13 Garden Hacks From the Experts

gardener in boots adds compost with shovel to garden patch outside

Treehugger / Nadia Hassani

One of the fun things about gardening is talking with other gardeners about their tips and tricks to grow strong, healthy plants and ward off unwanted critters.

While sound plant culture is the basis of any good garden, knowing the secret hacks adds a little creativity to growing vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees. Here are a baker's dozen hacks from various sources you can use to not only broaden your gardening skills but to impress your friends with your "Where did you learn that?" gardening knowledge.

As with all new procedures, test them out on just a few plants – and at your own risk! – before applying them to large sections of your garden.

If you have a hack we haven't listed, be sure to share it in the comments section.

1. Aerate your garden.

A person in gardening boots aerates a lawn
Don't have a cordless drill? Aerate your lawn the old fashioned way with a gardening fork or a manual aerator. Paul Maguire/Shutterstock

Lawn care professionals recommend you aerate your lawn at least twice a year. Cultivated garden spaces would benefit from the same treatment. In the spring, before things wake up, take an auger bit on a cordless drill and puncture holes throughout the garden. Back fill some of these holes with a grit such as expanded shale or a squeegee-sized gravel, an angular gravel that is smaller in particle size than pea gravel. Leave the other holes open as they will fill in naturally. Creating the holes will increase oxygen to the root zone. This is especially important for Western native plants to improve their longevity and bloom.

Tip from Mike Bone, curator of the Steppe Collection at the Denver Botanic Gardens

2. Enrich soils with coffee grounds.

A person spoons coffee grounds into a potted plant
Coffee grounds provide soil with nutrients that improve its quality.

ThamKC / Shutterstock

Used coffee grounds are an excellent organic resource, providing nitrogen to compost piles and improving soil structure and tilth. Coffee grounds are about two percent nitrogen by volume and are not acidic — the acid in coffee is water-soluble, so the acid is mostly in your mug of coffee. When adding coffee grounds to a compost pile, add leaves and grass clippings in equal amounts. When adding them to a static compost bin, add an equal amount of a carbon source, such as shredded paper or dry leaves. Mix all components together well. Mix the grounds into the soil while still wet (when dry they will repel water) and add a nitrogen fertilizer at the same time. Adding nitrogen is important because coffee grounds encourage the growth of microorganisms in the soil, which use nitrogen for their growth and reproduction. Anecdotal evidence suggests coffee grounds repel slugs and snails and attract earthworms, which greatly enrich garden soils.

Tip from Oregon State University Extension Service

3. Put egg shells to good use.

Egg shells around a plant
Cracked egg shells make a natural slug deterrent.

ThamKC / Shutterstock

If you have a problem with slugs in your garden, there's a simple and organic way to discourage them from feeding on your plants and vegetables. Place crushed egg shells around your plants. There's no secret ingredient in the shells that slugs don't like or a scientific reason behind this hack. Instead, there's a very practical reason to use the egg shell strategy: Slugs don't like the sharp edges of the crushed shells. In fact, the jagged edges will puncture their soft bodies and kill them. Slugs can cause unsightly damage to leaves and seedlings, especially in the parts of your garden that are shady and tend to stay moist. They are particularly active after rains and in gardens that are watered well. They also are attracted to fruits and vegetables as they ripen. Slime trails are tell-tale evidence that slugs are present.

Tip from Amanda Bennett, manager of Display Gardens, Atlanta Botanical Garden

4. Epsom salt is good for you and your tomatoes.

It's no secret that Epsom salt, which gets its name from a bitter saline spring at Epsom in Surrey, England, has health and beauty benefits when added to bath water. A perhaps lesser-known use for the salt, which is not a salt at all but a naturally occurring combination of magnesium and sulfate, is in the garden. Adding Epsom salt in limited quantities to tomatoes helps the fruit develop better because magnesium and sulfate are key ingredients for plant growth. Michael Arnold of Stone Avenue Nursery in Greenville, South Carolina, said he has heard adding Epsom salt around stressed plants will help them recover.

