19 Garden Hacks for Thrifty Gardeners

Gardening doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive with these solutions using items already found around the farmhouse.

by Elizabeth Adams
PHOTO: Nikol Lohr/Flickr

Call them shortcuts, money savers or clever tricks, but many thrifty garden-management practices, or “hacks,” have proved worthwhile for penny-pinching hobby farmers.

As many natural and organic growers already know, a gardener can experience success without leaning on big-box stores, harsh chemical sprays, pre-mixed fertilizers and pricey garden tools. For many of our parents and grandparents, remedies for garden challenges, such as pest repellants or fertilizers, originated from household staples and repurposed everyday items. While these garden hacks can save you money and a trip to the store, they can also provide a more natural approach to gardening that many growers—and eaters—desire.

Seed Starting

Sometimes the beginning of gardening season can seem the most overwhelming—and pricey! Take the pressure off the start of garden season with these easy hacks.

1. Upcycled Seed-Starting Pots

Egg cartons with holes punched in the bottom and clam-shaped plastic containers from the grocery serve as great seed-starting containers. As plants grow to larger sizes but aren’t quite mature enough for the garden, transplant into recycled containers, such as yogurt tubs with holes poked in the bottom.

2. Germination Station

Pricey seed-starting mats aren’t necessary to warm starting plants. Encourage germination by placing plants on top of a source of heat in the house, such as the top of a refrigerator or on a table above a heat vent, bearing fire safety in mind, of course.

3. Pinching

It might feel wrong for a second, but splitting the center of the stem, known as “pinching” the plant, will encourage a new set of leaves to grow and restart the plant on the right path. This little trick saved me from losing several tomato plants that suffered a UV light tumble.

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4. Save Leggy Starts

Don’t fret over leggy plant starts that wobble and fall over. When they’re ready to move outside, simply angle the plants, keeping the roots shallow. With ample natural sunlight, the plant will eventually grow upward.

Pest Control
Nothing’s more frustrating than discovering pests have destroyed your garden. No amount of netting or toxic product will guarantee the bugs won’t help themselves to a feast on your vegetables, but these homemade solutions are sure to help.

5. Coffee Ground Mulch

Coffee grounds (in moderate doses) are a healthy source of nutrients for your soil and are also great at deterring aphids. Simply mulch around your plants with your morning’s coffee leftovers.

6. Spicy Aphid Spray

Mix cayenne pepper, jalapeño seeds, mashed garlic and water, place in a mason jar, and set out in the sun for a couple days to create a natural aphid deterrent. Recycle a store-bought spray bottle and disperse this concoction over the leaves of susceptible plants.

For added aphid-proofing, plant scraps of garlic in and around your garden or use onions or a single clove of garlic as a companion plant to vegetables that attract pests. Other gardeners’ tricks include spreading tobacco, a natural pest deterrent, into the soil and spraying diluted laundry detergent on the leaves of plants. You can also suffocate aphids by hitting them with some cooking oil.

7. Marigold Borer Repellent

Borers, aka caterpillars, have a special interest in cornfields of the South and cause substantial problems for gardeners. Deter the pests with a homemade concoction of crushed marigolds soaked in 2 quarts water. Pour the liquid over your soil where the caterpillars attack. Simply planting marigolds around the garden can also help deter borers and other pests.

8. Ant Defense

If an ant infestation has plagued your garden, boil citrus peels in water and pour in susceptible areas to deter the colonies. Leftover water from a pot of boiled sweet potatoes also works.

9. Wire Pest Poker

No hack replaces the simple act of spending time in your garden and watching for pests. Use an old, wire clothing hanger to poke caterpillars and dispatch of the pests as you see them.

Homemade Tools

Why buy pricey garden tools when you’re already equipped around the house with a variety of tools for gardening?

10. Seed Sower
Push old wine corks into a garden rake at the depth you intend to sow your seeds to create a makeshift seed sower.

11. Homemade Row Covers

Row covers are especially helpful tools when vegetables need a layer of protection and greenhouse humidity to thrive. Because store-bought row covers can be an added expense for low-budget hobby gardeners, the homemade variety might better suit gardeners for short-term protection. Start with a wood foundation (the length of the row to be covered) and bend PVC piping to create a canopy over the garden. For the cover, use a translucent tarp with holes or even an old white bed sheet for a few hours of protection. Remember that a wet, drooping bed sheet can create an unhealthy environment for plants and a ideal feeding ground for aphids, so be sure to monitor the use of your homemade row cover.

12. Milk Jug Cloches

If you only need to cover a few plants, you might benefit from an individual miniature greenhouse created from recycled materials. Find a translucent container, like a milk jug or a large water bottle, and cut 2/3 from the top, discarding the bottom. Insert a hole at the top for air, and place the container over your plant, providing enough room for the plant to grow. This is an especially helpful tool when transplanting seedlings.

13. Scrap Wood Garden Stakes

Limbs of trees and scrap wood pieces can be sharpened at the bottom and cut to serve as garden stakes for plant support. Keep the wire ties from grocery-store bread bags to loosely attach the stem of the plant to your homemade stake, or for a more gentle option, cut old panty hose into strips to tie your plants. For vining plants, consider using chicken wire as a trellis instead of purchasing nylon wire or individual cages.

Weed Control

The mundane process of pulling weeds is a necessary burden for the gardener, but a few kitchen staples can help speed up the process.

14. The Sugar Solution

Apply 1 tablespoon of sugar to a damp weed. It will fizzle down to the root, preventing growth.

15. Boiling Water

Another weed-control method is pouring boiling water over weeds, though make sure to keep it away from the roots of your vegetables and herbs.

16. Molasses and Vinegar

Water-based mixtures of molasses and vinegar are also said to kill weeds, though they might not penetrate to the root for optimal elimination.

17. Cinnamon Mushroom Control

Although they’re signs of healthy soil, wild mushrooms and other forms of fungi can be unsightly annoyances and nutrient hogs in a vegetable garden. Sprinkle cinnamon on soil as a natural fungicide.

18. Bargain Mulch

Mulching can help keep weeds away, but can be costly to purchase, especially for large garden plots. Coffee grounds, hay or wood shavings over recycled newspaper provided great alternatives to mulching and also add to the garden’s organic matter.


Many experts and seasoned gardeners will say the best fertilizer is starting out with healthy soil, so gardeners can save a lot of money by making sure their soil is at the right pH balance before planting. Still, an extra nutritional boost might be necessary.

19. Herbal Compost Tea

You can make compost tea from your own compost pile or from a mixture of herbs and dandelions. Place a mixture of parsley, nettle, comfrey and dandelions in 5 quarts of water and allow the mixture to steep in the sun for a few days, until the flowers begin breaking down. Strain and pour onto your soil.

It’s important to remember that hacking your garden is an experimental process, and the results might vary. These tricks can sometimes make life a little easier for the gardener, but everyone must find their own rhythm and tactics to create the garden that fits their lifestyle. No tool or concoction can replace prudent gardening and regular monitoring.

Get more garden help from HobbyFarms.com:

  • 14 Companion Plants to Repel Beetles and Other Pests
  • 7 DIY Vertical Gardening Techniques for Healthier Veggies
  • Brew Compost Tea in 5 Easy Steps
  • 10 Beginning Gardener Mistakes to Avoid
  • Making Your Own Hay

About the Author: Elizabeth Troutman Adams is a public-relations specialist and freelance writer based in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. In addition to gardening, cooking and homesteading, she loves riding horses, practicing yoga, and spending time with her French bulldog Linus and husband Shawn. She blogs at www.bluegrassgoodness.com.


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