A couple of months ago, I shared an article on how to start a garden without a back yard, which included a general guide to gardening that works whether you happen to have backyard garden space or just a bit of room on a balcony or a windowsill.
If you followed those strategies — or started a garden on your own, or just have a few potted plants — you likely find yourself in the midst of growing season, where your plants have emerged from the soil but likely aren’t close to harvest yet. This can be a dull part of the gardening year, but there are lots of little things you can do to help those plants thrive and keep your soil strong for future seasons.
14 free things you can easily do to keep your garden healthy and thriving
1. Weeding and watering
These are the two most important things you need to take care of while your plants are growing. They’re also the most obvious ones, as they pop up on the first page or two of almost any gardening book.
Your plants need water, but not all plants need the same amount of water. Do a few moments of research into the water needs of the plants you’re attempting to grow and make sure you’re meeting those needs. I often schedule watering on my calendar so that I remember to do it.
Weeding is simply removing the competition. The plants you want to grow are competing for resources in the soil with the plants you don’t want — the weeds. If you pull out the weeds by the roots, there’s less competition and thus the plants you want to grow have a much bigger share of the nutrients. This is a simple task, too — pull all other plants out by the roots and discard them somewhere that’s not in your garden or pot.
These are tasks that need to be done routinely during the growing season. Most indoor plants or balcony plants won’t have much of a weed problem, but plants in a garden almost always will. Almost all plants need regular watering, though the frequency varies by plant type, so you’ll want to make sure you’re doing it right.
2. Look your plants over carefully
One thing you should do frequently as your plants grow is to simply look them over regularly for problems. They should look green and healthy, and if you’re not sure what a healthy version of your plant should look like, that’s a perfect use for Google. Make it a daily or at least every-other-day routine to walk through your garden or amongst your potted plants and carefully examine them to make sure they look healthy. Do they look green? Is the soil around the plants dry and needs watering? Are there any fresh weeds that are big enough for you to remove?
Another big thing to ask yourself is whether you notice any unusual spots or holes or discoloration. That can be a sign of disease or pests, and it’s a good idea to turn to Google again and do some image and text searching to see if you can figure out what the problem is.
3. If you spot disease or insects, try treating it in simple ways
The nice thing is that many common plant diseases and pests can be treated effectively with items you already have on hand. For example, a lot of garden pests can be eliminated by simply mixing up some soapy water in a spray bottle and spraying a bit of it around your plants. Don’t flood the garden with soapy water, but instead just spray soapy water as a mist all over and around your plants. This will keep a lot of pests at bay.
A couple of things that work well against a lot of different plant diseases are spraying diluted white vinegar around the plants and on the diseased areas, as well as spraying diluted chamomile tea around the plants. You may find that you need additional solutions to get rid of some pests and diseases, but these tactics provide a good starting point.
4. Prune damaged leaves or branches
If you see that only a small portion of a plant is diseased or damaged, it’s a good idea to just prune those damaged or diseased parts. While this won’t necessarily stop disease or eliminate pests, it definitely helps slow down the spread and keeps the plant from wasting resources on trying to fight a very diseased leaf or branch or repair a ton of pest damage. It’s often easier for the plant to just grow a new leaf or branch.
My general approach is that I try to prune 25% or less of the plant while eliminating as much damage and diseased tissue as I can, then I rely on other treatments for the remaining portions, as described above. I simply break off leaves or short branches and toss those damaged pieces. If you retain most of the plant, fresh leaves and branches will often grow back very quickly to replace what you removed.
Having said that, you should still provide treatment as though the pest or disease continues to be present. Pruning is well worth your time, but it should be just part of an approach to fend off pests and disease.
5. Turn plant scraps into nutritious water
Another significant task for the amateur gardener is making sure that the soil stays nutritious. The easiest way to do that is to buy fertilizer from the store, but that can be expensive and if you’re socially distancing, it requires a trip to the garden store. There are a lot of ways you can keep the soil fertile without going out, however.