Tip from Amanda Bennett, manager of Display Gardens, Atlanta Botanical Garden

5. There's an easy way to foil crawling insects

If you have a problem with crawling insects in your vegetable garden, wrapping a collar of aluminum foil around tomatoes and squash can help ward off unwanted critters that want to munch on your goodies before you do. As with the egg shell hack above, there's no science involved with this trick; it's just a practical tactic. Many crawling insects do not like to cross metal, and, in this case, foil has the added benefit of being somewhat sharp. It also acts as a physical barrier. For instance, if you put it on squash, the borer can't get to the base of the stem, which is where they would normally burrow in.

Tip from Amanda Bennett, manager of Display Gardens, Atlanta Botanical Garden

6. Keep pots moist with wick watering.

If you're a plant collector or a small-space gardener who has a lot of pots, especially small pots of ornamental ferns and tropical plants that can die if the soil dries out too quickly, there's a way to keep their roots moist. Wick water them from old plastic food containers with lids or 2-liter plastic soda bottles using acrylic string or cord. This watering method also can be used on larger pots if you're going on vacation for a short period. The idea is that the capillary action created by drawing water from a reservoir into the soil will maintain soil moisture at levels that will keep the plants happy. Here's how it works (the video above is a little different, but the basic principles remain the same):

  • For smaller pots (4 to 6 inches), use about an 8-inch length of acrylic string or yarn pushed up through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. At the time of planting, several inches of the string can be wound around the bottom of the pot. If the plant is already potted, the string can be pushed up through the drainage hole several inches with a pencil or crochet hook. The pot can then be placed right on top of the water container, resting on its lid, and the string should dangle through a small hole cut into the lid.
  • Larger pots may need several lengths of string tied together or a larger synthetic cord to wick water up well. Old nylon hosiery or even strips of old T-shirts or polyester blankets can be used, too. For very large and heavy pots setting a 2-liter soda bottle or bucket next to the pot can work. All you have to do is dangle one end of the wick into your reservoir and push the other end into the soil of your pot.

Hint: Make sure that whatever string, cord or strip you use is already moistened with water so that water can be pulled by capillary action.

Tip from Brent Tucker, horticulturist of Seasonal Designs and Events at Powell Gardens, Kansas City's botanical garden

7. Have compost piles pull double duty.

Hugelkultur bed of flowers
Hugelkultur gardens are essentially long-term compost piles of wood covered in soil. Karen Blakeman/flickr

Building a hugelkultur garden instead of a traditional raised bed can be an easy foray into the world of permaculture. A hugelkultur garden consists of mounds of rotting wood covered with soil. The more rotten the better when building this type of bed, but any level of decomposition can be used. Essentially, you're building a long-term compost pile of wood covered in soil. Once your mound is built, you plant it just like you would any other raised bed. Not only is a hugelkultur mound a great way to use your yard waste as a resource, but the best part is you're eliminating the need for constant irrigation. The wood acts like a sponge, absorbing moisture and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil. It tends to stay moist, but not soggy, even in drought conditions. Worried about watering your garden while you're on vacation? A hugelkultur mound watered before you leave will likely still have adequate moisture when you return a week (or more) later. You can even do this with large pots and planters.

Tip from Gabe Perry, horticulturist of Grounds & Natural Resources at Powell Gardens, Kansas City's botanical garden

8. Make your own insecticidal soap.

Dissolve 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap in 4 cups of water. Spray on plants infested with spider mites, whiteflies, aphids or thrips. Insecticidal soap is not a preventative. It acts on contact and kills insects by suffocating or dehydrating them, which means that the solution must touch the pest to be effective. Another use for insecticidal soaps is to use them to wash honeydew, sooty mold and other debris from leaves. Insecticidal soaps are considered among the safest pesticides because they are low in toxicity.

