This time of year gardeners often receive advertisements for books that promise to give you miraculous gardening results from “secret old time remedies” or “grandmas special tricks.” It’s true that there are some old tricks and remedies that are valid but many of these advertisements are selling you manure as well as their book.
Few of these old time remedies and secret tricks have ever had any scientific trials to see if they actually work. You can look at some of the recipes and tips and see why they might have some beneficial results on occasion but an experienced, knowledgeable gardener should also be able to examine the tips and recipes and see why most of them are not helpful and might even harm your plants.
A lot of these remedies and tricks seem to involve Epsom salt. Epsom salts are not magic! Epsom salt contains magnesium, which plants do use. But unless your soil is deficient in magnesium it really isn’t needed. Salts of any kind tend to build up in the soil, especially clay soil, and over time will become harmful to plants. It’s also easy to misread the directions or make a mistake and add too much Epsom salt, which will burn your plants roots and stunt or kill the plant.
One odd recipe in a recent advertisement has you adding sugar, bone meal and Epsom salts to the bottom of planting holes for the plants to “munch” on. Sugar and bone meal are both attractive to pests, which might dig up the plants to get to them. They could also attract insects. Plants manufacture their own sugars from sunlight in the process of photosynthesis and there is no evidence that plants could ever use dry sugar in the bottom of the planting hole. Plants don’t munch, their roots take up minerals suspended in water.
A tomato blight buster recipe calls for a similar odd mixture, dry milk, Epsom salts, baking soda and compost added to the bottom of the hole. To effectively halt most fungal diseases,(“blight”) that affect tomatoes any remedy would need to be put on the plants foliage. Simply throwing a handful of this odd mix in a hole at planting will do absolutely nothing to control tomato diseases.
Milk does have some anti-fungal activity and is even used commercially on plants as a spray applied to foliage. Baking soda may also help control fungal disease when applied as a foliage spray. Of course compost is beneficial at a plants roots and compost tea is used as a fungicide on plant foliage. Epsom salt is thrown in a lot of these secret recipes; someone must own stock in an Epsom salt company. But it has nothing to do with controlling fungal disease.
A lot of the home remedies call for things like red pepper and rotten eggs to make pests go away. Studies of such remedies for deer control have shown some temporary repellant effect on deer. They need to be reapplied after each rain. But you can’t use this stuff on food plants and you won’t want some of it on ornamental plants if it makes them smell bad to you. Even commercial deer repellants aren’t totally effective.
Pepper will not keep groundhogs away. Try it ands see. Birds don’t mind pepper at all, some like to eat red pepper. Bugs might be slightly deterred by pepper, but it won’t stay on the plant long and some bugs may actually be attracted to it or the flour the home remedies suggest you mix with it. Hot sauce and baby shampoo mixes are also ineffective bug controls.
Mild soap sprays can be effective insect controls. Gardeners should stick to insecticidal soaps manufactured especially for plants instead of using products manufactured for dishes, pets or humans which often have things like perfumes and dyes that can harm plants. The cost will probably be about the same.
Hard boiled eggs planted in cucumber hills? A good way to get skunks, coons, dogs and other critters to dig up your garden. If the eggs do get left behind they might break down into useable compost at some point but why not just start with compost?
In fact food products like the eggs above or oatmeal sprinkled around plants will attract mice, rats, voles, and insects to the garden and cause more problems than they will ever solve. The only benefit to such things would be when they broke down into compost. Before that oatmeal might become an ugly, moldy crust on the soil surface as it feeds the pests.
Any home remedy that involves mixing alcohol of any sort including beer and gin, with odd items should be avoided. Alcohol on plant foliage can burn it and roots could be harmed by solutions pored on the ground or in a planting hole. It would be especially dangerous for potted plants.
Buttermilk and soot boiled for 20 minutes and then sprayed on plants to control rabbits just sounds ugly. They might not eat the plants but why would you want to save them if they had to be coated with black sludge? There are far better solutions.
You can use petroleum jelly, oils and other greasy items on birdhouse poles and similar non-living items to deter pests but be very careful about using such items on tree trunks and other plant parts. Trees need to get rid of gasses and water through pores in the bark and blocking those pores on the tress could cause problems. Moisture trapped under such coatings will cause rot and fungal disease. A small band of sticky stuff probably wouldn’t hurt the tree but probably wouldn’t keep pests away either.
Want to use peanut butter to lubricate your mower or mayonnaise to clean your tools? Go for it, won’t harm anything. Want to smear onions or garlic on your skin to deter mosquitoes? Go for it. Gardeners are known for being eccentric. There is nothing wrong with using labor saving tips, recycling and being thrifty. Those are the tips to share.
Remember some garden “home remedies” will cost you more than commercial ones. Powdered milk for example is expensive. Some will not harm your plants but just not help them either and be a waste of time. Some will actually harm them or cause other problems. Some could harm you – just because you mixed it up at home with common household items doesn’t mean it’s harmless or even that it’s “organic”.
Look at each home recipe or remedy with skepticism and think about why it might work or how it could harm plants. A little basic knowledge of how plants grow, use nutrients and produce flowers or fruit will help. If you do experiment, use your home mix on a few plants to start and don’t use it on others. Keep some paper records – don’t rely on memory- and see if there was a benefit.
There’s an old saying that the best fertilizer is the gardeners shadow. The more time you spend looking at and caring for your plants the more likely you are to see and control a problem early in its development. Just carry a spray bottle of water around the garden and examine each plant once a day. That’s a secret remedy anyone can try without harm.
Below are some articles you don’t need to buy that give you great garden tips.
For more garden articles by Kimberley Willis click on her name above.