These Home Garden Hacks Will Save You Cash

From unused liquids to coffee grounds and spent corks to good ol' compost, the home is filled with materials that will do your garden good (and save you some cash).

by Frank Hyman
PHOTO: photos by Frank Hyman

Once, after a successful cookout, I was pouring the dregs from glasses of beers and wine down the kitchen drain. From a stint in local government I knew that the nutrients in these dregs would wind up in someone’s drinking water reservoir and could contribute to algae blooms and fish kills. 

Why was I pouring perfectly good nutrients down the drain? Why not pour them in a pitcher, leave them out for a day or two so the alcohol could evaporate, then dilute with water and irrigate my container garden plants with this free, liquid plant fertilizer? That’s what happens now at our house with any liquids that used to go down the drain such as leftover coffee or pasta water. The amount of nutrients may be less than found in a commercial liquid fertilizer, but it’s free. And it doesn’t fill up a drinking water reservoir or septic tank. 

Creating commercial liquid fertilizer for the garden requires using fossil fuels. And that puts more carbon dioxide into the air, which contributes to climate disruption: hotter summers, longer droughts, harsher winters, etc. The weather is already a challenging enough element of gardening without us rocking the climatological boat.

But most important, my container plants seem to like these kitchen dregs. Just be sure to let the alcohol evaporate. You don’t want any tipsy plants wreaking havoc in the house! 

Potting Media

When it’s time to repot plants, we could buy a bag of potting media. But that means that someone had to mine ancient peat moss. Those peat bogs are stable carbon sinks. So when we stick it in pots, it eventually breaks down and adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which contributes to climate disruption.

Some folks like to debate this issue, but even the U.S. military has been focused on addressing climate disruption for almost a decade. And who wants to be on the wrong side of the U.S. military? I don’t.

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Besides there’s a better backyard source for potting media: compost. It absorbs water better than peat moss, it has way more nutrients than peat moss, and if you’re any kind of gardener, you probably have some in the backyard. So there’s no need to run to the garden-supply store. 

You can make compost go a little further by diluting it 10 percent with sandy soil that you may have on your property. And you can dilute it another 10 percent with shredded tree leaves. Save up your spent coffee grounds and mix them in for another 10 percent.

If you have any wood ash from your fireplace or woodstove, feel free to add any chunks of natural charcoal up to about 5 percent of your compost/potting media. The hollow spaces in your woodstove charcoal creates homes for beneficial microbes. So, the more materials there are, the merrier. 

A wider range of nutrients will be available for your garden plants. And those plants are mostly made of water and, uh, carbon dioxide. Each plant is a carbon-sink for as long as it lives. You can leave the peat moss in their bogs to remain as permanent carbon sinks. And grow more plants that tie up carbon dioxide. 

Repurposed Garden Containers

I could have had my old pair of leather work boots resoled, but they didn’t fit me that well anymore. Throwing them out just didn’t seem right either. So I filled them up with my backyard compost potting media, planted succulents in them and parked them by the front steps. A pair of kid’s cowboy boots with holes in the soles that had been sitting on a neighbor’s curb for over a week got the same treatment and earned a place in the garden. 

garden hacks save money

A banged up cooking pot that my wife wanted to get rid of became a home for sedums. The cooking pot didn’t have a drainage hole, but sedums are the kind of plant that can survive drought as well as drowning.

So they’re happy regardless of how much rain they get. 

I also reuse a few big, black, plastic, nursery pots. Landscapers sometimes have these pots left over from projects. I use 20-gallon pots to grow delicious, edible plants that I don’t want to see spread in my garden. I have big pots of Japanese knotweed, native ground nuts and sunchokes. 

To keep their roots from slipping through the drainage holes and colonizing the soil, I line the inside of the pots with landscape fabric. The pots can still drain out excess water, but the invasive roots remain contained in the pot. And these free pots are plenty big enough to let me grow harvestable quantities of these otherwise invasive plants. 

We also use free burlap sacks from our local coffee roaster for our window baskets. They were designed to be lined with expensive, imported coir, a material from coconut shells. But coir lasts only a couple years and then has to be replaced, using money that I would rather spend on a nice dinner out with my wife.

garden hacks save money 

But the burlap bags that coffee beans come in end up in the landfill if gardeners don’t use them. So once a year, I swing by during working hours (maybe your local roaster will place them where gardeners can snag them on weekends and after work) and pick up a few dozen bags. 

My wife cuts the bags to make a double layer that fits inside the window baskets. She then tops it up with our compost/potting media and plants brightly colored annuals that we can see from inside the house. These free bags last just as long as the expensive coconut coir.

And sometimes we talk about that over dinner at a restaurant. 

Container Mulches

If mulch is a good idea for garden beds, why isn’t it more common for pots? Is there a law against it? Looking at commercial pots and planters, one would think so. 

The amount of time I spent watering pots went down by more than half when I made a habit of mulching pots. For big pots like my dwarf citrus trees, I’ve been using Mexican beach pebbles, rounded river gravel, florist moss, acorn cups, Spanish moss and wine corks. 

Cork Screws Make Mulch for the Container Garden

As you’re popping corks from wine bottles, don’t throw them away. They’re organic and can be repurposed. Corks are actually a renewable resource. Farmers harvest a layer of bark from cork oaks in Portugal and Spain about every 9 to 10 years. The trees regrow their bark so farmers can harvest from each tree many times over its life. And the acorns from the oaks feed free-ranging pigs that produce some of the world-famous hams of the Iberian Peninsula.

So the move toward plastic corks could undermine one of the most sustainable agricultural systems on the planet. 

Just tossing corks into a pot won’t work very well. It looks like you’re in the house of someone who drinks way too much. Plus, the corks float around when you water them.

Best practice is to make sure there’s room for the corks. Is there an inch or two of clearance between the potting soil surface and the top of the pot? Then slip a piece of wood about an inch thick under the side of the pot facing you. Start standing the corks up at the back of the pot—so they don’t fall over—and work your way to the front.

The corks should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder like so many soldiers. 

Once the pot is completely covered, start squeezing corks into any gaps until it won’t hold any more. When all the corks are snug you won’t have to worry about them floating away when you water the pot. If you’re not a big drinker, the next time you’re at a restaurant—spending the money you saved by freecycling for your container plants—ask the bartender to save corks for you.   

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