One way to do this is to save raw vegetable and fruit scraps in a closed container in your house somewhere. Every few days, fill up that container with water and let the scraps soften overnight, then either run the water and softened scraps through a blender or else strain out the scraps. In either case, the water you have makes for wonderful fertilizer – just use it for watering the plants.
This doesn’t take long. My preferred way to do it is to just keep an ice cream bucket or something similar next to the trash can or the sink and whenever I have any plant or vegetable scraps, it just goes in there. Every few days, add enough water to cover the scraps, then a day or two later, I either strain or blend it and use it to fertilize some plants. Easy enough!
6. Bury plant scraps (particularly peels) in the ground near your plants
Another thing to do if you don’t want to deal with the bucket is to directly bury some of your plant scraps right in your pots or in the garden. They’ll break down in the soil over the course of several months, providing nice nutrition for the plants.
The best place to bury them is near the plants, but not close enough to them that you’ll damage the plant roots. If you have rows of plants, bury the scraps between the rows. If you have individual plants, bury the scraps centrally between the plants. You’ll want to put them deep enough in the ground that they’re nowhere near the surface so that they don’t surface any time soon.
7. Put used coffee grounds and stale coffee in the garden
If you’re a coffee drinker, your used coffee grounds can be used in the same way as the plant scraps. It’s better to bury the grounds, but you can just sprinkle them on the surface if you’d like as long as you let the grounds dry out first (you can just spread out the wet grounds on a saucer or plate and wait for a day or so). They will also break down over time, contributing nutrition to the soil. You can also just add coffee grounds to your vegetable scraps bucket if you’re using that trick.
The nice thing about adding coffee grounds to the soil, especially if they’re dry and you spread them out, is that they practically “disappear” into the soil. They’re brown, the soil is brown. If you have black coffee — no sugar or creamer added — you can use that to water the soil as well. It’s not worthwhile to brew coffee for this purpose, but if you have a cup or two of forgotten stale coffee, it’s better to put that on the garden or in a potted plant than to pour it down the drain. You can also just pour it into your vegetable scraps” bucket, described above.
8. If you have fish, pour your changed aquarium water in the garden
The dirty water from an aquarium is loaded with nutrients that are great for plants — things like nitrogen and potassium are naturally in dirty aquarium water. Dirty aquarium water is not great for the fish (which is why you’re changing it), but it’s great for the garden.
When you change your aquarium water, reserve the water that you’re removing from the aquarium in a container and use it for watering your plants the next time they need water. But don’t overwater your plants just because you have some aquarium water at the moment. This gives the aquarium water a wonderful second use, which is much better than just pouring it down the drain!
This alone isn’t a reason to get an aquarium with fish, but if you are already an aquarium owner and change your water regularly, this is a great use for that water.
9. If you have flat club soda pour it in your garden
If you ever find yourself with leftover club soda, mineral water, or carbonated water — not the kind with added flavorings, just the plain stuff — it’s also great for watering plants. For example, I recently had about a quarter of a bottle of club soda go flat because it was left out after making some mixed drinks. Rather than just pouring it down the drain, I poured it on the garden to give those minerals to the garden.
This isn’t worth carbonating water for your plants or buying club soda or mineral water for the purpose of watering your plants, but if you have some that you’re not going to use or that has gone flat, this is a far better use than just pouring it down the drain.
10. Thoroughly clean and crush eggshells, then spread them in the garden
Eggshells are another wonderful thing to add to your garden! However, you need to thoroughly clean them before using them to get rid of all traces of the egg contents, then you need to crush the eggshells into tiny bits before putting it in the soil.
How do you crush eggshells? The best way to do it is to take a dry freezer zipper bag, put a bunch of broken and dry eggshells in there, and then roll them over and over with a rolling pin until they’re basically powder. Then, take that eggshell dust and spread it in your garden.
