We are all about living sustainably.

That means growing our own healthy, pesticide-free food.

And saving money in the process.

The good news is gardening and saving money are two practices that go hand in hand.

We’re sharing 4 common and inexpensive (or even free!) household items you can use to improve your garden—and one regularly-advised item that may be a little too good to be true.

Add minerals & fight pests with fireplace ash.

It’s not just the phoenix that can rise from the ashes—your garden plants can get a boost from a sprinkle of ashes, too.

Why? Wood ash is a source of lime, potassium, and other nutrients that plants adore. Of course, not all woods are the same. Hardwoods have a higher nutrient content while softwoods have a lower amount. Also, be sure you are only using ash from untreated wood.

You can apply wood ash to your garden in two ways—by sprinkling a bit of ash on the soil around your garden or by incorporating it into your compost. If you apply directly to your soil, ensure that it’s only in small amounts. This is because when wood ash gets wet, it produces lye and salt. In small amounts, this isn’t a problem, but in larger amounts it can injure your plants.

If you compost the ash, you don’t have to worry about the lye and salt becoming an issue. Learn more about starting your compost pile in our e-book, Gardening Without Pesticides.

Wood ash also lowers the pH balance in your soil, so beware using it around plants like azaleas, gardenias, and blueberries that need higher levels of acid in the soil. But if you’re needing to amend your soil to reduce acidity, ash can help make that happen!

Last but not least, you can also use ash for pest control. Snails, slugs, and other soft bodied insects can’t survive the salt in the ash. If your plants face a slug attack, you can sprinkle a bit of ash around the bases of your vulnerable plants to protect them. If using fireplace ash as a pest protectant, you’ll need to refresh after watering or rainstorms since the water will deplete the salt content.

As we march through the coldest parts of winter, now is a good time to begin collecting that fireplace ash for use in your spring and summer gardens!

Use your hair to keep wildlife away.

Rabbits and squirrels have a keen sense of smell and are wary of spaces that smell like humans. Sprinkling human hair around your plants was found to be an effective bunny & squirrel scare tactic. You can collect your own or ask for cuttings from a local barber shop.

Beware the wind, though—this can blow away the hair and leave your gardens without defense. You’ll need to reapply frequently to keep the wildlife away.

Add a boost of nitrogen to your compost with coffee.

Your garden appreciates a good shot of caffeine almost as much as you do.

You can add used coffee grounds directly into your compost pile for a needed addition of nitrogen. Additionally, used coffee filters can be composted as well—a great way to keep two items out of the landfill.

Do you vermicompost? Worms love a good cup of Joe, too… or, well, the leftover grounds of that cup of Joe. You can add used coffee grounds directly to your vermicompost bin.

Kill weeds with vinegar, salt & soap.

Many people swear by a homemade vinegar solution as a natural weed killer. Household vinegar only has a 5% concentration of acetic acid, so your pantry vinegar won’t do the weed-killing trick without some help. That’s where salt and dish soap comes in to up the ante on vinegar’s weed killing power.

An easy DIY vinegar weed killer:

  • 1 gallon white vinegar
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap

Mix together in a spray bottle and spray directly on weeds during the sunniest part of the day.

However, there are some mixed results with effectiveness.

This study by the Maryland Ag Extension on herbicidal vinegar showed that while it did quickly kill weeds (usually within 24 hours), it was effective only on very young weeds that were within 2 weeks of germination; roots were also not killed. Any of your beloved plants can become victims, so well-aimed sprays that only targeted weeds were important. 

Keep in mind that herbicidal vinegar has a higher concentration of acetic acid, generally between 10 – 20%.

Your homemade vinegar weed killer will be able to kill some, but not all, of those pesky weeds. Repeat uses will be necessary.

So take it with a grain of salt (yes, pun intended): vinegar solutions can work as a natural weed killer in some cases.

… But what about Epsom salt?

There are many articles out there claiming that Epsom salt is a pantry-to-plant miracle item. 

However, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, an associate professor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, examined these claims to discover that adding Epsom salt directly to soil or plants only benefited in situations of large scale crop production where there were known magnesium deficiencies. 

She advises the everyday gardener to avoid adding Epsom salt to your fertilizing repertoire. You can read more about her recommendations here.