By Dr. Mercola
Growing your own vegetables and fruits is one of the best ways to ensure ready access to fresh, nutrient-dense and chemical-free food. The pastime is catching on, with 74 percent of U.S. households taking part in lawn and garden activities in 2016 — a 4 percent rise from just a year before.1
The 2015 National Gardening Survey revealed that food gardening and flower gardening top the list of most popular forms of gardening, with 36 percent of U.S. households growing their own food.2 The National Gardening Association’s 2014 special report “Garden to Table” also highlighted the “food revolution” taking place in the U.S. as more Americans recognize and enjoy the benefits of homegrown food:3
“Countless communities, schools and families are growing more of their own food! Today, food gardening is at the highest level in more than a decade. In the past five years alone, spending on food gardening has increased 43 percent; urban gardeners have increased by 29 percent.
And, most encouragingly, young people — the millennials — have become the fastest growing segment of the population to start a food garden. Young people have begun to champion the connection between growing food, eating well and healthy living.”
Ten DIY Gardening Hacks That Really Work
There are many misconceptions surrounding home gardening, including that you need a large space to grow a meaningful amount of food. In reality, Rodale's “The Backyard Homestead” suggests you can grow enough organic food to feed a family of four on only a quarter-acre of land — year-round.4 There are certainly many tips and tricks you can use to reap a bountiful harvest even if your garden is confined to containers on a balcony or a small plot of land in a community garden.
The key is jumping in and getting your feet wet (or in this case your hands dirty). It often takes a process of trial-and-error to figure out the best growing methods for your needs, but you can use the gardening hacks that follow, compiled by Rodale’s Organic Life from Instagram’s #GardeningHacks, to get a head start on your green thumb:5
✓ Coffee filters for transplanting: If you know you’ll be transplanting your plant, place a coffee filter into the first pot before you plant it. This will keep the soil together when it’s time to transplant.
✓ Reuse glass bottles for self-watering: Fill empty glass wine or olive oil bottles with water, then place them upside down into terra cotta irrigation spikes that are placed in your containers.
The water will leak through the terra cotta and keep your plant watered for days.
✓ Tiny plastic containers make good seed storage: While I don’t recommend eating Tic Tacs, if you have these or similar-sized plastic or metal containers, they make great storage for partially used seed packets.
Be sure to label each one so you’ll remember what’s inside — and rinse it before adding the seeds.
✓ Grow melons on a trellis using pantyhose: If you’re tight on space, growing melons on a trellis is a perfect solution that also prevents some plant diseases.
Because the melons are heavy, make “slings” out of pantyhose to support the melons as they grow larger (otherwise they’ll break off the vine prematurely).
✓ Herb garden made from milk jugs: If you cut the tops off half-gallon milk jugs, they make excellent planters for herbs (poke a few holes in the bottom for draining).
You can also make slits on the top and hang them from a thin piece of wood to make use of vertical space.
✓ DIY watering can: Poke holes in the cap of a gallon jug, fill it with water and you’ll have a ready-made watering can.
✓ Wine corks for planting seeds: Screw old wine bottle corks to a small board to create a perfect seed spacing tool. Push the board into the dirt to create perfectly sized and spaced holes for planting seeds.
✓ Green tea fertilizer: A green tea bag steeped in 1 quart of water is all you need to create a simple fertilizer that can be applied once every four weeks (let it cool off first). You can also make compost tea.
✓ Make trellises out of old umbrellas. Remove the fabric from your broken umbrella and use its “bones” to create a trellis.
Simply attach string to the arms and then stake them to the ground.
✓ Beer moats keep pests away: Pour a small amount of beer into a cup and place the foot of your plant stand into the bowl.
Caterpillars, snails and other pests will be attracted to the yeast, falling into the moat before reaching your plant.
Four More Pinterest Gardening Hacks
There are far more gardening hacks to be had, many of which you may come across if you frequent social media sites like Pinterest. That’s where Buzzfeed came across those that follow:6
- Use a shoe organizer as a planter: An over-the-door, hanging shoe organizer is perfect for potting up herbs and flowers. Poke drainage holes in each pocket and line them with hanging basket liners for best results. Attach the organizer to any vertical surface, such as a fence or standing trellis.
- Create a vertical planter using a ladder, stepstool or tiered plant stand: If you have a small space, make use of vertical space by placing pots on stacked, tiered surfaces.
- Grow succulents in a shower caddy: Line the shower caddy (the kind you can hang from a showerhead) with felt or hanging basket liners, then plant a variety of succulents for an instant garden you can hang from a fence or other vertical surface.