Eggshells are perhaps the most efficient way to add extra calcium to your soil, which is another nutrient that many plants need for great growth.
Again, there’s no need to buy and eat eggs just to get eggshells for your garden. Rather, this is a useful thing to do with your extra eggshells after you happen to eat eggs.
11. If you have space, start a compost pile
Most of the previous tips involve taking food scraps — vegetable scraps, peels, coffee grounds, eggshells — and putting them in your garden. When you do this, it does take a while for the stuff you put in your garden to break down into the types of basic nutrients that your plants can eat.
A more efficient way of doing this, if you have space, is to start a compost pile. There are infinite ways to start a compost pile, but one simple way is to use two five-gallon lidded buckets. Just start filling one with those kinds of scraps — vegetable scraps, peels, coffee grounds, eggshells — and occasionally add some water to it. Eventually, this will all start to break down. It will heat up and kill off any bad bacteria in there (and smell kind of funky for a while, which is why a lid is useful, but you’ll want a couple of holes in it so the compost can breathe). You should “turn” it occasionally, which is why it’s good to have multiple buckets: you just scoop the contents of one bucket into the other one. Eventually, it will turn into a dark brown to a black substance that looks a lot like rich soil — that’s compost, and it is gold for putting on your garden. Just mix it in with your soil between plantings and your next planting or two will thrive.
There have been countless articles written about composting at home, but this one is a great beginner’s guide to bucket composting. We actually have a large barrel composter that basically follows this exact strategy at a larger scale.
12. Put worms in your garden or pots
Your gardens and potted plants love earthworms. If you’re out and about after a rainstorm or near a freshly-watered area and you spot some earthworms above the ground, grab them and quickly move them to your garden. You don’t want them to be exposed for too long, but earthworms have an outer layer of mucus that will keep them safe for a bit.
The worms will go down in the soil, devour scraps and leaves and compost and other things that they find, and then leave behind a much richer soil for the plants to really thrive in. They are almost perfect symbiotes for your garden or potted plants. You want earthworms in your garden, the more the merrier, so if you find a few, get them to your garden ASAP.
What if you find a bunch of worms but you’re far away from your garden? If you have a small container, find some soil nearby and put it in that container, then add the worms to that container. Don’t close it air tight, but close it enough so that the worms won’t escape. Make sure that the soil inside is quite moist. Then try to get the worms back to your garden as soon as you can, preferably within a day.
13. If you have a lot of plants in a tight space, remove some of them
If you notice that you have several plants growing very close to each other, do a little homework and find out how far apart the plants should be for optimal growth, then remove some of the smaller plants so that the bigger ones have space around them for growing.
This is similar in concept to why you weed your garden — you’re eliminating competition for the nutrients in the soil. The less competition your plants have, the more they’ll thrive and produce. The more competition they have, the less they’ll thrive and produce. If you have six plants fighting over the space that one of them really needs to thrive, none of them will thrive.
Ensuring that the plants in your garden have optimal space around them is a simple step you can take to ensure that those plants really thrive.
14. Take some cuttings for future plantings
Believe it or not, many of the vegetables and other plants in your garden can easily grow again if you take a cutting from them at the right time and start growing that cutting. The exact procedure for doing this varies from plant to plant, but it’s a very useful technique that can make your garden perpetually thrive.
Some of the most common vegetables that grow well from cuttings include potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, turnips, celery, fennel, lettuce and most leafy greens. Many herbs and other perennials will also grow again from cuttings (and will simply return on their own).
Look online for specific tactics on how to take cuttings from your vegetables, herbs, and other plants and prepare them to grow again.
Taking care of a garden doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It just takes a little time and care.
Most of the tasks that need to be done to make your garden thrive during the period between planting and harvest are simple and essentially free. They just require a little bit of time and attention.
Making these tasks into a normal routine will guarantee that your garden thrives both now and later.