Tip from Montreal Botanical Garden

9. Make a garlic-based insecticide.

A gardener sprays a DIY pesticide on plants on plants
It's important to make sure your DIY pesticide solutions are properly mixed and diluted. Yuriy Rudyy/Shutterstock

Place a clove of garlic (one piece from the bulb) in a blender. Add 2 cups of water and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid into a container, cover and let sit for 24 hours. Filter the solution through a cheese cloth or a strainer into a large container. Dilute the garlic solution with 12 cups of water, and add one or two drops of insecticidal soap to help the mixture adhere to plant leaves. Garlic kills some insects by contact, which is why the dilution is necessary. Dead insects are a warning that you haven't diluted that the solution enough (it can even kill the good bugs). It can be a preventative because the pungent odor of garlic repels a wide variety of insects.

Tip from Montreal Botanical Garden


Garlic can irritate the eyes, so avoid touching your face when working with this solution.

10. Try a baking soda solution for fungal diseases.

Dissolve 1 teaspoon baking soda in 4 cups of water and add a few drops of liquid dish soap to make the mixture adhere to plant leaves. Spray the solution onto plants as a preventative against powdery mildew, rust and black spot. Repeat every 7 to 14 days or after a rain. The sodium bicarbonate properties of baking soda make it a natural fungicide.

Tip from Montreal Botanical Garden

11. Don't let a late frost leave you feeling blue.

Here are three simple tricks to protect blueberries from a late frost.

  1. Water them well. Plants are less susceptible to frost damage if they are hydrated. Wet soil absorbs more heat during the day than dry soil and, thus, radiates out more heat at night.
  2. Cover the plant. Drape fabric all the way to the ground and anchor it with boards or rocks. This will capture the warmth released from the soil under the blanket and hold it around the plant. Do not gather the fabric around the trunk. This will have the opposite effect of forcing all the warmth from the soil to go out around the outside of the blanket. Be sure to remove the cover during the day.
  3. Trap heat near the plant. Place five 1-gallon buckets, or even milk jugs, full of water near enough to the plant that they can be under the frost cover. Water is a heat sink, radiating out heat at night that was absorbed during the day.

Tip from Lucy Bradley, extension specialist in urban horticulture at North Carolina State University

12. Share your cola with your azaleas.

A glass of soda on a wooden table
Buy your azaleas a cola to improve their growth. rlat/Shutterstock

Pour 4 ounces of cola onto the soil at the base of your azaleas to boost plant performance. Supposedly any cola will work, so go for the less expensive stuff rather than a name brand. What's the science behind this? Does it balance the pH and acidity of the soil for azaleas? Does the sugar in the cola feed microorganisms in the soil, increasing the organic matter in the soil? Can an audience member who is a chemist provide an answer?

Tip from Jamey Whitaker at Chelsea Gardens, Grayson, Georgia

13. Grow your tomatoes in cinder blocks.

Place cinder blocks in your garden with the holes facing up. Plant a tomato in one hole, removing leaves that are beneath the top of the cinder block. Fill the hole with garden soil. Fill half of the other hole with 10-10-10 fertilizer and fill the rest of that hole with garden soil. Thoroughly water each side. After that, just water the fertilizer side. Then get ready for the biggest, heaviest-producing tomato plants you've ever grown!

Why would this work? Does the cinder block leach water and fertilizer into the root zone of the tomato since roots will grow from tomato stems buried beneath the surface of the soil? Does the cinder block add warmth to the root zone of the plant that's inside the cinder block? Is there a chemical compound in the cinder block that is beneficial to tomatoes? All of the above? Has anyone tried this who can offer answers?

Note: You may still need to stake the tomato plant or put a cage around it to support the sprawling plant, which is actually a vine. Determinate, or bush, tomato plants, which grow only to a certain height, depending on the variety, may not need support. Indeterminate tomato plants, however, grow as vines and will continue growing and producing fruit until frost. These tomato plants will definitely need support to keep them from running along the ground where the fruit would be susceptible to rot or being eaten by rodents.

Tip from Jamey Whitaker at Chelsea Gardens, Grayson, Georgia