all the gardening hacks my Daddy taught me!
While wandering around my garden, my son asked me if I got some of my ideas from the internet. And I told him no, I learned from his PopPops. And so he suggested I put these ideas on the internet for other folks to benefit from.
I endeavour to throw out as little as possible and to repurpose everything I can. These are some of the things I keep and repurpose for use in my garden.
1. Popsicle sticks & chopsticks
I use Popsicle sticks and takeout chopsticks to label the rows of seeds I plant. I am notorious for forgetting what I plant where. The permanent marker fades with the rain and the sun, but not before the seeds have sprouted and I can tell what’s what.
2. Clamshell containers
Pre-pandemic, I would use a reusable bread bag to purchase the dozens of croissants my kiddos consume. Sadly, Superstore no longer sells croissants in bulk, so it’s back to clamshells.
I use the rectangular clamshell boxes from our croissants to make mini greenhouses for my seedlings so they stay extra warm at my kitchen window. Other great, free greenhouse containers include cake domes, cupcake or muffin trays, salad greens boxes, etc.
Once the seedlings start to get tall, I use those handy chopsticks to raise the roof on my little greenhouses. This makeshift lid also seems to prevent the cats from messing with my precious seedlings.
3. Ribbons, strings & T-shirts
So many random items seem to come with some kind of string on them, and I keep the sufficiently long pieces for the garden. I also make string out of raggedy T-shirts that I cut into strips. If you can tie it in a bow, save it for the garden!
Whether it’s my sunflowers or my pole beans, lots of things need a bit of help staying upright!
4. Sushi trays
I use sushi trays as Lego sorting trays and paint palettes. But I also use them as saucers for my planters.
5. Milk jugs
This is the little gardening hack that so impressed my son: I cut the bottoms of milk jugs to make personal greenhouses for the seedlings I plant in the garden.
Smaller plants can also be covered using pop bottles, but we don’t often have those around. This one pole bean plant (and oddly, not its neighbours) was being victimized by some hungry critter, and its Coca-Cola housing has allowed it to survive.
I have a habit of getting over enthusiastic and planting seedlings earlier in the season than I ought to, and this season those milk jugs really saved my zucchini and pumpkin babies. The jugs keep the plants nice and warm, even if the outdoor temp gets a bit low, and increases the heat to encourage rapid growth once it’s hot out.
6. Leftover produce and collected seeds
As I wait for my lettuce to reach salad size, I buy “living” heads of lettuce for our salad greens. We chomp down on the leaves, and I plant the roots and cores in my garden. The lettuce that keeps on giving! When you’re ready to harvest, just cut it down again, leaving the core in the ground. More lettuce will grow in its place!
Potatoes are another thing from the grocery store that I use in my garden. Forgotten potatoes that start sprouting become the start of my summer potato crop.
Yet another re-plantable is garlic. At the end of each gardening season, I take a head or two of garlic and separate out the individual cloves. Plant each clove (and don’t forget to mark where you’ve planted them). Each clove will give you one delicious head of garlic at the end of the next garden season.
Don’t forget about the seeds you can easily gather from things you are growing. I collect seeds from our sunflowers, our pumpkins, our pole beans and our marigolds to use for the next season.
This year a lot of our marigolds reseeded themselves thanks to the wind! When the flower heads completely dry, pop them off the stems and pull out all the super thin seeds (they look like teeny, tiny matchsticks). I even had a delivery driver ask me one year if he could take a few dried flower heads as he walked back to his truck. (Of course he could, one flower head contains hundreds of seeds!)
These pole beans, started last year from seeds my dad saved from the year before, are absolutely delicious. Near the end of the season, let a few pods dry out and keep the beans inside for next year.
Last years seeds were planted in late May and are working their way up the bamboo poles my dad used for years then passed on to me:
The mammoth sunflower seeds produce … mammoth sunflowers for us every year!
7. Reusable shopping bags
And you know how I grow that previously aforementioned potato crop? In big blue IKEA bags!
I put draining holes in the bottom, bury the sprouted potatoes and add soil as the leaves grow taller. At the end of the season I just dump out the bags, and the kids go on a tater hunt. I keep the bags to use again the following year.
8. Pill bottles
Since my dad was a pharmacist, I’m used to seeing pill bottles as storage containers. I use empty pill bottles to store the seeds I save from my garden each year. I usually save sunflower seeds, marigold seeds and pole beans.
Of course just about any little bottle will do the trick, but I like to keep any transparent bottles for other jobs, while I haven’t found much else to use opaque pill bottles for.
9. Cardboard egg cartons
I have now amassed enough small plant pots (due to my inability to go to the gardening centre without buying a plant or two or three or four) that I start my seeds indoors using those. But if you do not have a collection of small planters to reuse, lots of items you’d otherwise throw away can be turned into seedling starters. One year my daughter was obsessed with eating seaweed for school snacks. The (frustratingly disposable) plastic trays each individually wrapped stack of seaweed comes in make for great seed starting containers.
Cardboard egg cartons are a compostable option I quite enjoy.
You can plant them directly into the soil when ready, or toss the leftover bit of carton into the compost after popping your seedlings out.
10. Rain water
Water is a precious commodity! Don’t let it go to waste by not catching it when it falls from the sky, for free!
My dad uses empty garbage cans to collect his water, my husband did go the more expensive route by getting a rain barrel from the city. It’s great because my hose-obsessed kids get the joys of running water coming from a tap without it coming from my household water bill.
Admittedly I do usually leave out a few of our biggest buckets to collect even more water during rain storms.