- Instant compost in your blender: I highly recommend composting, but if you’re in a pinch you can toss some leftover produce peels, apple cores and coffee grounds into your blender, puree the mix, then use it to feed your plants.
What Can You Gain by Starting Your Own Vegetable Garden?
If you’re on the fence about starting a garden, you’ll be glad to know the payoffs are many. When asked why they participate in food gardening, the top three reasons given to the National Gardening Association (NGA) include to grow better tasting food (58 percent of respondents), to save money on food bills (54 percent) and to grow better-quality food (51 percent of respondents).7
These are all excellent reasons, but the benefits don’t end there. The physical aspect of gardening is invaluable in an age when many people sit for far too many hours each day. You’ll spend more time outdoors in the sun while increasing your daily movement. A study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports also concluded, “A regular dose of gardening can improve public health,” noting that gardening is associated with reductions in depression and anxiety and increases in life satisfaction, quality of life and sense of community.8
There’s even research showing that people with chronic pain had significant reductions in anxiety, depression and fatigue, and an increase in the ability to manage their pain — all from therapeutic vegetable gardening.9 If you have children, vegetable gardening has been shown to encourage greater vegetable consumption, more so than nutrition education, and also positively affect long-term eating behavior.10
Among adolescents, gardening not only is associated with healthy dietary habits, but also with improved mental health, according to the journal Health Promotion Practice:11
“Gardening was also positively associated with physical activity and improved mental health and well-being. Students who participate in gardening report slightly lower levels of depressive symptoms and enhanced emotional well-being and experience higher family connection than students who do not participate in gardening.”
If You Garden, You May as Well Compost
A short leap from gardening is composting. The two complement one another immensely, and neither is as complicated as many people believe. When done correctly, composting poses little risk of unpleasant odors or attracting rodents or other pests. You can even compost if you live in an apartment. A typical composting “formula” consists of 2 to 3 parts “browns” to 1 part “greens,” such as:
Browns (2 to 3 parts)
- Shredded newspaper and other paper
- Dead leaves
- Food-soiled paper (but not coated paper)
Greens (1 part)
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Breads and grains
- Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags
- Grass clippings
- Crushed eggshells
You’ll first need a space to compost, such as a fenced off corner of your yard or a bin made for the purpose. Keep a small compost pail in your kitchen to collect scraps, then empty into your compost bin daily. As you dump food scraps into your bin, try to cover it up with a layer of leaves or yard clippings to discourage attracting animals.
You can also add in a sprinkling of soil to introduce beneficial organisms.12 Next, simply wait for the materials to break down, giving your bin a tumble or turn over once a week or so. You may need to add a bit of water on occasion to keep the moisture level to damp, similar to a wrung-out sponge.
As for what can’t be composted, although some community-wide composting programs accept meat, dairy and certain plastics, you shouldn’t put these items in your backyard compost bin. Other items to avoid include eggs (the shells are fine), oils or grease, meat or fish bones, pet feces and litter and yard trimmings that have been treated with pesticides.13 The next question is what to do with the “black gold” you’ve created — use it in your vegetable garden, of course!
Getting Started With Your Organic Garden
If you’ve created compost, this will nurture the health of your soil, and healthy soil is the cornerstone of any successful garden. Apply compost liberally to your garden plants — but first you’ll need to decide on a spot for your garden. As mentioned, you don’t need a lot of space for this; even a patio or balcony will do. According to NGA:14
“More gardeners are … growing food in smaller spaces with the majority of gardens being 100 sq feet or less. This includes a 46 percent increase in container gardening, which has allowed people to grow fresh vegetables almost anywhere regardless of individual access to a traditional garden setting.”
Once you’ve decided on a setting, plan out what you’ll grow. Popular garden vegetables include tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, cucumbers, snow peas, spinach, lettuce, chard and green beans — all of which are easy to grow. Seeds can be started indoors then transplanted outdoors.
You can also start out with larger plants that are planted directly in your garden bed or container. Put them in the soil (digging a hole that’s twice as wide as the root ball), water thoroughly and then cover the soil with a thick layer of mulch or wood chips.
Please remember that nature abhors bare uncovered soil. So please use some type of mulch once you have planted your garden. I like several inches of wood chips but you can use other materials. This will radically decrease water requirements and will keep the nemesis of most gardeners — weeds — out.
Keep a close eye on your newly planted garden, especially until the plants are established, watering and pulling weeds as necessary. Pests can be naturally discouraged by planting a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers in your garden beds along with plants that appeal to predatory insects like ladybugs. Try to spend time in your garden daily — as they say, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow,” — and soon you’ll be reaping its many rewards.